Saturday, March 12, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #9

Keeping the party train rolling with another anonymous example. To set this up, a man and a woman have just arrived at this house. The woman is sleeping in the front passenger seat. The man first studies her, but then, when he remembers that she has rejected his advances, he turns away and stares through the truck's front window.

The stone farmhouse with its sunburned thatched roof looked the same. The lamppost light spilled yellow beams across a yard overgrown with weeds enclosed within a rusty fence. Battered shutters, that long ago lost their white sheen, hung at precarious angles on the bare windows. Tall, gnarled oaks hovered over the house. A few branches seemed determined to push their way under the roof.

The place seemed derelict. Exactly the way it was supposed to. His gaze slanted over to the washed-out red barn. The building still leaned a little too heavily on its right.

I suspect some of you out there read this and expect me to talk about the passage being overwritten. By current standards, it is overwritten, and in edits we'd tighten it -- for example, we don't need lamppost, light, and beams in three out of five words, and we probably should have only one sentence about the trees. And I think there would be some value in taking a passage like this and showing you all how to reduce it in edits so that the subtextual emotion and vivid imagery is preserved.

But we've been using this series to focus on the good -- well-used techniques for manipulating setting details to achieve certain effects. In keeping with that, we'll look at this one for tone and mood because this author does a great job using setting details to echo or reinforce the pov character's emotional state. It's subtextual, and it's effective.

Before we get into that, I do want to point out that the author is using techniques we've discussed in other posts in this series. The verbs are strong and vivid. There's a sense that things have changed ("long ago lost their white sheen") or will change ("hung at precarious angles" / "branches seemed determined to push").

Let's look at some details.

His Emotion:
Tense because she rejected him. (Trust me, it's in the material that precedes the description.)

He Sees:
Defects (overgrown yard, rusty fence, broken shutters)

The Technique:
Symbolism. But a very subtle kind of symbolism. We can assume there's some defect in him that led to her rejection. (It's probably one of those romance defects such as emotional detachment or inability to trust.) He doesn't see defects when he looks at her sleeping on the front seat. But when he looks elsewhere, he sees the defects, and this mirrors the way she looks at him -- or, at least, at this stage of the game, it's what he imagines she does when she looks at him.


His Emotion:
A Bit Unsettled

He Sees:
Things that give him a sense of stability. See "looked the same" in the first sentence, "Exactly the way it was supposed to" in the second paragraph, and "The building still leaned" at the end.

The Technique:
Contrast. By having the character witness things that contrast with his current mood, we show that he is reaching for a new state of mind. This reaching might be subconsciously done, but he's doing it nonetheless.


So here's my big question. Bat this one around in the comments, kids, and see what you think. Ultimately, do you think he wants to change? Or do you think he wants her to see him as he is -- defects and all -- and recognize that he's "exactly the way it was supposed to" be?

I don't know that we have enough material to be able to answer this question definitively. The answers might lie in other scenes. But just based on what we know, which way do you think this one goes?

ETA another question: Look at those tree branches. What's the symbolism in what they're doing? I think that's pretty cool, personally.



Alison said...

LOL. those trees limbs were trying to get under the roof like he wanted to get under her clothes. I agree that it is overwritten but I see where she's going.
From what I read, I don't think he wants to change. He seems accustomed and comfortable with flawed and ruined things as evidenced by the house. It even seems comfortable to him. I think he would want to be seen as a tragically flawed person but still beautiful in his own way.

green_knight said...

My main problem with this passage was that I started with 'sunburned' (sun=daylight) and then got 'lamppost/yellow light' (night) and in that light, you'd not be able to see the 'sunburnt thatch'.

Also, I'm having a complete geographical disorientation moment. Around here (Britain), thatch is bright when it's fresh and darkens with age, and streetlights are a thing of settlements. There's a lot about this scene that says 'isolated farmhouse' but the lamppost says 'roadside.' The red barn is typical American - but 'thatch' isn't the first thing that comes to mind.

Other than that, I like this a lot. I'm intrigued by 'derelict, the way it was supposed to' because most people would bemoan the derelict in contrast to happier times or feel that it was a waste of a house where someone could be happy.

I like the dynamic quality of the image - the observer sits still, but it's not a static picture: the light spills, the shutters hang precariously, the trees over and push their branches, even the building leans.

I's suggest Gnarled oaks hovered over the house, pushing their branches underneath the roof.

if you want to tighten - we don't need to know they're tall if they hover, but the pushing branches under is a lovely lewd image.

green_knight said...

@cautionary tale: I think your reading is spot on. He's not looking to change, he doesn't think about how the house can/should be fixed; he thinks it's as it ought to be.

Adrian said...

Given only the minimal context, I read this example in a completely different light. All that imagery was so sinister and ominous, I was thinking psycho killer, not romance.

I figured the woman wasn't just sleeping, she was drugged. By him, after she rejected him. And he was getting ready to drag her body into that deserted barn where he was going to cut her up into teeny tiny little pieces.

He really doesn't like being rejected. ;-)

Either way, I don't see it as overwritten. Sometimes you need two sentences to say something, just to slow the pace down and realize that the POV character is being reflective.

Miss Sharp said...

It didn't seem badly overwritten to me, either, but maybe that's a bad thing. For a writer who should be able to self-edit, anyway.

I got the impression that he is a man who can (and will eventually) change to a certain degree, but not without initial resentment and a lot of work. Perhaps "improve" is a better word than change especially since it's a given that characters must change or there's no ARC...and no story.

Edittorrent said...

I don't think it's terribly overwritten. Just that it needs to be screwed down a bit tighter. If the author wanted to make a case in favor of two tree sentences, I'd hear it with an open mind. But as it stands, with nothing else to go on, those trees could use a little trimming.

Adrian, your comment made me giggle.


Edittorrent said...

Anybody else think those branches are getting under the roof as she's getting under his skin?


Leona said...

Like T, I get the impression that he felt like she was "pushing" her way under his skin and hovering, which can be both a protective gesture as well as a stalker one.

I initially read it as someone who liked what he saw, especially the flaws.

Also, that he might be a serial killer who was annoyed with her hovering and pushing, like she'd discovered something he tried hard to hide from society. Something that he felt was "exactly as it should be" but knew that others wouldn't approve of.

I didn't get romance from this at all. Interesting take. My favorite lines are the tree lines and I think tall is important to the imagery because I think it emphasizes the "height" of his problem. That her presence is bigger than the rest of his life, at this moment.

It would be interesting to see if the romance angle is more obvious in context.

Sylvia said...

Exactly the way it was supposed to. His gaze slanted over to the washed-out red barn. The building still leaned a little too heavily on its right.

I love this. It is so intriguing, I'd absolutely read on to find out what was going on with the house. I agree with Adrian that it is very ominous.

I think the imagery of the branches adds to this, in a slow destruction sort of way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments Theresa and all. It amazes me what people 'see' when they look at someone else's writing. How they find symbolism in random things.

For those of you who wondered, the story is a paranormal romance. The 'house' is supposed to look unkept because there's an underground hide-out under it ;)

Oh, and the heroine isn't drugged or going there against her will LOL