Sunday, March 13, 2011

Your Setting Examples -- Where Are We? #10-ish?

Batter up! Who's next?

Blackberry Gap was a wide spot in the road on State Highway 90N. As northern California towns went, it was pretty normal. The highway formed the central street and was intersected at right angles by three cross-streets. The middle intersection formed the central corner, with four red brick structures facing each other in all four directions. Constructed of red brick with windows and doors picked out in white brickwork, those buildings had formed the core of the town in its hey-day. Now they were flanked on all sides by more modern developments, gas stations, a strip mall and eventually, farm land. Several cars passed up and down the street, and a few parked head-in along the sidewalks in the same way farmers had parked horse-drawn wagons when the town was young.

Okay. This is a pretty big block of description without much to break it up. The closest we get to action comes from the line, "Several cars passed up and down the street." Everything else is static. No dialogue, no clear point of view character -- actually, no characters.

We've talked about ways to make description dynamic and to integrate it with the text. We're not going to talk about that again here. Instead, we're going to take a different angle altogether and talk about why you might want a passage like this, one that breaks the basic guidelines, but does it with clean prose.

So here's your assignment. Read that passage very slowly. Read it aloud, if that will help you slow down. Really listen to the tone and voice. And tell me in the comments when a stripped passage like this would be effective. What type of character would evaluate a setting like this? Under what circumstances in the text would this type of description feel that it's advancing the plot? (In other words, can you envision a scene and character in which this block of description would read as appropriate in both pace and content?)

I can think of two right off the top of my head. Here's one to get us started. The character is a location scout for a film production company. He's tired. He's determined. And he'll know it when he sees it, but for right now, this town is a Plan B type location. So it would make sense that he catalogs all these details in his head in this somewhat emotionless, viewpointless way. His viewpoint really isn't all that important, anyway. What would matter is how the camera would see this town.

What else? There are more. The point is that sometimes it makes sense to abandon the ordinary guidelines, and being able to recognize those exceptions is part of the writer's art.



Leona said...

I don't know about all y'all, but I'm thinking Res Sage lost an awesome editor when Theresa quit!

I can think of a few things, but I like yours best.

One thing I thought of is someone wanting to do a documentary on the town as a cover for looking for ghosts or spirits.

Or someone who lived there as a kid and has come back against their will because they have to live in the house for x amount of time to claim the rest of the inheritance that they really want.

Or a sniper looking for places to set up the stake for his next kill.

Yeah, you see, all my stories have death in them. Not sure why I try to write lighthearted romances...

John H said...

Lee Child's Jack Reacher is an ex military investigator and is a 'details' man. He often has passages like this as Reacher analyses situations

Sylvia said...

I thought of someone who has come home after having moved away: explaining Blackberry Gap to the reader as a part of who the character is. But then probably the description should focus more on recent changes, so that's not quite right usage of this.

Edittorrent said...

Good thinking. Anyone who needs to think in terms of logistics (@ John H. Child's Reacher, @Leona a sniper) will likely evaluate the setting in this detached, almost clinical way. And that would work well.

Sylvia, what does it say about the character if the character describes their hometown in this way?


Anonymous said...

To me, it says an much older person. A person who's seen the town grow from the early days of 'horse-drawn wagons'.

Evalyn said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I can see that I almost hit my mark. My character is a cop, new to town, and he's sort of casing the joint, orienting himself to a small town.

Sylvia said...

A cop new to town fits this description very well. That's great.

If it were a hometown, then it is distancing. So I would have it that the character didn't want to come back.