Thursday, February 24, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #5

Today's example was custom made by Susan Helene Gottfried using an existing character from her books. She wrote this as an exercise for this setting thing we're doing. Let's take a look.

The things men do for their wives, he thought. The door weighed nothing and slipped out of his fingers. It crashed into the metal chair rail on the full-length windows. Weird how he looked through all that glass and could only see himself. Distorted. Fuckin' A.

He'd expected sterile rows of glass grocery-store cases inside, with half-dome fronts. Instead of seafood, these would be loaded with truffles and bon-bons and bark and all that shit girls craved.

Nope. No cases. Tables. Round ones. They'd seat two in a restaurant. Each covered by a tablecloth so bright, he wanted his sunglasses. Each stacked with chocolate. Every table had a theme and a flower post on a pedestal -- every bit as gaudy as the damn tablecloths -- holding a hard-to-read, hand-lettered sign.

He groaned. Deciphering what was what would take all day. He'd need another day to decide what to placate her with.

He only had an hour.

When Susan and I were originally tweeting about her exercise, she told me she was struggling to get it down to 150 words and preserve the character voice. Even if she hadn't told me that, though, we'd be using this example as an opportunity to discuss point of view and setting.

Every detail in this setting is viewed through the strong lens of this character's point of view. This particular man notices particular details that another might not notice. This is great. This is what we want to see. This is step one in connecting the character to the environment. Maybe a PMSing woman walks in and sees only the truffles. Maybe a state health inspector focuses on the open displays. Characters perceive environments in different ways.

In this case, we have a musician whose eyes are probably sensitive from exposure to stage lighting, and consequently he notices the brightness of the colors and the tininess of the text. But the chocolates themselves hardly rate a descriptive mention after that first scornful "all that shit" line. This is all character-specific.

But that's just the first step in joining the character to the setting. What's step two? It's something Susan is doing very well here. All those viewpoint-specific setting details are pinging off this guy's radar. He is INTERACTING, not merely noticing. And he's doing it all without making a single gesture. First we get the contrast of his expectations versus the reality. Then we get a taste of his scorn for the very thing he's there to buy. Then we get his visceral reaction to the tablecloths, followed by an emotional reaction. Then we get his whining about the signs. It's very deftly done.

If this were a real piece rather than an exercise, I would be extremely pleased with the way the setting was handled, but Susan and I might be talking about ways to make this guy a little more warm in this moment. We might talk about tempering his negativity with genuine worry about his wife. We'd be killing that thought tag in the first line (it's unnecessary when the pov is already this deep and clear), and we'd be shifting that first paragraph so he's not thinking about himself but about his wife. But that's a separate issue unrelated to setting. I only point it out because, you know, I'm incorrigible that way. Tinkering with that first paragraph would shift the entire tone of the piece so that we might feel more sympathy for this guy.

Now, here's an exercise for anyone who cares to do it. I want you to take this chocolate shop setting as set up  by Susan and put another character in it. In the comments, give me a one-sentence description of this character. Then give me three things this character will notice about this environment. And then give me one unique way this character will react to one of those three things.

Ready, set, go! :)



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Whew. After seeing the other examples, I was worried this was too much of an information dump. Glad it turned into the teaching tool I was hoping it would be.

Leona said...

Lonely, recently widowed woman in her thirties.

Bright table cloth, flowers, chocolates, but very specific chocolates.

Her eyes hone in on the chocolates her husband gave her the last time they were together.

Disoriented said...

I agree that this is a great example of handling setting with a POV (and attitude!).

That said, I felt very disoriented, especially in the first paragraph. When the door slipped out of his fingers and crashed, I wondered if it actually shattered. (Is it even a glass door? Glass doors are usually heavy, not light.) And was he opening it to go in or to go out? How do you look through the glass and see yourself? Is it a mirror? Is the distortion because the glass shattered? Is it the glass of the door or the full length windows. Do the windows look back out onto the street he just came in from (or is about to go out to)? Or are they the fronts of the cases? I read that paragraph a few times, and I'm still very confused.

Things got a lot better in the second and third paragraphs. But I have no idea what I'm supposed to think about the tablecloths. At first, they're very bright, so I pictured over-bleached white tablecloths. Later, they're gaudy, which doesn't really go with my first impression. Are they gaudy colors or lacey or something else?

Anonymous said...

Even after three reads I don't see the chocolate shop. A chair rail (& chairs) and tables with tablecloths say 'restaurant' to me, and seafood is sold chilled and I have no reference for 'half-domed fronts', I cannot tell what *he* expects, so this left me very confused.
And dear gods, what a whinger, as if no man has ever eaten chocolate. I get the feeling he looks down on his wife - no thanks.


Edittorrent said...

@Disoriented - I took the lightness of the door as a sign of his emotional state. When we're agitated, we sometimes move more strongly than we intend. And I took his instant shift of awareness from the door to his reflection as a sign of his character. The guy is an ego in shoes.

As to the glass door, don't overthink it. Yes, some of the spatial relations could be presented in a clearer manner (and we would have talked about that, but I've already addressed spatial orientation through the use of prepositional phrases in example 2 or 3), but it is possible to see a reflection in glass, and it is possible for the glass to distort the reflection. I suspect your confusion over the other details might be making these questions feel bigger. That can happen to any confused reader. Which is why it's so important to nail things like setting and action in the first place. :)


Edittorrent said...

@GK - Yes, this character can be a bit tough to take in this piece. That's why I zeroed in on that first paragraph as a way to shift the tone. It's not really what I wanted to talk about with this example, but I thought I should mention it, and you had the same kind of reaction I did.

If we get a sense of his guilt or remorse in that first paragraph, then all the scorn in the other paragraphs can be seen as his discomfort with being in the wrong. Sometimes people, especially alpha types with slightly weak social skills, can react to guilt and remorse with ego rather than with contrition.


Edittorrent said...

@Leona - Okay, good start. Now tell me how these things connect to her widowed state. What emotion does she feel when she sees the bright cloth? Does it cheer her or offend her? Will she buy the same chocolates from her husband, or will she refuse to ever eat those again?

Take it deeper. You've got a good set-up to make that happen.


Leona said...

you want me to write? Sheesh! Editors :P

She knew the moment she walked in that she should have stayed home.

Her eyes caught the specially made up tables with the prettily packaged chocolates. The flowers standing guard over the mountains of goodies. She kept trying to look around and see everything there was in the boutique.

No matter where she looked, her eyes kept straying back to the dark chocolates her husband had given her on their last anniversary. He'd handed them to her with that debonair smile he used when pleased with himself and his present. She could see every detail on his face, the way his blue eyes crinkled around the edges, the way his lips curled up to one side. She remembered thinking how well he was aging.

Only thirty-nine.

She put a hand to her throat as she stood frozen in front of the display. Her feet had taken her despite her will to leave. Beautiful, the display hurt. With Daniel gone, this should all be gray, or snuffed out like his life.

Instead, there it stood, like a headstone marking the spot of death. "Here is the last place your husband went the day he died." For a moment the words were superimposed over the hand lettered sign. Her eyes blurred as she looked back at the chocolates. Chocolates she'd buried with her husband.

Taunting, dark, sinful chocolates. Haunting her sleep, seeing the package fall out of his hands when he clasped his chest and dropped to his knees. To his death.

Anna Geletka said...

Cool scene, Leona! I was totally into it until the very last paragraph. I felt like you were overdoing the fact that his death was related to the chocolates. For me everything after the "taunting, dark, sinful chocolates" line feels like a bit too much.