Writing Craft - Craft

Mary Rosenblum, your web editor, has published three SF novels, (number four, Horizons, will be out in November), four mysteries, and more than 60 short stories in multiple genres, as well as nonfiction! She also teaches writing, and has for many years. Most recently, her SF short story, Home Movies  appears in the April/May 2006 issue  of ‘Asimov’s Magazine’.

 

 

 

Creating a Sense of Place

By Mary Rosenblum

 

            Setting is probably the most overlooked leg of the ‘story tripod’ of plot, character, and setting.  It is very easy to focus so hard on your action and dialogue that you completely forget that the reader cannot see the scenery unrolling inside your head. You see the character in that cluttered Victorian style living room with the heavy velvet drapes and the gate-legged furniture carved from dark mahogany.  You have no need to waste words as your character tiptoes through the house searching for the missing owner. 

            But until we manage to create a ‘telepathic hyperlink’ that connects your imagination directly to your readers’ minds, you’re going to have to create that living room for them.   No, those details are not central to the plot, most of the time, but just as a play is less interesting if performed on the bare boards of an empty stage, your story is less interesting if the characters walk and talk in a featureless limbo. 

 

Double Edged Sword

            Everyone has read at least one story where the action dragged as the author went on and on in great detail about the scene.   The tension lags, the story falters, and readers may lose track of the plot altogether.   Too much detail is just as bad as too little.  So how do you strike that perfect ‘happy medium’?  For the most part, it takes practice.  Most novice writers err on the side of either way too much or not nearly enough.  Good reader feedback, preferably from another novice writer, is very helpful.  After your reader has finished the story, ask him or her specific questions:  Could you visualize the scene?  Did you ever get confused about where the characters were?  Was there too much description?  While every reader has his or her own preference for ‘more’ or ‘less’ description, if most of your readers tell you that they didn’t realize they were in a desert until the middle of the story, then you probably need to add more detail.  If most of your readers tell you that they fell asleep by the time you got done describing the jungle scene in great detail, you probably need to prune some of those lovely details. 

 

Plant the Seeds

            A story is a cooperative effort on the part of author and reader.  You, the author, can’t include every single detail of every scene or the story will slow to a snail’s crawl.  Give your readers a few ‘seeds’ however, and they’ll create that rich visual setting on their own.  No, their living room won’t be quite the same as the living room you visualize, but if you plant the right ‘seeds’ it will be close enough that the story will fit it nicely. 

            What are the critical details?  How do you distill that cluttered style living room to a few words, or that fantasy landscape, or that Mars habitat?  The key is representative details.  What are representative details?  These are the few details that will suggest a fairly similar visual landscape to most readers.  A good exercise is to visit a strange place.  Enter a store you’ve never shopped in, stroll through a public park you’ve never visited, an unfamiliar office, or house.   Some time later, sit down with a pad and recall the details of that place.  What stood out?  What do you easily remember?  Those are the details that attracted your attention, that give this place its ‘flavor’.  When you want to create a rich setting for your scene, think about the key details that will allow the reader to fill in the rest. 

            Let’s look at our living room.  What effect do we want to create for our readers.  Hmmm…  The owner is a little old lady, and the room is stuffy, cluttered, a bit too warm, and very ‘un modern’.  What key details will allow each reader to come up with something roughly similar?  Maybe dark wood furniture, crimson velvet drapes (dusty), quaint teapots cluttering shelves and an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot.  Look how many details that leaves out.  Every reader will fill that room with furniture that seems to fit – maybe coffee table, end tables, sofa, settee, winged armchairs, breakfront…what have you.  But overall, we’ll all see dark wood furniture, crimson velvet drapes, dust, teapots, and that elephant foot stand.

 

Stark to Lush

          Below, find an example of basic action and dialogue. 

 

            Madelaine herself  answered the door.  She didn’t recognize him.  Shawn gave her a salesman’s smile and his spiel about being from the county, surveying residents about their mosquito preparedness in the face of threatening West Nile infections. 

            “I suppose I must answer your questions.” She looked down her patrician nose at him.  “Please follow me.” 

            He did so. She led him into a small office off the kitchen, sat him in a chair, and went off to bring tea. 

 

            This scene is not loaded with drama…it’s a slow scene, probably a pause between more active scenes, and perfect for showing the scene to the readers.  But what do we see here?  Nothing much.  Let’s add some detail:

 

            Madeleine herself  answered the door.  Smaller and frailer than he remembered her, her gray hair still braided and wound into an elaborate crown on the top of her head, she didn’t recognize him.  Shawn gave her a salesman’s smile and his spiel about being from the county, surveying residents about their mosquito preparedness in the face of threatening West Nile infections. 

            “I suppose I must answer your questions.” She looked down her patrician nose at him.  “Please follow me.” 

            He did so. He sneaked a look into the living room as they passed.  Crimson drapes, mahogany furniture from a century long vanished, it suit her.  A single white lily in a crystal stem vase graced the grand piano she would never leave behind.  She led him into a small office off a modern tile and stainless steel kitchen, sat him in a somewhat worn wing chair next to a window opening into an immaculate garden, and went off to bring tea. 

 

            Here, we have more details.  We see Madeleine’s hair, gray and intricately braided.  We see her living room and the only details are the drapes and mahogany furniture from a century long vanished, the grand piano, and that white lily.  Readers will use these details as seeds to fill the room.  We see that modern kitchen, filling in the stainless steel fridge, stove, what have you.  And we see the more personal office, the worn wing chair, and every reader will fill in that immaculate garden as each sees fit.   For the price of a very few more words, we have taken Madeleine and Shawn from a blank stage to a house with real furniture, easily visualized. 

 

            Plant those seeds and let your readers grow a rich visual garden from them.

 

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