Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Would You Like Fries With That?

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I read two books this week, and after reading Rob's post I think I won't mention their titles because I'm going to say something negative about one of them. The one thing that bothers me in LDS fiction is the proper use of setting. Setting, you ask? Isn't that just describing the background of the scene? Yes and no. When setting is done right, it is seamless, it adds to the book, plot, or character and isn't distracting. When it is done wrong, you want to poke your eyes out with a pencil just so you don't have to read anymore.

For example, in the one novel I read, the author felt it necessary to describe every single, teeny, tiny detail including dust particles in the air, gleaming in the sunlight, the grain of the wood in the table and swirls it made, the cracks in the asphalt as the character walked. It was very distracting, dragged down the story, and made me want to just skim over it. Not something you want your readers to do. In fact, I was very surprised that any publishing company would publish something that was so obviously in need of an editor. However, it could also be a matter of preference. Maybe some people really LIKE to know all the about wood grain and asphalt cracks. I'm just not one of those people. In my mind, details should further the story not drag it down. It's like when you're having a conversation with someone and they're telling you the story, but they get bogged down with, "I think it happened right over near White Avenue, no, wait, maybe it was Poppy Lane. Oh, I know, it was that little side street right off Toony Drive," and you are listening and thinking, it doesn't really matter does it? I want to hear the story. That's how I felt when I was reading the novel, that the author had spent so much time on the details and getting sucked into the setting that the story was completely lost.

The other novel I read used setting to add flavor to the characters and color to the book. The author knew how to strike that fine balance and I found myself identifying with familiar landmarks and easily able to imagine the characters and what was around them. It was in the background, and instead of detracting from the story, it added that extra oomph to make it more real for me as a reader. I loved that! I think that it is an art to find that balance. Whether or not an author nails that balance is really easy to spot in historical fiction. A good author weaves the history in with the characters and makes it part of them and their lives. An inexperienced author lays out all the history in practically a monologue or history lesson, then gets on with the story. How much better is it for the reader to actually live the history through a character's eyes and have it come alive instead of skimming over the "boring" parts to get to the story? That's what I'm talking about. The setting should be a part of the characters and the story, but it's not obvious and overbearing when done right.

Can an author use a setting if they've never actually been there or experienced it for themselves? I think so. In my second book, On the Edge, it's set in Africa and Greece. I'd been to Greece, but I'd never been to Africa. However, I had done an extensive research project on this particular part of Africa and I had learned quite a bit about the people, the culture, and the country. I didn't actually know if it was what I wanted it to be until a reviewer said that the setting was particularly well done and she doesn't give praise lightly. I was also proud of the fact that it was an international book, set somewhere else other than Utah because frankly, in my opinion, the Utah setting is getting extremely overdone. You'd think nothing exciting ever happened outside of Utah. That's part of the charm of one of my favorite authors, Betsy Brannon Green, is that her books are set in Georgia and she uses the setting to add to the unique southern flavor of her characters.

So if you are a reader that LOVES all the extras–you know what I mean, do you want extra fries with that? You could Super-size it for only 49 cents more—then you probably love all the extra details of uniform nametags, how the large fast food ovens work, what hot dogs are really made of, not to mention the gleaming dust particles in the air. If you are that sort of person, I definitely have a book recommendation for you. But in an effort to save my own sanity (and my eyesight) I think I will just say no.


At 5/12/2006 12:08 AM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Julie, you must have just read the same annoying book I recently read. Every scene started out like a play director was arranging the set. As for dust particles, arranging bathroom mats, and general set trivia, please spare me the details. Sadly, it's not only endless, useless setting trivia, there's more than one author out there pouring on the purple prose with persimmon sunsets and pale orange, ice cream-colored skies. I like adjectives and like to see a few more of them than adverbs, but used to excess they turn an otherwise fine scene into silly gibberish. Overdone descriptions are as bad or worse than underdone ones. At least sparse descriptions credit the reader with an imagination.

At 5/15/2006 12:20 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

So very true, Jennie. It's disappointing when setting can truly balance and add to a book and its characters, making it memorable for something other than cinnamon-colored skies and the like.


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