Saturday, February 5, 2011

Setting By Example: London

We've been talking about setting recently, both here and at Romance University, and it's always difficult to set out clear rules in broad areas like setting because a talented author will always find an effective way around the rules.

I found a great example of this in "The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount" by Julia London. This paragraph comes about two pages into a scene in which a character, Will, arrives at a country estate after an absence of some years. We're led to understand that he was reluctant to return and that he's been traveling on three continents.

Ordinarily, when a character first walks into a room, we don't want to see the walls and furniture described. Ordinarily, this would slow the pacing of the scene by stopping the action. This is so frequently true that we might even try to craft a rule to prevent unwary writers from falling into this pacing trap.

But let's take a look at London's passage to see why that rule wouldn't always be true.

The foyer was empty. Completely empty -- devoid of furniture and accoutrements. The only things left were the very large paintings of mythical scenes that filled an entire wall. Will walked on, vaulting up the stairs to the family rooms on the first floor. But as he reached the first-floor landing, he stopped, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. A broken chair was lying on its side. Papers were strewn across the carpet as if they'd been scattered by wind. A large black area in the carpet appeared to be the result of a burn, and the candles in their wall sconces had been left too long, the wax having melted onto the silk wall coverings and the carpet beneath them.

That's an effective use of descriptive detail, and I think there are two main reasons it works. First, it's important to the plot, and second, it's active and change-oriented.

Yes, the destruction and neglect are interesting, but that on its own isn't why the passage works. The setting details manage to simultaneously convey past splendor and current decay -- change! -- yet we don't get a lot of detail about the way it used to be. It's more about how it is now, and we can guess at how it used to be.

We also have a sense of the character moving and interacting with the environment. He vaults. He stops. He examines. It's active, as are the verbs and verbals used to convey a sense of action -- broken, strewn, scattered, melted. These are strong, vivid words that convey to the overall dynamic sense in this passage.

What else do we notice about this passage?



Leona said...

There is a problem. We see that there's something wrong. As if the last person left suddenly. So suddenly they didn't "put out the lights" and knocked over their chair. And the reader has to wonder what caused them to leave so quickly, were they kidnapped, and how it's related to the man walking through the foyer now.

Very well done!!

Jordan said...

Quick observations: It hints at past change, mystery and serious conflict.

Also, there are a number of passive constructions (and past progressive) that work.

green_knight said...

I don't want to see the walls and the furniture, but I want to get a sense of the room. Being kinesthetic, I'm happy with fairly sketchy descriptions, but I have strongly visual friends who like more grounding. Not in a stop-and-infodump, but like here: woven into the character's actions.

What strikes me about this is that it's a dynamic scene: the protag engages with the surroundings. The second is that it raises a question: what happened here? Who was responsible for stripping the place (none of the careful putting sheets over the furniture and rolling up the carpets you'd associate with owner absence), and more immediately, *what are the papers about*? So this paragraph both leads into the next- if he doesn't pick up the papers I'll put down the book - and gives us a reason to read on.

I'm coming to realise that story questions - however trivial they might seem - are what keeps me reading. I'm not so much interested in 'what happens' (though that can be fascinating, too) as I am in 'what happened here?' and 'what kind of person would be in this situation'.

(Argh, my delete key just broke. Not great.)

Wes said...

We get Will's initial reaction to the setting and the change that has taken place: "...he stopped, unable to comprehend what he was seeing...."