This one comes to us from Green Knight, a longtime friend of the blog.
For a mile and maybe more Venna followed the sweet, reassuring murmurs of the stream. She walked easily, relying on her staff to give her purchase. Maybe she was a little too trusting. When the straff stuck in the mud, she nearly fell. Jolted awake, Venna looked at the ground suspiciously. It felt different, the ground felt different through the staff in her hand. That level of connectedness was frightening as long as she thought about it and exhilerating once she gave herself to it.
Venna pulled the staff out of the ground and looked around. Where she was sanding,the stream was not exactly impassable, but nearly so, tumbling over rocks in what was not quite a rapid. She had no wish to chance it, and did not feel drawn to it at all.
We've known for a while that GK had some good writing chops, and this example shows a lot of skill. We have a good sense of movement and some clear cause-effect connections. The sentences are clean, too, though they probably won't remain in their current state by the time I'm done with them. *ggg* No surprise there, right?
I have two general concerns with the passage. The first is the way conclusions are used, and the second is in some word choices that are a bit vague. These are interrelated problems. We’re shorthanding details instead of developing them. Sometimes this is the right choice, as when we’re transitioning through less important moments in the plot. Then we would want to stay lean and tight and not get into to much detail.
In other words, the shorthanding technique we see here might work in some cases, but I don’t think it quite works here. This doesn’t read like a transition to me even though the character is moving to a new location. It reads like a character adjusting to a new environment and absorbing new information – at least, it does after the first two sentences. The first sentence is evidently transitional, and the second sentence provides extra information about the nature of the transition time. Those “extra information” sentences between a transition and new scene material can ease the reader from the transition itself into a more active narrative, and here it works pretty well.
Or it would if the material following the second sentence was more scene-like. Instead, as I mentioned, we get a mix of scene details with conclusions and vaguish words. The first one that really jumped out at me was:
It felt different, the ground felt different through the staff in her hand.
What does that mean, exactly? Different how? I like the rhythm of this sentence a lot, but it states a conclusion without evidence. Is the ground softer, harder, stickier, or something else? In the rush of the moment, her first interpretation might be “different,” but then she might pause to examine what makes it different. Or it might work better to replace the conclusory sentence, even though it’s lyrical. My preference would probably be to follow the conclusion with the evidence in this case, but instead we get another pair of summary statements:
That level of connectedness was frightening as long as she thought about it and exhilerating once she gave herself to it.
As long as she thought about it. What does she think when she thinks about it? Do we know the form of those thoughts? Can we read the cartoon thought bubble over her head and know the words that make up those thoughts? No. We also don’t know what’s involved in giving herself to it, other than a sense of exhilaration. How exactly does she give herself to it?
By the way, when we talk about exposition that masks interior monologue, this is exactly what we’re talking about. We don’t really get her interior monologue. We get exposition that sums up the interior monologue. Different narrative element, with a different impact on the reader, and something I generally edit out of manuscripts. Using true interior monologue will connect the reader to the character in a deeper way, and that’s almost always to be preferred. (Exceptions exist, of course.)
But this post is supposed to be about setting. Do we see the same kind of shorthand in any setting details? Yes. You might be able to spot it yourself if you re-read the paragraphs with this concept in mind. Go ahead. Give it a try. It will be good practice.
Done? Did you pick this piece?
Where she was sanding,the stream was not exactly impassable, but nearly so,
The conclusion is that the stream is almost but not exactly impassable where she is standing. But where is she standing? And what makes it impassable? We get a hint of rocks, but we don’t know how big or sharp they are, or how they’re spaced, or whether they’re slippery or jagged. We get mention of a rapid later, except it’s not a rapid – something which would work very well (describing the thing by its negative) if we had a stronger overall concept of other particulars. That is, if we knew the rocks were sharp and clumped, and that the water foamed and churned around them, and then we learned that despite this it wasn’t quite a rapid, that negative definition would be more effective. (By the way, read the first page of Gone With The Wind if you want a superb – albeit dated, style-wise – example of describing something in the negative. First words: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…” followed by a long passage about her beautiful and non-beautiful attributes.)
So we’ve looked at three places where the sentences are a bit vague and expository. I think that nailing down those three spots would lead to a more effective passage overall. There might be one or two other slightly soft spots, but I think that changing these three sentences would pull the passage far enough away from exposition that we can leave the rest of it alone. GK, if you want to edit the three places and show it to us again, I’d welcome a second glance at this. Post a revision in the comments or send it to our emailbox.