Continuing our discussion of setting--
Last time, we looked at a paragraph from Ishiguro's Booker winner, "The Remains of the Day." This time, for contrast, I thought we'd look at a sample from a commercial novel. Here's a paragraph from Dan Brown's bestseller, "The Lost Symbol."
For Robert Langdon, the Capitol Rotunda--like St. Peter's Basilica--always had a way of taking him by surprise. Intellectually, he knew the room was so large that the Statue of Liberty could stand comfortably inside it, but somehow the Rotunda always felt larger and more hallowed than he had anticipated, as if there were spirits in the air. Tonight, however, there was only chaos.
(Unrelated note: Why does Robert Langdon always refer to himself by first and last name in his own pov? This happens over and over throughout the text. I can't decide if we're meant to conclude something from that.)
The first thing I noticed about this paragraph is the use of three landmarks together. Rotunda, St. Peter's, Statue of Liberty. It's that rule of three again, but this time, instead of using it to create a spatial orientation (as in Ishiguro's paragraph), it is used to create magnitude and tone. These are more than landmarks. These are symbolic buildings, monumental in both size and emotional context.
Using symbolic references like this can have the side effect of making the text feel abstract. Brown counteracts this by relying on emotion signifiers --surprise, comfort, anticipation -- to try to bring it all back to a particular context. Does this technique work? Why or why not? Do any other words in the parapraph enhance or detract from the sense of abstraction? (These are real questions meant to prompt discussion in the comments. I have my own opinion, but it's a subjective response and I want to see what everyone else thinks.)
Regardless of the overall effect of the set-up, that final sentence is meant to act like a punch, reversing everything that's been set up so far in the paragraph. Hallowed monements, sanctified spaces, national symbols, ghosts in the air -- but not today. Today it's chaos. This is a good technique to keep in mind -- setting up a tone, and then jerking it away. The contrast can create tension just like the Ishiguro paragraph with the past/present cabinet/bookcase.