Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Your Setting Example #12

Here's a new setting example from an anonymous author that starts with a bit of action.

The luxury of a soft towel to wipe his face afforded him a few moments to forget why he’d been sent back to this vipers’ pit. He drew a whale-bone comb through his unruly, cropped curls until a clipped rap at the door brought his guard back up.


He grabbed his sword from the washing table and walked through the doorway into his living quarters. Two low couches surrounded a square table in the center of the room. A writing desk and dressing table stood against the opposite wall, his traveling roll and pack tucked neatly between them on the hand-woven rug. The closest window on the right was open, the breeze chilling a decanter of wine that sat on a table flanked with short armchairs. No sign that anything was out of place.

This second paragraph contains quite a lot of information to help the reader understand where things are in relation to each other. I bolded those pieces. This kind of information puts a three-dimensional space into the reader's mind and can really bring a setting to life. It's also an easy way to cheat a little description into a fast-paced bit of prose without slowing the prose too much. For example, compare,

He jogged to the mayor's house.

He jogged two blocks to the mayor's house.

The first sentences gives us a sense of action and destination. The second gives action, destination, duration, and a bit of orientation. That's a lot of narrative impact created by just two words.

So that's a good general technique, but I'm a little concerned about the way the description is handled here. The overall tone of this piece is deliberate and detailed, and it's possible that this excerpt would fit in perfectly to the overall piece. So I offer this comment with the understanding that the excerpt might work better as part of the whole. But here, given the nature of the action, this description feels a bit disruptive.

That is, we know the character is upset to be in this setting. We know it's a bad place, and we know that a knock at the door has him on high alert. We know that a knock at the door is threatening enough to require him to take arms. There's danger here.

The danger is paused to describe the contents of the room. And that's the part that troubles me a bit. He doesn't answer the door. He examines the layout of the furniture. It reads like a bit of a distraction from the threat which he has already perceived. The stimulus (danger at the door) is triggering a response (description of the room) that doesn't quite flow.

My guess is that the author intended the description to show something about the extreme caution required in this setting. I think the character examines the room for threats. But it doesn't quite read that way because we don't learn why he's scanning the room until the end of the paragraph. Maybe it would help if we had some indication that he thinks the knock at the door might translate into intruders hiding behind the chairs. A bit of action would do the trick, like this:

The luxury of a soft towel to wipe his face afforded him a few moments to forget why he’d been sent back to this vipers’ pit. He drew a whale-bone comb through his unruly, cropped curls until a clipped rap at the door brought his guard back up.


He grabbed his sword from the washing table and walked to the doorway into his living quarters. Weapon at the ready, he peered around the jamb and scanned the room for any traps. Two low couches surrounded a square table in the center of the room. A writing desk and dressing table stood against the opposite wall, his traveling roll and pack tucked neatly between them on the hand-woven rug. The closest window on the right was open, the breeze chilling a decanter of wine that sat on a table flanked with short armchairs. No sign that anything was out of place. 

 I highlighted the new second sentence and the concluding sentence it's meant to link to. Now the reason for the description is clear before it begins, and the conclusion at the end has a stronger context. Do you see how that works? If the excerpt were in a more intimate point of view, we might opt for a bit of interior monologue there instead of the action. As it is, I think action is a bit more in tune with the tone of the excerpt.

But the point is that by bracketing or framing that description with action that makes its purpose clear, it feels less like a pause and more like something that's part of the action.

Theresa

4 comments:

Rachel said...

Wow Theresa, I love these examples. Your additions do make a big difference. I am still stuck on how much of a difference it made in your other example, just adding "two blocks."

Awesome post! Thanks!

JewelTones said...

As I was reading and then hit the descriptive block, I immediately skimmed it looking for WHY his guard came up. I didn't want to be interrupted by the description chunk. The amended version improved that a lot. Then the setting became relevant and more about mood than just a "here's what his house looks like." In a way it feels like it heightens the tension rather than deflates it.

JT

Edittorrent said...

Imparting a sense of purpose to the prose -- it doesn't always have to be a big deal. Small details can get it there, too, sometimes. :)

T

green_knight said...

I think this is inspired. Framing the description with a related action - he looks around, this is what he sees, everything is fine - is very simple and exceedingly effective.