Monthly Archives: April 2016

Getting the Setting

Riding my horse this past weekend through our wooded trails, I was struck by how immersed I was in my surroundings. Not just with my tactile, visual, auditory and aromatic senses, but the feeling of being in the woods in spring. In April the tall weeds haven’t taken over yet, and wild flowers are everywhere, carpeting the clearings and lanes: buttercups, marsh marigolds, violets, Dutchman’s breeches (isn’t that a wonderful name?) and grape hyacinth. The river snakes alongside the trails, reflecting purples and yellows. And exposed are gnarled fallen logs, huddled in cloaks of moss, poking up like knees and elbows from the low greenery.

In writing about a particular setting, we know how important it can be to get the “essence” of a place. This enhances the story and can reveal a lot about how characters are feeling, without telling or summarizing. If they’re depressed, they’ll view their environment one way, and another way if they’re feeling good. Or maybe their environment changes the way they feel. In some books and especially for certain genres that require world-building, setting is so important it’s almost a “character” in the story. Even in literary fiction, this can be true; I immediately think of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Her descriptions of Idaho mountains and the lake are haunting. Like her, we can also use setting to expose themes.

This doesn’t mean we start each scene with a long description of the setting, because that’s not action, conflict or character, and it can get boring and lose the reader. But if we build the feel of the setting as we go, throwing in little glimpses and sensory details—not all the details, just the right details—as the story moves along, a complete setting takes shape like magic in the reader’s mind. If we do it right, the reader will feel immersed, transported into another world. Setting can evoke tension, suspense, depression, fear, joy, exhilaration… all those things we love to evoke in readers. We can use setting and a character’s response to it instead of saying, “John felt melancholy.”

While in the saddle, I spent time just wandering the woods, immersing myself in it, breathing it in, watching how the shadows played across the forest floor, observing the contours of fallen walnuts and limbs and the way a red squirrel launched itself fifteen feet from the ground into a tree. I thought to myself, how would I describe this? What unique similes and metaphors would work? What strong verb would absolutely nail this?

Good authors of historical fiction, for example, don’t just sit in a library or in front of a computer and do their research. They visit the locations they plan to write about. They walk the ramparts, hike the old Roman roads, spend a night or two in the Arabian Desert, ride an elephant in India. An old saying goes, “Write what you know.” To do that, we have to know and experience our world, so we can borrow from our memories and impressions. We need to sit and meditate in locations, pay attention to how they make us feel, and then use that to the fullest when we create setting.

Making a Scene

This week in my writers’ group we’ll each be sharing a scene. Scenes are the building blocks of stories. We might even continue this topic next month, since it’s so important to fiction writing. Since I was charged with researching reference material, I thought I’d share some of what I found.

What’s a Scene?
A scene is action that occurs in a certain location within linear time (in the moment) that moves the story forward, reveals characters and has an arc to it. Unless the characters are traveling during the scene, the moment we change location or setting, we’ve started a new scene. Also, if we jump in time or skip any time period, we’ve begun a new scene.

Scenes usually dramatize interaction among characters, but they almost always dramatize at least one character in the moment, even if the events are part of a flashback. Scenes tend to include narrative, description and dialogue.

Summary should be minimal. Some say summary, explanation or background material should never be more than 20% of a scene, but unless it’s done so well it sparkles and doesn’t slow things down, less is always better. When writing coaches urge us to “show” rather than “tell,” they mean to write in scene rather than summarizing action or events. If we write good scenes, we won’t have to summarize; readers will draw their own conclusions. And when we write in scene, we pull readers into the narrative, exposing them to the experiences the characters are going through.

Scenes can evoke emotion and reaction, suspense and excitement. They can make us connect with characters. Summarizing can’t. Leave summarizing and explanatory writing mostly to nonfiction writers — in fiction and memoir we’re going for scene.

What Scenes are NOT

  • Scenes are not an opportunity to take your character on a long, leisurely detour into situations or with characters that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s dramatic action goals (that’s a character profile or vignette)
  • Scenes are not passages that explain something or lecture to your reader (that’s a pace killer)
  • Scenes are not long histories of people and places (that’s dull backstory and summary)

What Makes a Good Scene?
It should have real-time momentum. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences situations and scenarios. Consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding or an experience. The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward and ends in such a way that he or she just has to know what happens next. Like any good writing, scenes should be heavy on strong verbs and light on adjectives and adverbs.

A Stylized, Sharper Simulacrum…
Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to “go deep” and end up describing the living daylights out of a character, her feelings, or the setting. Instead, think of a scene as a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality. By stylized we mean that nothing in our scene appears by accident; we have crafted every moment, every interaction, and every image. To the reader something may seem benign, but we know nothing is.

By sharper simulacrum we mean the scene offers a heightened, more fulfilling version of real life, with all the boring bits excised. In our bid to create a realistic experience, we don’t list every single action or detail in our scenes, such as the mundane, dull, insignificant moments and boring pleasantries of real life. We include only those that lend themselves to character and plot development and are rich with tension and suspense, those that contribute to the feeling of not knowing if things will play out in the character’s favor or if antagonists will prevail.

Point of View
We should never change point of view during a scene. Stay in one character’s head and see the world through those eyeballs only. If we want to change point of view, we need to start a new scene, or — even better — a new chapter or section.

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. This way, scene by scene, we tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music. Like a piece of music, the rhythm and pace of the prose is important. We need to pay attention to the intensity and dynamics of a scene and where it’s placed in the story. Is this a key scene where tension grows to a fever pitch, or is this a spot for a little break in the intensity? Think of how music expands and ebbs; the softer parts have a purpose, often to create contrast and catch a breath in preparation for the crescendos to come.

There’s much more to the story (so to speak), so more on scenes later…

Welsh Oak

Trees made durable by surviving the elements

Cracking open a fortune cookie last week at a Vietnamese restaurant, I read a fascinating line:

“Good timber does not grow with ease
The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.”

For some reason this struck a resonant chord. Curious as to where this little saying came from, I whipped out my cell phone and looked it up. The line comes from a simple poem by Douglas Malloch titled “Good Timber.” Known as the lumberman’s poet, Malloch grew up at the turn of the last century amidst the forest, logging camps, sawmills and lumber yards of western Michigan.

The stanza of his poem goes on to say:

“The further sky, the greater length
The more the storm, the more the strength
By sun and cold, by rain and snow
In trees and men good timbers grow.”

This reminded me of something I read once. In the 18th century, Welsh oak was highly prized for ship building. Admiral Rodney of the British navy requested it specifically, and the trees were cut and floated down the Severn River to Bristol. Welsh oak was valued because it grew in difficult conditions–unrelenting wind, rain, snow and cold–making the wood slow-growing and the grain more dense, and therefore more resistant to cannonballs.

Malloch’s poem ends with:

“Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife
This is the common law of life.”

His poem also got me thinking that the stories we write, no matter the genre, usually concern individuals facing conflict and obstacles in their lives and emerging changed and stronger. It’s the common law of life, something we can all connect with. This is the universal story.

Provoked by a simple line from a fortune cookie, I rediscovered that our God has no intention of making our lives easy and comfortable.  Those who suffer and survive hardship are equipped to minister to others going through similar travails. We are meant to endure stiff winds and the lashing of the elements. It increases our dependence and trust in our Creator. It builds character, makes us strong and solid, and increases our usefulness in this life, wherever we are planted.

We are being refined into Welsh oak.