Thursday, September 29, 2005
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