Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #6

This one comes to us from a writer who would like to remain anonymous.

He grunted before leading her into his study. The walls were covered in maroon flocked wallpaper. A big antique desk dominated the room. The air smelled of leather and old books, with just a hint of tobacco. She hadn’t stepped into Aldous’ study for many years. The giant Remington typewriter he’d always used was still on the desk, but shoved to one side and shrouded in a plastic cover. The heavy velvet curtains were half-drawn, allowing only a pale wintery light to dilute the gloom. Saffron rubbed her upper arms, chilled by the atmosphere, a mood of faded glory, of golden triumphs tarnished by loss and the passing years.

Okay, so let's start with the assumption that this is a poignant moment for her. There are signals of emotional importance, especially toward the end of the paragraph. If this significance has been set up before the paragraph begins, then it makes sense to slow down the pace here and let the character observe the room, detail by detail.

So the pace might be appropriate, but then again, maybe not. She's with a man and the interaction between them is entirely suspended once they're inside the study. So the question then becomes, is there a way to slow down the pace here to allow her to absorb the atmosphere, and yet not have him temporarily drop out of the scene?

Yes, and the solution lies in the way the details are presented. Let's take a look at the first descriptive sentence:

The walls were covered in maroon flocked wallpaper.

The sharp-eyed among you will notice right away that this is in passive voice. "To cover" is a good, vivid verb, but without a subject to take the action of covering something, the verb loses some of its vigor. But does it follow, then, that the best way to fix this sentence is by switching it from passive to active? Hmm.

He had covered the walls in maroon flocked wallpaper.

Because of conventions associated with literary time, we have to shift that verb into the past perfect. After all, he's not papering the walls in this very scene. It's already been done sometime before she entered the room. The problem now is that story chronology has been interrupted to take us out of the scene moment and into some other, less poignant moment. So this isn't a great solution. We want to stick with the present scene moment.

How do we do that? How do we make it both active and present? Well, we have characters. Let's use them. Show the characters interacting with the setting. Some examples:

He lounged against the maroon-flocked walls.
He flicked the lightswitch and his fingers brushed over a patch where the flocking had been rubbed from the maroon wallpaper.
She froze inside the doorway and clutched the maroon-flocked walls for support.

These aren't equal sentences, of course. The first suggests a casualness, the second hints at obsessiveness, the third contains a strong shock response. We could keep going, I'm sure, until we hit on a sentence that conveyed the right degree of action with the right emotional connotation. It's out there. It's just a matter of finding it, and that might take a bit of mucking around with words. Which is pretty darn fun, so aren't we lucky to be able to do it?

The second sentence is much like the first -- dominated is a strong verb, but the sentence itself is static. But what if this is a scene in which the woman begins to feel dominated by the man? Then the desk becomes something of an emotional stand-in. If surrounded by material that shows the power balances (or imbalances), then this could become symbolically significant description. But as it stands, it's a good sentence that could be made better.

Now it's your turn. Pick a descriptive detail in that passage and tell me one example of how a character might interact with it in the present scene moment. Then tell me if there's an emotion being suggested by the action. You don't have to use the characters in this sample paragraph. This is just an exercise.

Thank you, anon, for sharing your work with us. You're off to a good start! With just a bit of revision, it will be even better.



Sylvia said...

I love how easy you make it look.

This is the type of description that I do a lot where I can see that the detail works but can't quite make it jump off the page.

The easy one is the next sentence:
She inhaled the musty scents of leather and old books with just a hint of tobacco.

More difficult is the next, because the author has already drawn our eye to the change very neatly. Maybe by combining the lighting with the typewriter?

She hadn’t stepped into Aldous’ study for many years. The pale wintery sun lit up the empty space on the desk where the giant Remington typewriter once stood. Now it was shoved to one side, shrouded in a plastic cover.

But that puts me back to passive and an implied "had" so I don't think I've improved anything!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I, too, am drawn in by the typewriter. I think it's the cues of old books, leather, a hint of tobacco -- this study is what we'd expect from a writer (makes me wonder what strokes people would have if they saw MY space!).

"His famed Remington typewriter still dominated the desk, despite its plastic cover and new position to one side, out of his direct work area. "

I'd like an adjective for the plastic cover. Something that conveys emotion -- is it cracked or dusty? Is it shiny new?

Anonymous said...

The air smelled of leather and old books, with just a hint of tobacco. She hadn’t stepped into Aldous’ study for many years. The giant Remington typewriter he’d always used was still on the desk, but shoved to one side and shrouded in a plastic cover.

Smells of leather, old books, and just a hint of tobacco reminded Saffron of the old man and brought a smile to her lips which faded quickly. Had he been shoved aside like the typewriter, his skin as cracked and brittle as the plastic cover?


Edittorrent said...

This is interesting. We're seeing how voice can impact description details.

Sylvia described the light -- it's kind of a voice thing because not all writers have a worldview that encompasses this kind of attention to lighting.

Susan's example is very tight and controlled, and we know she tends to write this way.

Makoiyi uses a rhetorical question, which is one of those things that can come either from author voice or from character viewpoint.

And we're all working with the same basic set of details. Fun stuff!