Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Today's setting example comes to us from Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, a friend of the blog whose name you might recognize from the comments.

Once out of the park, Clotilde stood still, the sounds and sights of the city surrounding her. Brightly dressed people bustled past on the pavement and the street was full of large car and double-decker buses. Everywhere she looked, something was moving. Her fingers clenched the plastic bag with the advertisement. She resisted the urge to run back to the river and hide. She needed to find someone to give her directions - not the Yank, obviously, but someone who lived here and knew London.

Across the raging traffic she could see a small coffee shop. Clotilde waved at the car until one stopped. She smiled and stepped into the street to cross. The driver hooted his horn and she broke into a run, dodging the rest of the traffic. She practically fell into the coffee shop, shaking the rain from her hair.

What is done well, and what could be done better? I'm impressed with the way prepositional phrases are used to orient the character into a dimensional space. Out of the park, across the traffic, into the street, back to the river. We get a strong sense of what is before and behind the character. That's neatly done.

I think the sense of motion in the world around her is also clear, but I want it to be more concrete. Phrases like "sights and sounds of the city" are too abstract to register a sensory impression. What exactly does she hear? Cars. Footsteps. Horns. What else? What exactly does she see? Cars. People. Pavement. Coffee shop. These words are more concrete than "sights and sounds."

Do we notice anything else about those setting nouns? Most of them are general, though they are concrete. I think this is because the setting details are being presented in the aggregate. We see cars as a group rather than yellow cabs and black sedans and tiny green smart cars. Other than double-decker buses, the street traffic is presented without detail.

You might be thinking that it's better to treat cars and pedestrians in the aggregate in a scene like this -- after all, in this particular excerpt, it does contribute to the sense of busy-ness and bustle to talk about the big groupings of like objects. And that's a good thing. We like the way abundance and aggregation are used to almost overwhelm the reader and character, as if there's so much for her to take in that she can't possibly grasp it all.

But when that car almost hits her? That's when we need to get a bit more specific. That's when the character's focus will shift from the chaos of the many to the problem of the one. Describe that car more specifically. Don't rely on "brightly dressed people" to work as a tag for the driver, either. Give us a flash of him, too, as a specific detail within this setting.

Was anyone else surprised by the rain in the final sentence? I'm assuming that the rain would have been mentioned before now, perhaps when she's still in the park or by the river. But I wonder if it also needs to be mentioned in the context of the setting. Do the pedestrians carry umbrellas? Is there thunder contributing to the noise?

In all, I would characterize this as a good early draft. We have clear orientation and the setting supports and merges with the character's actions. But in a final draft, I would expect some of the less vague details to be made more vibrant and specific.

What else do we see in this setting example?

Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing your paragraphs. Overall, you're on the right track, I think.



Sylvia said...

I've really been enjoying this series but wow! I love how you've not only given specifics that I can fix, you've handed me a revision tool to scan for the general phrases and replace them with specifics. It sounds obvious now but that's not something I've been doing: I've been adding detail where it's key but not looking at replacing generalities with details like that.

Edittorrent said...

Sylvia, you really are on the right track with how you present setting. Sometimes just a little tweak, just a word substitution or a new detail, can make it even better. Go forth and conquer the page! :)


green_knight said...

Apart from the generic problem, the first thing that struck me was that the sidewalk is full of people - so why does the protag 'need to find someone'? They're right there, and they're used to being approached map-in-hand.

Clotilde waved at the car until one stopped

This has several problems. Waved at _the_ car until _one_ stopped. (Also, wave at London cars and the best you'll get is someone honking their horn back.) What's the most striking detail about London traffic for someone who is not a native? *They drive on the wrong side of the road.* So this whole passage - the waving-stopping-dodging traffic - does not read right.

Theresa, with the rain you're making my point from a few posts back - there are times when the writer needs to preload the description, or else the reader will be either catapulted out of the story (why is it raining?) or they will supply their own details (your yellow taxis. London is the land of black cabs.)

Thanks for flagging the directional flagging - you're right, of course, that it adds a sense of space.

Sylvia said...

She's Scottish, so the cars aren't on the wrong side for her. :) (note the reference to Yank) but I do see your point about her ignoring the people bustling past when she needs help.

Leona said...

@green knight--you're quite right about some of what you point out...

I got caught on the wave at car until one stopped. Something about the phrasing needs to be fixed depending on what the author means :)

Maybe make the bustling crowd moving too fast/with purpose so she feels intimidated about stopping them to ask for help. Cuz that's the big thing that Green Knight is right about, in my mind. Takes the reality of the situation you've set up and turns it into contrived. If there are loads of people around her, she shouldn't be looking. I also think that if you make apoint of the people being busy--except fot that yank and she wasn't asking him-- type thing, it could work :D just some ideas...

Anyways, Sylvia, you gave a good sense of bustling people, do a little tweaking and nail this puppy.

No overediiting... :D

Sylvia said...

Yeah, that was a typo, it should have said the cars. Of course, I spotted it immediately after it was too late! But I do need to make that sequence clearer, anyway.

I've been considering the crush on the pavement and I think I can deal with it through the addition of more weather: no one wants to stop and chat in the rain. So they are shoving past to get into the station, umbrellas held like lethal weapons, and Clotilde sees the relative quiet of the coffee shop across the road... sound better?

green_knight said...

@Sylvia: I haven't heard any British person refer to Americans as 'Yanks', much less on that sentence, so I took her for a fellow American (and quite possibly one not disposed to like 'typical Yanks'). Around here, we call them 'tourists'.
I like your suggestion of making it rain more and making people more cranky - that _definitely_ needs to be inclued earlier, but it would work. (At this point in time I'll need an in-story explanation for why she hasn't got a smartphone...)
On the other hand, if you simply want to get her into the cafe, the rain would work perfectly fine - if she's weary and wet, a hot drink sounds heavenly.

Sylvia said...

Really? Where is around here?

I've never heard an American use the term but it's in common use in England (often proceeded by "that bloody").

She doesn't have a smart phone because she's undead. :)