Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Once More Into the Lunch

Remember our old pals Drago, Johnny, and Dr. Cannon? When we last saw them, they were involved in an epic battle for an internship, with a thin veneer of sophistication provided by the china and linen of the restaurant setting. We've focused a lot on each particular character and how to play them off each other for maximum dramatic impact.

Now let's talk about setting.

In fairly large proportion of manuscripts I read -- perhaps as many as half -- setting is under-utilized and overlooked as a tool for creating dramatic impact. We know the scene has to take place somewhere, so we choose a kitchen or an office or a car, and maybe we paint the walls an interesting color because that's what the character might like. Maybe, if we get into it, we add a Viking stove or a corner-window view or whitewall tires. Neat. Now the setting is coming alive, right?

Eh, maybe a little.

It's a start, a solid base hit, but it doesn't get you all the way home. It's good to present physical details of the world in a way that grounds and orients the reader.

But it's better to present them in a way that grounds and orients the reader AND adds a new layer to the conflict and action.

When we first introduced Drago to Johnny, we did so in a restaurant. I provided the following setting description:

The lunch is at a white-tablecloth place. Hushed music. Heavy silverware. Well-trained waiters.

In the list of questions at the end of that exercise, I posted:

How does the environment impact their interaction? What does it highlight about their interpersonal conflict? What do they order for their meals, and why?

This question was meant to start you thinking about the impact of setting on character and conflict. Most of you understood right away that Johnny (the status-seeker) would feel at ease in this setting, but Drago (the survivor) would not. And most of you saw how Johnny would leverage that disparity to make himself look better. So already, we have a basic, big-picture understanding of how to use setting to highlight a conflict.

But what about details? This is where Show meets Tell. We can tell each other that Johnny feels comfy and on top of things. But how do we show it in the scene? What does Johnny actually DO that shows his ease? What does Drago DO that shows his unease? What other details come up that can highlight this situation? I asked specifically what they ordered for their meals, and why. (That was a test question, by the way. I was wondering if any of you would look deeper into Drago's background and make the jump to religious dietary restrictions. Epic fail, but I forgive you. *wink* More on this to follow.)

So let's look at an example from the comments. We're going to have two specific questions in mind as we look at this.
1 -- Does the setting detail accurately reflect character?
2 -- Can the conflict be exaggerated by choosing a different detail?

Murphy said:

Johnny knows Drago is unprepared, so he graciously offers to allow him to order before him. Drago doesn't want to fumble looking at the menu, so he says that he'll have the same as the Dr. When the waiter turns on Johnny, instead of ordering right away, Johnny asks the waiter how he is? The waiter is noticeably put at ease and is pleased that he's been acknowledged. Then Johnny orders his lunch. It's very precise, although it's a switched up version of something they have on their menu and will need to be changed - it's not so outrageous a demand that anyone would balk at it.

We have three interesting details here. Let's break them down in order.

1 - Johnny defers to Drago.
This isn't really a setting detail (it's an action choice), but it's worth discussing as an aspect of character. Usually, alphas eat first. Johnny is a status seeker, so we would normally expect Johnny to want to order ahead of Drago. The fact that he deferred -- and especially, that he deferred so that Drago would look bad -- shows a secondary characteristic. Johnny is cunning and a bit manipulative here. He gets to look like he's being polite (enhance his self) while simultaneously exposing Drago's unpreparedness (diminish his opponent). For a guy who goes through life ranking everything and everyone around him, this was a very interesting and appropriate move. (Note: Drago fumbles with the menu -- a character interacting with setting in a way that reveals the character's inner state. Would this be better if the menu was on a chalkboard? What if the waiter presented the day's specials in

French? Do these things enhance the conflicts, or detract from them? What if Drago had insisted that Johnny order next?)

2 - Johnny asks the waiter, "How are you?"
The waiter is part of the setting, so this qualifies as a setting detail. This is a salesman's move. Ordinarily, a status-seeker would treat the staff as invisible, right up to the moment he requires something, at which point he'll be evaluating the quality of service. But a salesman tries to put the entire world around him at ease as a way of eliminating objections in advance of his pitch. I'm not sure this detail perfectly gels with Johnny's character, but the scene could be worked in a way to overcome my hesitation. (Note: What does the waiter look like? Does it make a difference if he's smoothly handsome or dumpy and doughy? Can you dress him in a way that says something about the conflicts?)

3- Johnny orders a heavily modified version of a menu item.
Nice. The menu is part of the setting, so this definitely shows the character interacting with setting. What kind of person orders off the menu? Maybe two rough groups -- the supremely health conscious, and the supremely confident. In either case, this works to Johnny's advantage. Given that the doctor has already ordered a heavily modified version of a menu item (presumably to make it healthier), Johnny would understand implicitly that by behaving in the same manner, he creates an equation between himself and the doctor. Drago, who ordered the same thing the doctor ordered, may have hoped for a similar type of equality. But instead, he is reduced to imitator. This is a really good example of character interacting with setting to demonstrate subtle things about those characters and conflicts. (Note: What if Johnny ignored the menu altogether? What if, as Drago fumbled with it, he left it lying unread on his place setting?)

Because we weren't seeing a lot of concrete examples in the comments of the way the setting might influence the scene, I asked this question:

Drago might not know a fish fork from a salt cellar. Does he try to cover up his ignorance, or does he flaunt it?

My point was to try to make you all get specific and concrete. It's one thing to talk about a setting in the abstract (it's elegant) and another to think about how that abstraction is made manifest through details (fish forks and salt cellars).
I'm willing to bet that by now, at least one of you is wondering how to exploit setting without a block paragraph of description. You know that description is static and that it slows down the pacing. You worry that I'm about to advocate for more setting details -- and you're right. On all counts.

But keep in mind our basic formula for a scene:
In Motion
Against a Setting.

Motion is what links the characters and the setting. You don't just list a catalogue of details: white linen, white china, thick carpeting, waiters with long linen towels wrapped around their waists. You *show* the characters interacting with those details in a meaningful way. How do you do that? You start by brainstorming physical details about the setting. Then you think about how those details impact the characters as they move through the scene. Then -- and this is the crucial step, perhaps -- you decide whether this is the best possible detail to showcase the conflicts. And if not, you find something better.

Let's do a couple for practice. I'll start. Thick carpeting means that footsteps are muffled. So Dr. Cannon in her swanky high heels -- she clacks along the sidewalk, and then grows silent as they move through the room. Does this help the conflicts? Perhaps. If I can use it to show something about how she's hard to read, her cues are muffled, she seems different outside the hospital setting, etc. Or maybe I want to tap into the stealthy feeling creating by silent motion. Is she stalking her prey? Is she dangerous?

Remember our pov quadrant?

This can come in handy when thinking through setting details. Step outside your current perspective and consider how the detail might look to another character. Silence might sound peaceful to Drago. It might soothe him. (Think of the relief he would feel when the guns stopped firing.) Or he might equate it with death. (Think of how silent his village must have been when everyone in it was dead.)

For Johnny, silence might not be as meaningful. Or is it? Some men associate that clatter of high heels with feminine power. Maybe in Johnny's pov, we could have a sentence like,

They padded behind the maitre d' to their table, the powerful clicking of the doctor's heels neutralized by the plush carpet.

And that might give us a subtle suggestion that Johnny is using the environment detail to brace himself. She is muffled -- they all are -- they are on equal footing now, so to speak.

Here is the point. You can keep the setting detail small. You can braid them into the action. You can let them be subtle. But as long as you control and exploit them, you're going to add another layer of complexity to your scene.

Now. About those religious dietary restrictions. Drago's native country is predominantly Muslim. Who orders pork, and what effect does that have?



Wes said...

Excellent post, again. You are going to make authors out of us yet!

Leona said...

I love this. Can I try on this, even though I missed out on some of the earlier posts?

insert me on knees and pleading with big round innocent eyes :D

Taylor Mathews said...

This was amazingly helpful! Thank you.

Edittorrent said...

Of course, Leona! You're not being graded. :) Take what works for you, and leave the rest.


Riley Murphy said...

Interesting. Well, in my original version, Drago had no idea what the Dr’s ‘usual’ dinner was. Snap! If I’d been thinking, I would have had him say that he’d have the same as her and then Johnny would order. He’d make a point of going for the pork chops. He’d wait just long enough as he took his time deciding on the sides items he wanted, while Drago squirmed - before he pointedly looked over his menu and stared at Drago. When Drago refuses to launch a protest, Johnny smiles apologetically and says that he’s sorry that he momentarily forgot about Drago’s religious dietary restrictions. He changes his order. No sooner does he switch to the braised beef then the waiter hesitates before he explains that the Doctor's usual, that the other gentleman opted to have as well, is ravioli stuffed with a pork/beef combination. She's surprised but immediately recovers. She thanks the waiter for being so astute and turns to Drago. It would seem that the two of them would both have to be mavericks tonight. She leans over (because now she’s feeling slightly upset with herself that she hadn't known this) and confides to Drago that she’s never looked at the menu herself. The first night she’d come to this place the ravioli was the special and she always ordered it since. She turns to the waiter and instructs him to come back in five minutes while they have a chance to regroup and look at the menu. Suddenly Johnny realizes that they aren’t regrouping because he wasn’t part of it. Especially when he sees Drago’s pleased smile just before his menu comes up to hide it. Drago wasn’t fumbling with that menu now. So, while Johnny was stuck eyeing the other patrons around the restaurant, as he'd already ordered his meal, Drago and Doctor Connor bonded over what delicious possibilities awaited them...:D

Who was almost on board with the doctor being smart enough to pick a totally halal establishment (too boring) OR possibly Johnny would have ordered the pork chops and when Drago protested - Johnny would have asserted his own religious restrictions. He could say something like: "I'm sorry, but I don't acknowledge what's right or wrong in any religion, but my own, as it may be construed that I'm falsely practicing the values of that other religion - even if it's only for one dinner. Now that I think about it - this might be the more interesting way to go. I mean, what can the doctor say to that? Oooh, suppose she’s the same religion as Johnny? Would that prompt her to side with him? How could she? Tons of things to work with there.

Jami Gold said...

I don't think I'm up for going all in with details tonight, but I wanted to comment about the dietary restrictions thing. I don't see Drago protesting at all if someone orders pork. First of all, he's in no position to make himself look "difficult". Only someone way above everyone else's status could get away with a protest to what someone else chooses to eat - and even then, people might go along with it, but they'd be silently thinking b**** or a******, as the case may be. I deal with people of different religions and their restrictions all the time and I've never seen anyone protest about someone else's choice. That's like, un-American or something. :)

Given that, I do see some possibilities if Drago accidentally ordered pork without realizing it, like Murphy suggested. Otherwise, I don't see it coming up unless Drago needs to ask the waiter for more details about the ingredients of a menu item. That's not saying that if someone else did order pork the situation wouldn't make Drago uncomfortable, but if he's smart, he'd never let on about it.

Sorry, that's all I have for right now, I'll keep thinking. :)
Jami G.

em said...

I'm glad you guys are back!:)
I don't think Drago would let it go if someone eats pork at the table. It's not just a restriction. It would be offensive to him. Murph, bringing in the squirm factor was a good one. He would be very uncomfortable and until Johnny eventually let him off the hook you'd have a great tension builder.
I love the irony of Murph's second idea as well. If it goes against Johnny's religion to respect this (I really liked the falsly practicing the values of the other religion idea:)) How can Drago push the point. They'd be at a stalemate.
I think this option tells us something important about Johnny. No one or no religion is above him. Don't doctors who make life and death situations everyday have to have this kind of an arrogant personality?:)

em said...

Oh, and I forgot to say the mix-up about the pork and beef ravili idea gave me something else to think about in a different way. It was a good way to get the doctor to side with Johnny and Johnny pushed her to do it by bringing up the whole pork thing to begin with. That's cool!:)

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Em. It's good to be back.

Jami, I think you're circling around an interesting idea. Sometimes we want to access the kind of conflict that a particular detail might provide, and sometimes we want to let it alone so we can focus on other things instead. I think it's useful to consider the possibilities even if we ultimately treat them lightly. Or not at all.


Edittorrent said...

I also meant to say -- Murphy, you're a good sport as always. Thanks for always bringing new ideas to the comments.


Jami Gold said...

Teresa & em,

Yes, it would be fun for the writer to show the conflict with Drago and the pork. But unless it's in his POV, any showing could only be done with subtext, IMHO. Anything more than that wouldn't be true to his character. Yes, he'd be offended and uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean he has to - or would - act on it.

He's already feeling nervous, like he has a harder road to prove himself in front of the doctor, etc. If anyone else picks up on his discomfort enough to result in them being uncomfortable as well, then Drago's not doing his job at maintaining a professional demeanor. Just because something is offensive to someone does not mean that they would protest.

We all know that religion is a "hot button" issue, so let's take another "hot button" issue from the other side. :) An anti-homosexual fundamentalist is at a business dinner with his new boss - spouses included. Much to his surprise, his boss shows up with his male partner. The guy would feel offended on a religious and personal level - especially when he sees them holding hands on top of the table - but I bet you 10 to 1 he wouldn't protest. :)

I think to have true deep, multi-dimensional characters, they can't be puppets. Just because an author wants them to react in a certain way doesn't mean they would. :) Sorry, not trying to be difficult, but real people bite their tongue all the time. :)

Jami G.

Leona said...

Its been my experience that lots of people don't bite their tongue when they should lol :) seriously, though, I've worked in a lot of different areas from real estate and insurance to theatre and Jami's right in that most won't show their distaste directly.

They'll either complain later to whomever they think is in charge or they will talk smack about them to someone they think agrees with them. It could be an interesting thing to have Drago excuse himself to use the restroom and run into someone who is part of the same 'congregation' before being out of earshot of Johnny. Would he complain? Would he be embarrassed and defensive?

Riley Murphy said...


What if Dr. Cannon orders her usual and when Drago says he'll have the same (for the previously stated reasons), she informs him that it's pork chops. What then?

Hi JG!
Hey, if you really wanted to make it interesting, you could have the doctor ask the waiter about the special tonight. She could make a large show of telling the guys how she always orders one of the specials as they are to die for. The waiter lists off the three of them - all of which, have some sort of pork in them. Now it’s the doctor at a loss. She fumbles with the menu and orders the first chicken dish she sees. Johnny jumps at the chance to order next. He gets the thing about the pork and wants to impress the Dr. with how easy he is to get along with. He orders the beef. When the waiter turns to Drago, both the Dr. and Johnny are shocked when Drago proceeds to order the roasted pork belly with cinnamon apple sauce. Drago collects up the menus, hands them to the waiter, but makes no excuse for his choice. Now who’s interesting?

Hi Theresa!
I guess if I wanted to have Johnny come off as an arrogant, I can hold my own type of a guy (let’s not forget I dated him a number of posts prior :D) I would have him pretend to order the pork before changing his mind.
If I wanted him to be an idiot about it - I would mention the bit about his own religious restrictions thing.
If I wanted him to squirm after making Drago squirm - I’d have the ravioli mix-up. What better way to have the doctor cozy up to Drago, right?
If I wanted to have the Dr. callously run this meeting - she’d order the pork and I would have it as her usual so that she’d have to point it out to Drago - that way there would be no mistaking her choice. Both Drago and Johnny would understand immediately the implications of this and adjust accordingly.
If I wanted Drago to be the dark horse here. I’d have him order the pork. Violate expectations - as it were.:D


Jami Gold said...

Murphy & Leona,

Yes, there are many different ways to go here. I had to laugh at Murphy's take on Drago ordering the pork (considering that I know Jewish people who eat pork, I can see this happening! :) ). And I like Leona's idea of Johnny overhearing Drago's complaint about it as he tells someone else (although we all know that men don't talk to each other in the restroom. :) ). It would be a way to get the point across while staying in character.

I have a couple of reasons why I wouldn't have Drago protest. First, as I've mentioned, I think it'd be out of character for Drago to protest from a character motivation perspective. After all, given the setup from Teresa, Drago needs this internship from a money perspective. So if he was to protest, he'd be showing that his beliefs were more important than his career. The Doctor could wonder how far he'd push this issue (would he refuse to work at a hospital any day pork was on the menu? what about refusing to enter a patient's room on the day that they'd eaten pork?) In other words, if he's going to impose his beliefs on others in this interview/creating-an-impression setting, how far would he take it in other situations? Well, that's very interesting! Right? Yes, but what would it do to the conflict in the scene?

This brings us to the second reason I wouldn't have Drago protest. Unless the big-picture story was about Drago and his struggles to balance the two issues, it would more likely drain the tension from Johnny's POV. It's not a good idea to make your potential boss uncomfortable, and from Johnny's POV the "who will get the position" tension would dissipate (rightly or wrongly), if Drago protested, unless this turned out to be something that Drago and Dr. Cannon bonded over.

So, it could be done, if it was in character (i.e. Drago had some reason to suddenly not care about how important this position was), and if it didn't erase the question of "who will get it?" unless another source of tension/conflict was immediately revealed. I guess it would depend on what the point of the scene was? :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

*happy sigh*

You guys get it. You really, really get it. A small detail can be leveraged to show so many different undercurrents.