Saturday, February 19, 2011

Settings - Your Example #2

This one comes to us courtesy of Jody Wallace. Jody's other self, Ellie Marvel, sold to Alicia a few times. I was a particular fan of her interactive erotic romance - scifi hybrid, Megan's Choice, as longtime readers of this blog might remember.

So let's take a look at what Jody can do.

"Sorry, sweetie, we're out of porterhouses." Annette, Harry's grey-haired waitress, slid a stemmed water glass onto the table in front of him and flipped her receipt book to the next page.

Out of porterhouses? How could Miss Sandie's Tea Room run out of steaks when he was the only customer who ordered them?

Harry stared at the frilly, blue-checkered menu as if another werewolf-friendly item were going to appear among the scones and scotch eggs. Miss Sandie's was his customary lunch spot, but he'd rather fire up the grill himself than settle for a fruit plate.

Which was saying a lot. Harry hadn't gotten a culinary gene, just a furry one.

"Are you sure, Annette? Did Sandie order T-bones?" He sniffed, but he couldn't detect much beyond the fresh flowers on his table and apple pie odor that saturated the dining room.

Yes, we like this. Notice that the setting is named, and then almost every other detail related to the setting is a prop. The water glass, the menu, the order book -- these are all items that reinforce the setting. Notice how Jody slips these details in as part of the action. The world is coming alive around the characters because the characters are interacting with the world. The pov character has a scene-level problem related to the setting. The elements are integrated and coherent.

For contrast, look at what would happen if we did a brief info-dump type description.

Harry sat at his usual lunch table in Miss Sandie's Tea Room. There were fresh flowers on the table, and the odor of apple pie saturated the dining room air. A frilly, blue-checkered menu was propped open at the end of the table right beside a stemmed water glass.

"Sorry, sweetie, we're out of porterhouses." etc.

A lot of the same vivid details, but the presentation is less effective because it's all static. Nothing is moving. Even where the verbs are interesting, they're immobile. Instead of a scene in which the story details are interrelated and support each other, we have a flatter version of the same.

When we talk about things like blending setting with action, this is what we mean. But it's also a good example of another principle: don't describe the setting detail until it becomes relevant to the action.

Take another look at the way the menus are used in Jody's good example and my junky rewrite. In hers, the werewolf is reading the menu and trying to solve a problem. The menu details are mentioned as he reads and thinks it through. In mine, the menu is mentioned before we reach the point where Harry has to read it. It's out of sequence.

Any questions? Any other observations?



Jody W. and Meankitty said...

My observation is that you've made me sound a lot more deliberately clever than I am...but thanks for that :)

Jody W.

Leona said...

@writer and Cat Oh no. As usual, Theresa is spot on. It's something I aim to emulate :D I sent my two cents in, so we shall see how far she gets before the red highlighter starts. *sigh*

Love how the details enforce his frustration. Even the mention of the "frilly" menu reinforces his frustration.

Cathy in AK said...

Nicely done! Jody, your stuff is always so dang full of fabulous detail without being a laundry list. Something I, too, need to emulate : )

Annette said...

This is a wonderful example of integrating the details/description organically into the story. It is so easy to get lazy and provide the little info dumps of detail that have only one use - description. When done right it can establish the tone of the scene, increase tension, reveal character, and so much more.

Just this morning I was reminded of that when I went to my WIP and looked over the first para of the scene I'd been working on yesterday. My MC was nervous on the day of her wedding and had taken an early morning walk to calm her anxiety. First draft I described the sun breaking on the horizon, and the fog, simply as description of her surroundings. Thanks to this example, I realized I could do more, and so I revised to describe the coming dawn as unwelcome since it removed her cover of darkness, and I described the fog as a blanket she wanted to crawl under and hide in. So it worked better to set the tone and my character's mood. Much more organic. So thank you for this! I need to remember this more consistently.

Anonymous said...

Cleverly done, I can see the appeal. I did wonder, being an annoying writer, how he knew none of the other customers had ordered them *G*.

Definitely good use of the setting to show the mood.

Ellis Vidler said...

Very helpful post. I like the way you highlight the setting points and show how they fit with the action.

green_knight said...

This example shows a very good command of the craft of writing IMHO.
There's a lot of conflict here - the character wants something from the environment - and he is thwarted, not just once, but three times. The first time - the dialogue - just happens, but after that, he reads the menu (nothing suitable) and sniffs the air (foiled by flowers and apple pie).