Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Another Setting Example

I've been so start-and-go with this series that I can no longer remember what number we're on. Thirteen? Ish? In any case, here's our next example. We're closing in on the last few in the queue, but if you want me to look at your setting example, send it to edittorrent at gmail dot com.

Here's what we know before this excerpt: We're in her point of view, and they've entered a police interrogation room.

Daniel shuffled his shoes against the concrete floor. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want it this way at all.” His features twisted with some inner struggle. “No matter what happens, in my heart I’ll always be with you.” The thick metal door slammed behind him after he fled without meeting her eyes.

Oh-kay. She ignored Daniel’s melodrama and scanned the room. Despite her history, she’d never been in a police interrogation room before. Never caught. As expected, the sparse room stank of sour sweat and smoke, with three utilitarian steel chairs around an industrial table. She made herself at home and shoved them all toward the back wall so she could approach the one-way mirror unimpeded. Once she’d finished the furniture rearrangement, the room’s silence gave evidence of its soundproofing.

There's some good writing here. All of the yellow-highlighted passages are setting details,and for the most part, all of those details are presented in the course of action. We don't read, "The floor was bare concrete." We read about the shoes shuffling against the concrete floor, which gives us setting, sound, and a hint of the character's emotional state. It's good technique. We have shoving, slamming, approaching -- a character interacting with the environment instead of merely observing it. This is almost always a good way to sneak in setting information without creating an info-dump. Show the characters in motion against the background. (Wonder how many times in my life I've said exactly that! Characters, motion, background.)

I highlighted a trio of phrases in other colors just so I can make some quick editing points. The fuschia one -- 5 out of 8 words there start with the letter S. It's too much alliteration to my ear. Try, "the sparse room reeked of sour bodies and sweat" -- which preserves the alliteration in the compound object of the preposition at the end. I think that adds resonance without distracting. And I think the alliteration in "room reeked" counterbalances it, but even so, it might be too resonant.

The phrase in red bothered me for a very minor reason. I've been in soundproofed rooms, and depending on the method of soundproofing, the way noise carries within the room can be affected. So it might be evident while she's dragging around those chairs, and not only afterward. And I don't know that a room is truly soundproof if it has concrete floors, but I suppose it's possible to describe it as soundproof even with concrete floors.

The pinkish-gray highlighted phrase gives us an opportunity to discuss some of the routine editorial decisions we have to make in every text. Ordinarily, we like to see things presented in linear time. If we were to revise that sentence to put it in linear time, he would 1) fail to meet her eyes, 2) flee, and 3) slam the door. However, this is the final sentence in a paragraph, and the last words of the last sentence always carry more impact than the stuff in the middle of the paragraph. So which of those three details do we want to resonate? Not the slamming door, but the fact that he didn't meet her eyes. That's the emotionally resonant detail, and it becomes highlighted by putting it in the last slot. So this is one of those instances when the ordinary "rule" favoring linear time is trumped by a competing "rule" for ending a paragraph on a strong note. There's an art to balancing all these competing rules, and in this case, I think the author hit just the right note.



Jami Gold said...

*notices this doesn't have my name on it* Hmm, I must have subconsciously chickened out on giving approval for listing my name. Yeah, subconsciously...that must be it. But now that you didn't rip it to shreds, I'll admit it. LOL!

*applauds for Theresa and Alicia*

A huge amount of what I know about writing, I learned from you two. :) So thank you both!

In early drafts, that second paragraph was all static. Description used to be one of my big weaknesses, so I'm thrilled to see that I've finally learned enough to pass muster here.

Thanks for your suggestion for that too-alliterative sentence, and I'll take a look at that last sentence to bring in her recognition of the room's soundproofing better. Thank you!

Julie Harrington said...

The only part I had to stop and re-read was this part:

As expected, the sparse room stank of sour sweat and smoke, with three utilitarian steel chairs around an industrial table.

For some reason the order of the chairs and table in conjunction with the sweat and smoke threw me off.


Edittorrent said...

JT, that didn't bother me too much. I think it's believable that we would notice a sharp smell before we would notice the furniture. This just indicates to me that the smell is strong.


Julie Harrington said...

Oh I can totally believe the smell before the furniture. I think it was the fact that the chairs came before the table more than anything. I think I was associating the chairs in my brain with the smell rather than the room or table. Like, "the sour sweat and smoke with the three utilitarian steel chairs..." Of course, hello, that's the point of the comma. LOL. But for some reason it made me pause.


epic said...

Hmm. Let's take a quick whack at this.

"I'm sorry." Daniel shuffled his shoes against the concrete floor. "I didn't want it this way at all."

She ignored him and scanned the room. So this is what a police interrogation room looked like. Three steel chairs around an industrial table. It stank of smoke and sour sweat. She shoved the chairs against the back wall so she could have room to move.

"No matter what happens," he said, his features twisted with some inner struggle, "in my heart I'll always be with her."

The thud of the thick metal door slamming behind her was quickly snuffed by the soundproofing of the cold cinderblock walls.

Leona said...

Like Jami, I have learned a huge amount of my better writing techniques here and have a few more to master :D

I think one reason JT is getting stuck is the previous alliteration and I had the same reaction to that part. Had to reread it twice. I can't really find anything wrong with it though.

Nicely done :)