Saturday, June 19, 2010

Setting as tone reinforcement

I'm reading an older thriller, Heartsick by Chelsea Cain, and came across this example of how you can use a precisely chosen setting detail to reinforce or punctuate or underline the action of the scene or the emotion-- and yet subtly (not the thunder crashing just when she hears bad news, though with the storms we've been having daily in the Midwest, that's actually perfectly plausible).

Susan is a reporter who thinks she's been handed the assignment of a lifetime, to "shadow" a homicide detective as he investigates a serial murder. But he has a dark past-- he himself was the victim of a serial murderer, who took him captive, kept him alive, and tortured him for days. Susan makes the mistake of asking why Gretchen (the murderer) had shown him "mercy":

"If Gretchen had been feeling charitable, she would have let me die," he said matter-of-factly. "I wanted to die, I was ready to die. If she had put a scalpel in my hand, I would have stabbed myself in the neck and happily bled to death right there in her basement. She didn't do me any favors by not killing me. Gretchen enjoys people's pain. And she just found a way to prolong my pain and her pleasure. Believe me, it was the cruellest thing she could have done to me. If she could have thought of something crueler, she would have done it. Gretchen doesn't show people mercy."

The heat kicked in. There was a rumble, then the slow blow of hot air from a vent that Susan couldn't see. Her mouth felt dry. The kid upstairs was still running. If Susan had lived there, she would have killed that kid by now.

Notice how the setting, which had been presented as boring earlier (nondescript apartment in the city, March in the Northwest, so cool and rainy), is made a little threatening here by the juxtaposition with his "matter-of-fact" assessment of what happened to him, and by the violent connotations of the words describing the action of the furnace -- "kicked in," "rumble," "slow blow." There's also the reporter's sensory reaction-- she can't see the vent (unseen threat) and her mouth goes dry, plausible because of the "heat" but also because of what he has said. And then the kicker, that his talking about this unrepentant sadist makes her thoughts become violent too, that (though she doesn't mean it) she would "kill" this running child in the apartment above. That is, the setting detail isn't just applied onto the emotion/action of the passage, but becomes part of it, manifesting within her a change because of what she's experiencing.

Too often I read passages where the setting is just shoved in there. I get the sense that the writer has ticked off something on a checklist: "Mention the setting. Check." And the result is a kind of interruption of the narrative, really just a moment of exposition, instead of being part of the narrative. And it feels like that. Check. Setting applied.

But if you think of the scene as a unit of conflict and action and emotion, then everything in the scene should be integrated to create at every moment precisely the right experience for the reader. And that's not going to happen with a pro forma "setting application" every few paragraphs. And it's not going to happen with a slapdash and generic description, a "he ran his hand through his hair" sort of cliche. The POV is all-important. What is happening in the scene is affecting how the POV character feels, and that affects what the character perceives and --this is key-- how she presents and describes what she perceives. So Susan above feels the terror and horror of realizing what he went through, and she thinks of the ordinary (the furnace coming on) as startling and threatening, and she uses "punchy" words to describe that threatening feeling.

But most important, the confluence of the action of the scene and the setting leads to a moment of reaction, of change, where she herself is influenced by the violence she's been hearing about, and her thoughts become grim and vengeful, and this is even more striking, because she isn't thinking, "I'd like to kill that evil Gretchen," but rather, "I'd like to kill that innocent child whose crime is running around."

That's good writing, and good scene design. Just another example of how we should always challenge ourselves to go beyond the generic, to get inside the scene and do our best to give the reader the authentic experience of being part of it.

Another in our long-running series on: "Why Details Matter." :)



Wes said...

Whoa! Great advice, but that's a tall order. Guess that's the kinda stuff that seperates writers from authors.

I've tried to do that in my WIP. The setting is a fandango (a drunken, brawling, dance) in Santa Fe. The music is thumping with basses and dancers are whirling around a bonfire as the MC pounds down wine and brandy until his head is thumping and whirling and the dance ends badly for him.

I'm looking for feedback from pros to see if I did it well or not. I'm eager for your new venture to begin.

Leona said...

Wow. I am getting to write a scene. One of my new readers say I need to set the scene. Good, good time to read this. Thanks for all you guys do.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, sounds like he needs to shout over the music. And the headache!

Leona, be the character in the scene. Imagine what it feels like to be there. Then narrate it. It all goes back to POV, doesn't it!

Wes said...

Oh, he gets more than a headache. It's a major turning point.