Thursday, April 17

Parts of Story: How Setting Can Help Bring Characters To Life



When writing a scene, how much description is enough?

All writers have certain things we do well--or at least, that we do better than others. Things that, relatively speaking, we excel at. I know someone who writes descriptions that make you feel like you're there; you taste the salt in the sea air and feel the early morning chill. But when this person writes dialogue, although it's good, it's not at the same level. And that's fine! Actually, it's reassuring. It wouldn't be, well, human, to be terrific at everything. (Which, I suppose, is an argument that Neil Gaiman is not quite human, but I digress.)

Descriptions aren't my best thing. There, I've said it. I'm talking specifically about the sort of description that needs to go at the beginning of scenes and stories to orient the reader; description that isn't intimately connected with the action of the story but needs to be mentioned. I can't tell you the number of first drafts I've finished where I had given no hint as to the protagonist's hair color, it's length, whether she was cute or handsome or beautiful. Or even a he or a she!

Why? Because it wasn't intimately connected with the action of the story. Or so I thought. Obviously, I under-describe. Readers like to know, for example, whether a character is male or female because they form assumptions, assumptions that may later be proved wrong and that can be disconcerting. 

So back to my question: When writing a scene, how much description is enough? 

I've spent some time mulling this question over and rereading many of the books I've listed in the recommended reading section. I think that, perhaps, in order to answer this question we need to recognize that:

1. A setting isn't just physical, it's also emotional.


In his book, The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass writes that we should select specific things about the characters environment and describe them in a way that shows the character's emotions. He writes that the combination of details about the setting and the emotions attached to them, "together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel."

Yes. Exactly. That's a great way of stating what we want to do. But (and this is the 64,000 dollar question), how do we do it? I hate it when writers state a question perfectly then quickly pronounce it a problem for the ages, shake their hoary heads, and move on.

Donald Maass doesn't do this. He answers the question and does so with examples. I won't reproduce them here, those were Donald Maass' examples, passages that spoke to him. I've written before about Stephen King, enough perhaps to give you the idea that I admire his writing, especially the way he could draw me into the worlds he created.[2] (I used to swear there had to be dark magic involved!)

But I think Donald Maass, here, has put his finger on another technique King uses, one which I hadn't noticed.[4] The following are the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).
"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

"As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."[1]
Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters not the room. We understand the characters, the circumstances, first. Then we get to the physical setting. 

a. Character first, setting second.


The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized I wasn't 'seeing' an office. I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was there for a job interview. But that's okay. That information isn't important, not right away. What is important is that we understand the kind of man Jack is, what is important is that we understand how he reacts to Ullman as well as what sort of relationship they have to each other. And we get that (a start at least) from the opening paragraphs, all without knowing the color of each man's hair, if the walls are painted or wallpapered, what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

But look at the information we are given. In the first sentence we are told that the protagonist is Jack Torrence and, through that, we know he's (probably) male. We also have an idea of how old Jack is, an age range. A child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious.' That belies not just an adults vocabulary but, most likely, either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little prick" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.
"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men."
From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist. 

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrators point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:
"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."
The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.


When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality on. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But we are only interested in these things because, now, we are interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use the setting to introduce conflict.


King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little prick." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:
"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."
What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about this character and his world; a world which just happens to be the world of the story.

And we're hooked!

Or at least I am. King gets me every time. After I read about three or four paragraphs I couldn't put the book down if I tried. And who's trying? 

2. Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.


I've spent most of this chapter talking about Stephen King and what his work can show us about how and when to use description (he also has a wonderful discussion of this in his book, On Writing). I'd like to close with a more general point about keeping description focused.

As you know, each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. Each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, show down. 

- Who is the main character, the focal character, in the scene?[3] 
- What is the focal character's goal? 
- What must the focal character accomplish to attain that goal? 
- What opposing force prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
- How does the focal character react to the opposing force? 
- How does the focal character meet this opposition? 

Once you answer these questions you'll not only know the scene's purpose you'll know its overall structure.

But how does that help us describe the setting? Donald Maass suggests that to discover what aspects of the setting are important--to discover what aspects of the setting we must describe to readers--we must first find the turning points. To do this ask:

- What has changed?
- When does it change?
- How is the focal character affected by this change?

Make sure that setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. What has led up to these points, these changes?

Everything else--including details about the setting--should focus on these points. If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to any of the turning points in the scene then ask yourself: do you really need to include it? Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in describing how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially on the first draft. Experiment, try new things, let it fly! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and hopefully read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier for you to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

(Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming book: Parts of Story. I've decided to blog the book because, that way, I'm more likely to stay on track. And it seems to be working (Yay!).)

Links/References


1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.
2. Stephen King, since writing his enormously helpful book, On Writing, is well known for believing that stories exist external to, independently of, writers. He believes he discovers stories in much the same way an archaeologist discovers dinosaur bones.
3. Briefly, a viewpoint character is the character whose point of view the chapter is being told from. If the point of view is limited then this viewpoint character will be one of the characters in the story. The focal character is the character that all the fuss is about; they are the protagonist, the main actor. For example, in many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was the focal character while Watson was the viewpoint character. 
4. Stephen King also, and very powerfully, uses his character's emotion-laden thoughts to lay bare their souls and make us interested in them. Or at least that's what I think. I've written a bit about this in my article on Free Indirect Discourse (I've given the link, above, in note 1). See also: How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?
5. The remark about it all being on the table is from King's book, "On Writing." 

4 comments:

  1. FWIW my opinion:

    I am good with dialog. So I've been told. By editors. It is my strong suit, and I know it. For me, dialog flows. I find it easy to write. Thus, my writing is fat with dialog, lean with narrative.

    Writing description and narrative is hard for me. I work twice as much to write a five-line paragraph of narrative than I do to write a five-page dialog.

    The more I write, the stronger my weak points (narrative and description) become, but my strength (dialog) becomes even stronger.

    I write to my strength. I believe all writers do. Stephen King and Donald Maas included.

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    1. Yep, very true. Writers--and this is a good thing!--write to their strengths. But I find I also like to work on my weaknesses. Every day I try to set aside some time in the morning to do writing exercises.

      Lately I've been trying to puzzle out what sort of description should be given (do readers _really_ care about hair length and hair color if it plays no role in the story?), and (which is quite as important) _when_ should the description be given.

      I've enjoyed reading, and analyzing, King's work because, often, his prose defies many of the 'rules' of fiction, but it doesn't matter; he nails it. He writes wonderfully immersive stories. And that, for me, is the criterion, the mark, the sign, of a great story.

      As always, thanks for your comment, Antares. :-)

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  2. Great post! Too many writers overdo setting, while others don't understand the emotional nature of it and its importance.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! I appreciate your comment. It's all about emotions, isn't it. About reaching out and gripping the reader.

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