Friday, February 18, 2011

Settings - Your Example #1

A few days ago, I offered to look at setting excerpts from your manuscripts and give some feedback. You can still send them in if you want to -- the more, the merrier. If you want to get in on the deal, send 150 words max to edittorrent at gmail dot com. I'll be going through them in the order received.

So here's the first example, from an anonymous submitter.

Franque the mathematician sat up in bed. The bobble of his nightcap bounced gently on his ample cheek. He pulled the cap from his head, twisted the bobble on its plaited threads, turned it so far, then let go, watching it unwind.

The sleepy voice of wife seven, lying beside him, asked, “You alright?”

“Yes, I'm fine. Need to sort something out. You go back to sleep.”

Franque swung his legs over the side of his bed, shuffled forward and dropped the three or so inches to the floor. For the three thousand six hundred and fiftieth time he said to himself, Must get a lower bed. He donned a fluffy white dressing gown, slipped his chubby feet into a pair of leather flip-flops and flapped his way through the dimly lit halls of his huge home, down wide sweeping stairways, along vaulted corridors, to his office.

I've bolded two types of details in this passage. The first are the props -- the dressing gown, the slippers, the hat -- and the second are the proper setting details -- the bed, the corridors, etc. Although these two categories of details read differently, and although the characters might interact with them differently, they still hold down basically the same job in the narrative. Concrete details in the story world help to bring the reader into that world. Whether it's a shoe or a speedboat, it's accomplishing that same basic task.

Here, the details are weighted toward props. The great thing about props is that they can change fairly easily, and as we know, change can create dramatic interest. If he's wearing pajamas in this scene and a track suit in the next, we can conclude something about a change as the character moves forward through time. This is minimal change, of course, but don't overlook even these micro-ways to manipulate the way the reader interprets the story. You want some mix of both props and immutable setting in each scene, in most cases.

Let's take a look at how these particular props and setting details are communicating character and story details.

--bed, nightcap, dressing gown, slippers, dimly lit hall.
These indicate the time in which the scene occurs. We're never told it's the middle of the night, but we know it from the props and the action. I'm all in favor of this kind of suggestive writing because it can lead the reader into a more engaged state. Details are presented that allow us to draw a conclusion on our own. The trick in this sort of writing is making sure the details lead the reader to the correct conclusion. Here, because there's nothing to contradict that impression and there's a wealth of facts to confirm it, we can be assured the reader will correctly conclude "dead of night" as the time.

Are we actually talking about a tassel here? A bobble is a little lumpy bit knit into fabric. Here's an example of a bobbled hat. Here's an example of a hat with a corded tassel. If the mathematician often misnames objects or stumbles over words -- I'm thinking absent-minded professor stuff here, not so much malapropisms -- then this works to help establish his character. But it would work better if we saw him stumbling for other terms, too. This could be a hallmark of his behavior when he's trying to work out a problem. Do we see any other evidence that he might be a bit garbled when he's thinking hard? Hmm. The "three thousand etc. time" seems to work against that -- it's a funny line, but it's a little too precise if we're aiming for an impression of confusion.

--three inches or so from the floor
Yes. This. Why is this a great detail? Because it focuses on something slightly out of the ordinary. This automatically lends a bit of interest to the setting. Do you all remember in one of the setting posts when we talked about how it's better to skip the expected details and focus on things that are unusual? This is a strong example of that principle. We're not just told, there's a bed, there's a blanket, there's a pillow -- although any of those details could accurately describe a bed. Instead, we're told he has to maneuver to get out of this bed and that it's too tall. There's a nice subtextual suggestion that he's small, the bed is large, he's small in the bed as he wrestles with his problem -- almost a hint that the problem itself is too big for him. Throw in the bobble thing, and maybe this guy is more lucky than bright? Good detail. (Assuming this is the impression the author is trying to create.)

But contrast this with,
--his huge home, down wide sweeping stairways, along vaulted corridors
So, we're told it's a huge home. Okay. And then this impression is magnified with the stairs and corridors. Okay. It ties in nicely to the giant bed, but where the giant bed was unusual, the big stairs and halls are sort of expected in a huge home. Right? There's nothing wrong with these details, but they don't have quite the same impact as the big bed. As an editor, if I were working on this manuscript, I would mentally flag these details. If the halls and stairs are important in later scenes -- if, for example, there's a chase through this labyrinthine network of passages, or if our absentminded mathematician gets lost in his own home -- then setting up for it now is not a bad idea. Otherwise, different details might work better here.

I also want to point out that the details are feathered into the action very nicely. It's a good blend, and it moves at a pretty solid pace.

Is anyone else wondering why Franque can't sleep? I am. It's a good scene question, but as we're in his point of view, I almost wonder if we shouldn't be getting glimpses of the problem keeping him awake. We hear some of his other interior monologue. Why not this, too? If the paragraph starts giving us this insight, then I think this might be okay. Hard to know for sure without seeing the whole piece, and I won't make any judgment on this, but I did want to flag it for the author as something to think about during revisions.

Any questions?


Gary Baker said...

Good point about the staircase etc. I'll definitely take a look at that.
You hear about his problem, which refers back to the bobble and why he's awake, in about 20 words time.
My logic with the precise number was that he's a mathematician. I'll revisit that to.
Great stuff - can't think of any questions though. I'll put on my bobble-hat and think ... In the meantime ..
Thanks - most enlightening.

Edittorrent said...

Gary, I think 20 words from now is probably workable. I was hoping for the next paragraph, and it sounds as though this might be it. Can you offer a hint when he's still in the bed? Might not be strictly necessary, but try it and see if you like it better.

I understood the number thing being connected to him as a mathematician. I liked that line. I liked the suggestion that he could focus tightly on a precise number and call his hat the wrong thing. Seemed like a good character detail.

Thanks again for sharing!

Michael G-G said...

I liked the excerpt and enjoyed your close-eyed reading of it.

One thing: from the use of "bobble" in that way, I suspected the writer might be British. Nice to see my suspicions confirmed. (Nice writing, Mr. Baker.)

Anonymous said...

When I read the word bobble I didn't think of a bobbled hat, but a hat with a bobble on it-- a hat with a separate furry ball attached to it. I had hats like that as a child. And then as I read further I figured it must be a ball attached to a string attached to the hat.
A tassel on a hat invokes an entirely different image.

green_knight said...

I stumbled over 'watched it unwind' - where is the light coming from? Isn't it dark?
Also, 3650 seems like a lazy number - it's just short of ten years, so lacks _that_ significance, and sounds like the first unround large number that came into your mind. A mathematician who mutters something for the three thousand four hundred fifteenth time would be much more interesting.
And thirdly, there seemed to be a lot of props and descriptive adjectives taht don't seem to do very much. Plaited threads. Chubby feet. Wide sweeping stairways. Also, 'leather flip-flops' don't go with the bobble hat and the stately home - they're a different, too casual register.

Adrian said...

> The "three thousand etc. time" seems to work against that -- it's a funny line, but it's a little too precise if we're aiming for an impression of confusion.

Ah, but it contributes to the impression that the mathematician is good with numbers, even if he isn't good with words.