Thursday, September 29, 2005

Description/Setting


Happy Thursday, BGs (that’s bloggees, or blog readers for you new folks out there). We had quite a few comments yesterday about how critique groups are working for y’all. Thanks to you who took the time to tell us your experiences.

Before I forget, have you been reading the Charis Connection blog? (Link over on the left.) I mentioned it a month or so ago when it was first launched. It’s a group of Christian fiction authors who take turns posting. Well, today and tomorrow-I’m up. We’ll see if I remain a member of that illustrious group after that. When I sent the two-part post into Angie Hunt, I told her this is what she gets for asking a murder and mayhem type to join the crowd. Your comments are welcome over there. Believe it or not, through my crazy story (which really did happen, by the way), I do have a point to make, although it’s below surface and takes both posts to put it all together.

Okay. Day before yesterday a number of you bewailed your setting/description problems. Here’s one BG’s comment: I have a really hard time establishing setting in my stories. I actually just avoid it because it feels so unnatural to me. I can't figure out how to integrate it into the story without pausing in the midst of everything else that's going on.

Yes, I do think the trick is not stopping the story for a bunch of narrative telling, especially if you’re writing suspense. So we’re left with weaving in description through the character’s eyes. This is why, during our discussion of backstory last week, I said that my definition of backstory includes anything that isn’t current action. (If you haven’t read those posts, you might want to do so in order to understand the context of that statement.) Too often, I see the story stopped for description. It’s like the author says, “Okay, wait a minute. Let me stop here and tell you that this story takes place around a lake, which is surrounded by forest, etc., etc. Now—back to story.” The author may begin describing the setting through the character’s eyes, but soon he/she slips into straight narrative telling—which stops the story. Therefore, many of the same kinds of points we discussed about backstory can apply to fitting in description of setting. My main suggestion for guidance is this: Weave in the description through the character’s eyes as motivation for that character’s next Action Objective. Remember we talked last week (in the backstory posts) about a character’s continually changing Action Objectives, which pull him through a scene as he deals with conflict that arises. How can your description of setting become a part of these motivation/action sequences?

I can show you my own struggles with this in the first chapter of Violet Dawn (which still needs to go through the rewriting process). I had a lot of things that needed to be established right up front, but I didn’t want to stop the story. I needed to characterize Paige enough—her aloneness; her sense of a big, bad world; her yearnings—so when she’s suddenly faced with doom on page two, her choices of action will be understood. I needed to establish the setting around a lake for this brand new series set in a fictional town. I tried to weave in bits of description through Paige’s eyes as she moves through her surroundings, and then use that description to elicit a reaction in her, which in turn will lead to action. Here’s how the chapter begins:


Paige Williams harbored a restless kinship with the living dead.


Sleep, that nurturing, blessed state of sub consciousness, eluded her again this night. Almost two a.m., and rather than slumbering bliss, old memories nibbled at her like ragged toothed wraiths.

With a defeated sigh, she rose from bed.

Wrapped in a large towel, she glided through the darkened house, bare feet faintly scuffing across worn wood floors. Out of her room and down a short hall, passing the second bedroom—barren and needing to be filled—and the one bathroom, into the small kitchen.
She unlocked the sliding glass door. Stepped outside onto the back deck. The grating rhythm of cicadas rose to greet her. Scents from the woods—an almost sweet earthiness—wafted on a slight breeze.


The dry Idaho air was still warm.

A large hot tub sunk into the left corner of the deck was her destination—a soothing womb of heat to coddle and comfort. There, looking out over the forested hills and Kanner Lake, Paige could feel sheltered from the world. No probing stares upon her, no cradle of lies. The closest neighbor on either side was a good quarter-mile away.

Captivated by the night, she padded first to the deck’s edge and gazed up at the heavens. A slivered moon hung askew, feeble and worn. Ice chip stars flung themselves in all directions. The Big Dipper tipped backwards, pouring over its ladle into Kanner Lake, which seemed almost brooding under the spangled sky. Across the sullen waters, a few downtown lights resolutely twinkled.

Intense yearning welled within Paige, rising so suddenly that she nearly staggered in its presence. She clutched the towel tighter around her body, swaddling herself. The universe was so vast, the world so small. A mere speck of dust, Earth churned in the spheres of infinity. Upon that speck, mothers and fathers, children and friends, laughed and cried and celebrated one another. No bigger than dust mites they were, compared to the vastness of space. Their lives, their loves—insignificant.

So why did she long to be one of them?

Oh, man. With my fresh eyes I’m already seeing things I want to change. Still, it’s one example of trying to weave description and setting into the action of the scene. If you were to print out that scene and highlight all the description, you’d see that you already know quite a few things about Paige and where she is. (At the same time, I’ve purposely raised questions in the reader’s mind—another use of backstory, as we discussed last week). From where we left off the scene, Paige stops herself from thinking too much—a bad thing for her—and turns away from gazing at the night. She now needs the comfort of the hot tub all the more. She slips into it . . . and the fun begins.

If one of you brave souls would like to post a short scene in which you’re having trouble with setting, we can take a look at it tomorrow.


--------------------
Read Part 2

13 comments:

ValMarie said...

Umm, I'm almost willing to be the sacrificial lamb, but I'm not sure I'm the best choice. Because, at the moment, there is no description in my scenes.

At all.

I was definitely telling the truth when I said I avoid it. I have no concept of how to integrate it into the scene. I just feel awkward when I try to write it so I don't.

*sigh*

So, I guess this time, I'll sit back and let someone else's scene get demonstrated on.

Grady Houger said...

I think my settings are ok, but they don’t seem to burst with vivid disruption like your story opening does Brandilyn.
But I do know that:

The setting is a reflection of the characters it contains.

So I usually find fault with my characterization when the setting seems boring or sketchy.
I don't have a excerpt to offer, I've been away for a week (traveling), so everything needs rewritten to incorporate so much BGU learn'n.

The spider mascot - sure but what kind of spider? Something poisonous and deadly, a fuzzy black and white hunting spider, or a cheery yellow orb-weaver? (I vote orb-weaver, they're so cute and hard working!)

Gina Holmes said...

(I'm always up for improvement. Maybe because this was from my 1st novel, I've never felt I've done enough on the setting, but if you get a better exerpt for teaching purposes, no problem. Thanks!)

Eden’s hand would not stop trembling as she placed it onto the maple cutting board. She pried her fingers apart and stared down at them. These were beautiful fingers. Long, ivory and slim. Fingers that played piano, cooked the meals and showed her husband love.

Her hand shook violently and she willed it to stop. Now, she thought. Do it now.

She reached for the knife with her free hand. What she was about to do was crazy, but it was the only way. Better to lose a finger than to drive her jeep off the Walnut Street Bridge. Or worse, spend the rest of her life in this purgatory.

Her heart pounded as beads of sweat traveled down her forehead, stinging her tired eyes.

“Eden!” Sam screamed from behind her.

A wave of panic crashed over her. He wasn’t supposed to be home yet.

Do it—now.

Before he could reach her, she bore the knife down fast and hard. She heard the clink of metal on metal and something crash behind her. But where was the pain?

She commanded her eyes open and peered down.

A few drops of red splattered the scarred wood. Her quivering finger remained intact with nothing more than a gash, where the knife slid off her rings, cutting flesh. She’d had paper cuts that hurt worse. She slammed the knife down on the counter.

You couldn’t even get this right.
Things never worked out the way she planned. Never.
Heart pounding, Eden spun around. Sam lay face up on the floor like a toppled mannequin. This was not the plan. He was supposed to be at work...same as always.

She watched his chest rise and fall. A trace of blood lingered where he split his bottom lip, but he was otherwise okay. What had made him pass out like that? As a surgeon, surely he’d witnessed worse. He was fasting—that had to be it. She picked up the phone and dialed.

“911, what is your emergency?”

“My husband fainted… Yes, he’s breathing…Pretty sure it’s from not eating. No, not diabetic…You need our address?” The woman’s voice was still droning on when Eden hung up.
Although this hadn’t been part of the plan, it couldn’t have worked out better. He was able to see for himself she was serious this time. If he hadn’t passed out when he had, he would have tried to stop her.

Not this time.
She bent over and brushed the thick brown hair off his forehead. He looked so innocent, lying there against the stark white backdrop of the floor.

The desire to look into his eyes one last time overwhelmed her and she swallowed back the pain. He would never be confused with a movie star, but there was something about his eyes. They seemed to smile even when he didn’t. She would miss them.

She slid her hand into her jeans pocket, pulled out the envelope, smoothed it, and laid it beside him, along with her now scarred wedding band. She slid her engagement ring back on, over top her pathetic little wound. She’d hold on to her diamond.

If desperate enough, it could be hocked for some cash. Besides, unlike her wedding ring, it was a symbol of happier times.

Wetness crept from the corners of her eyes and she wiped away the tears. She’d cried far too often over this man and enough was enough.

Things changed, people changed. Nothing to do about it but move on.

Kneeling beside Sam, she pressed her lips against his cool skin and the stench of antiseptic filled her head. She hated that smell, hated everything associated with his mistress. If it had been another woman who had stolen him away she might have stood a chance, but how could she compete with a grand passion for saving lives?
God help me.
Help yourself, her conscious replied.

She intended to do just that.

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for the teaser text of Violet Dawn. I was already looking forward to it. Now even more!

I tend to be a minimalist in my description, which can be to my detriment. My best first reader often has to remind me it's okay to tell the reader some things.

C.J. Darlington said...

I don't know, Grady. There's something alluring about a Black Widow.

Gina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gina said...

Here's the opening of chapter two of my WIP THE DARK ROOM. An agent who critiqued it gave me a 9 out of 10 for setting, which surprised me because at one point I was like Val and had no setting or description in my WIP. But one editor said my setting was weak and it didn't feel like he was in NY. How can I improve on setting without slowing down the scene? And BTW, feel free to comment if you see any backstory that shouldn't be there!

Michael hadn’t expected to see her tonight. In fact, he hadn’t planned on ever seeing her again. Yet there she was in a designer wedding gown, the sequins of her fitted bodice glistening in the moonlight. His heart began to race. Perspiration moistened his palms. She sauntered toward him, her layered silk dress blowing in the breeze. He wanted to turn and run, but his body froze in rebellion. Closing his eyes, he hoped she would disappear, that she was a figment of his imagination, the result of too many late nights. But when he opened them, Leila was still there standing before him like a dream ─ a bad dream.

The warm summer breeze swept through Central Park where nosy spectators gathered to watch the spectacle. Trying to calm his nerves, he inhaled through his nose and caught a whiff of Middle Eastern cuisine mixed with Leila's unmistakable scent. He shivered, remembering the last time he saw her. Michael looked up at the night sky. The full moon shone bright, unlike that night two years earlier. It had been cold and snowing. Michael’s face contorted as he played that evening over in his mind.

Leila came closer, moving back and forth with seductive grace. He zoomed the camera out and captured her entire body. The shutter snapped, echoing in his ears like a ticking time bomb. The entire crew at the photo shoot faded away. Leila puckered her lips as if her kiss was meant only for him. She lifted her dress and revealed the garter that hugged her thigh. He felt the passion stir, the appeal of her body awakening desires he had suppressed for almost two years.

The cabs of New York City’s crowded streets honked their horns with fervor as jaywalking pedestrians tried to cross over to the park. Michael shook his head and tried to rid himself of the memories. Rubbing his sweaty palms on his jeans, he fought to control his rising emotions. The hot and cold thoughts merged inside his head, swirling around raging like a tornado, silencing the noises of Manhattan’s nightlife. Michael felt himself losing control, her presence consuming all of his senses. He focused on her sapphire eyes, her golden hair slicked back off her narrow face accentuated her high cheekbones. There was no denying it, she was still ravishing.

Domino said...

Spiders are creepy! Plain and simple.

I'm still trying to sneek in some description through the eyes of the POV character. I like to use warm colors to give a feeling of warmth and cool colors to create a chill. If she walks through a wooded area and an orange leaf falls just six inches from her and lands in a pile of similar leaves, readers will know it's fall. If the description is brief, you haven't left the story. But you get more of an atmosphere of spookiness if she jumps when she sees the leaf falling.

However, if the setting is along the Texas Gulf Coast, you'd be hard pressed to find an orange leaf. Our oaks and pecan trees don't do the brilliant fall display.

Am I getting this setting stuff right?

Deborah Raney said...

Okay. All I can say is I am SERIOUSLY glad we had someone come and haul off our hot tub a couple weeks ago because I can see that you are fixin' to make that one more place where I'd have to shake in my boots (if one wore boots in a hot tub) after reading your scene. Have I mentioned that I had to quit walking in our beautiful arboretum after reading EYES OF ELISHA where the maggot-infested body is found in just such a place as I used to take my peaceful walks??? Yep, it's YOUR fault I gained 5 pounds that year. (Sadly, I can't lay the blame for this year's 5 pounds on you.)

Great post on Charis Connection, BTW! I'll definitely be tuning in tomorrow.

Stuart said...

Nice little preview. :) of course my twisted little mind hopes Paige gets into the water BEFORE she sees the body waiting for her. :D

Good points on weaving setting in. I like to think of it as one of my strong-points. :)

Becky said...

I'm like you, Stuart--probably something that fantasy writers have to pay a lot of attention to early on.

A very intriguing opening to Violet Dawn, Brandilyn. And thanks for the Charis link.

Becky

Peg said...

I've been reading this blog on a regular basis but this is the first time I've had the temerity to post anything.

I don't write Brandilyn type fiction but I love reading it and eagerly wait for the next one. Besides, I want a spider on my name badge at next year's conference!

I'll keep reading and might have something to submit if I think I've got a fit.

Thanks for letting us know you've posted to the Charis Connection. I've got to read part two!

Cara Putman said...

I'll join all the others posting a section for possible comment.

Dani glanced into the box immediately to the right of hers. The elegant woman she’s surprised earlier sat still as a statute in her chair. Dani studied the woman intently, remembering the edge of worry that had marred her expression earlier. As she watched the woman, Dani noticed the way her scarf wound around her head seemed odd and tighter than it had been earlier.

Her curiosity aroused, Dani stood and pulled back the brocade curtain that led to the wide hallway. As she approached the neighboring box, she hesitated. Her mother’s diligent training to leave well enough alone warred with her need to know the answer to everything. This drive for knowledge made her a great reporter even as it annoyed some people. A nagging concern about the way the woman sat in her chair propelled Dani to act. Before she could change her mind, she strode up the stairs.

After a quick knock on the frame, she parted the curtain and entered the woman’s box. A musty odor laced the air.

“Hello.” Dani waited but the woman didn’t respond. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but Dani had to know if everything was okay. “Are you enjoying the show? CATS is one of my favorites musicals.”

When the woman remained silent, Dani stepped closer. Her feet crunched on something brittle, and she froze. She lowered her gaze to the floor. Dried rose petals lay scattered about the plush carpet. Dani knew the petals had not been there before. Surely she would have noticed them.

One part of her mind insisted something was wrong and she should leave immediately. The other part insisted she should stay and learn what was wrong. Something was wrong. But what?

Dani reached out and tapped the woman on the shoulder. Still the woman ignored her. Dani completed her circle and stepped in front of her. Suddenly, she felt a scream force its way up her throat. The world began to spin erratically. Desperate for air, she sucked in a breath and willed herself to calm down. Reached for the back of a chair to steady herself. Anything to stop the spinning. Her vision tunneled and spotted, then cleared. Dani looked down at the unresponsive woman and gathered her thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, the woman could still be helped. If so, Dani needed to find aid fast.

She rushed down the stairs and back to her box. She grabbed her cell phone from the dainty evening bag it filled and dialed 911 with shaky fingers. No service. She shoved the phone back into her purse and dashed to the foyer.

“Someone call 911. . .fast. There’s a medical emergency in that box." She grabbed a shaky breath. "Does anyone know CPR?”

She couldn’t wait for an answer in the sudden silence and dashed back to the box. She reached for the woman and tried to ease her to the floor, but couldn’t manage the weight.

Lord, help me help her if it’s not too late. Dani groaned at the thought she’d been too late again.

Concerned faces peered into Dani’s from around the curtain. A well-dressed gentleman who towered over her as she crouched beside the woman entered the box and helped her lower the body to the floor. He checked the woman’s neck for a pulse. Dani watched him silently count for a moment that stretched for an eternity.

He shook his head as he glanced at her then lowered his eyes. “It’s too late.”

“Please. We have to try just in case there’s a chance.” Dani willed him to help her. It couldn’t be too late. His eyes mirrored her concern but held no encouragement.

A couple pushed their way into the box. Dani watched them sink to the floor beside the woman’s body and began to administer CPR.

Compared to their controlled, efficient attempts to revive the woman, Dani felt useless. She didn’t even know enough to perform CPR on her own. As the familiar feeling pushed in, she eased out of the box and made way for the crush of curious theatergoers who wanted to see what had happened.

She let the outside wall of the box support her and slowly inhaled several times. Anything to force the old familiar feeling away. “Time to sign up for a CPR class.” Dani mumbled. “But first I need to get back to the box in case someone saw or heard something.”

This smelled like a murder. As the Channel 17 crime beat reporter, the news director would expect her to be on top of the story. It was a story she needed to get on top of immediately. As resolution filled her, Dani stepped away from the wall.