Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, February 26, 2007

Scene that?

by Jeffrey S Savage
As it happens, I have some pretty strong opinions on the whole butterfly vs. penguins debate. And I think much of it come down to global warming. Also, while I would like to hear more of Rob’s embarrassing moments, I don’t think I can ever beat his peeping tom story, (I mean “accidentally” staying under the bed story.) So I guess I’ll just keep riding the creative writing class blog as long as it holds out. (Also, I really like it when Stephanie gets riled up at me.) Since next week’s class on getting published is the final one, you won’t have to suffer much longer.

Today’s class is on setting. Not Stephanie’s completely ludicrous ideas on point of view or Kerry’s crazy concept that humor actually improves a story. (Especially not humor regarding male writers whose female characters can eat anything they want.)

In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King says:

“I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players.”

Setting can do many things. It can create a mood. It can place clues. It can convey information to the reader. It move the set expectations. It can also bore the reader to tears.

1 When deciding on your setting, pick the first three or four things you notice in your mental image and go with those. You can always rewrite later. Do not go with much more than that or you will bore the reader. See the example below. For example, let’s say we are going to place the scene in a parking garage. What are the first three things that come to mind for you? For me they are: the smell of oil and car exhaust, the low—almost claustrophobic ceilings, and the thump-thump and squeal of car tires as they cross the concrete and turn. So those are the things I will go with.

2 The second thing to consider is what mood you want to set with the scene. Imagine a scene that begins inside a junior high school building. What is the mood you get with that memory? It will vary from person to person depending on their JHS memories. Excitement at seeing all your old friends and finding out who they are seeing and what they are wearing? Apprehension at how you will be received by kids you don’t know? Fear that the bully will catch you? Pride at no longer being in “baby school?” Were you the jock? The cheerleader? The outcast? The nerd? The popular kid? The straight A student? The kid who did just enough—or a little less than necessary—to get by?

Depending on your mood, the front doors can look like a passage to adulthood or prison bars. You can notice the smell or fresh cut grass or sweaty adolescence. The halls can be filled with the sounds of excited female giggling or unexpected danger.

3 How much detail you spend on describing the scene should be directly relevant to the type of story you are writing. If you story is very much about the “place” where the story occurs, you may go into great detail describing it. If your story is mostly about the characters or idea, you will generally give just enough description to move the story forward. If you are writing a mystery you may describe more, because the reader is looking for clues. Remember what Chekov called the “Gun Over The Mantle” rule. If you see a gun over the mantle in act one, it must go off by act three.

4 Why are you using that particular locale? Before choosing the location think about it strengths and benefits to your story. Is it isolated? That may be good or bad depending on whether the main character is going to need resources. Does it give you a narrow scope of character types or broad opportunities? Is it a “cozy” setting or an “epic” setting? Will it mean the same thing to the average reader as it means to you?

5 Add color to your scene. Go on-line and research the locale. Visit it if you can. Talk to people who have been there. Look at pictures. Little details are sometimes the best. The smell of Coppertone suntan lotion. The sound of rollerblades clicking across the sidewalk. Latin music playing from a boom box in a third story window. Teenagers bobbing and shaking to music no one can hear. The ching-ching-ching of a distant jackpot while everyone around you focuses on feeding their own machine which never hits. The lingering smell of overcooked cabbage.

6 Try throwing in different verbs to spice up a clichéd scene. Raindrops can certainly pound against the window pane, but see what happens when you change the verb pounded to something that at first blush may not seem to fit.

What if you tried these: Raindrops tap danced against the window pane. Raindrops cried against the window pane. Raindrops fired against the window pane. Raindrops chuckled against the window pane. Raindrops bled against the window pane. Raindrops exploded against the window pane.

In my class, a student wanted to convey how a young boy ran up the steps on his first day at a new school. Instead of saying, “The boy ran up the steps two at a time.” he wrote “The boy gobbled the steps in quick leaps.” I love that.

7 Use good similes a metaphors. But don’t overdo them and don’t use clichés. A good metaphor is one which communicates the concept to the reader without hitting them over the head.

Here are a couple of examples of scene setting from a writer who’s kind of hack, but was willing to let me quote him:

Dawn came slowly, wrapped in layer upon layer of continually drizzling clouds and an on-again, off-again mist blown back and forth by a wind that couldn’t seem to settle on any one direction. The heater in Chase and Dimwhitty’s car blew out a mildewy stream of lukewarm air that nearly made me wish I was outside.

In the above example the protagonist is waiting in the back of a cop car before going into a dangerous situation.

The road leading to the park entrance was lined with small, older one-story houses. Each was pin neat except for the profusion of fallen leaves that twirled and spun from yard to yard like a troop of tiny ballet dancers. The street was empty other than the occasional heavily bundled jogger heading toward City Creek Canyon. I wondered if they were really runners or cops in disguise.

In this example, the writer uses three key things (the houses, the leaves, and the joggers, to paint a picture you can fill in yourself.)

Okay, now that I’ve bored you to tears, let’s throw out another contest. I don’t have a frog pack. But here’s what I’ll offer. The top three winners will get your choice of: a signed picture of Rob in a hula skirt, a Nerf football signed by Stephanie Black (queen of the football picks), and a signed copy of Sariah’s new book.

Here are the rules. Think of one of the following: Your favorite restaurant, first day in Junior High, local graveyard, or a relative’s house. Take the first three or four things that come to mind. Scents, sights, sounds, temperature, etc. Decide on a mood. Now write a maximum of 150 words describing the scene. Especially focus on showing, not telling. Don’t tell me Matt is afraid, show me how he clutches his keys and looks over his shoulder.

Here is my example from the garage scene:

I unconsciously ducked my head as I stepped into the ancient parking garage. I knew the celing wasn’t as low as it looked, yet I felt like Gandolf stepping into Frodo’s hobbit hole. Although I imagined a hobbit hole would smell a lot better than the exhaust laden air that assaulted my nose. From somewhere above or below the thump-thump thump-thump of a car’s tires reassured me I wasn’t actually inside a crypt, but my level was so deserted I found myself whistling just to keep away the jim-jams.


At 2/26/2007 7:42 PM, Blogger FHL said...

I started writing this in a faux film noir style, but ended up somewhere in the Twilight Zone. Guess the restaurant!

I casually grabbed one of the heavy wooden doors, expecting it to fly open and welcome me in. It resisted as though a troll were pulling on the other side! The inner doors of the foyer were much more welcoming, held open by the smiling hostess. I didn't catch her name because my eyes were still trying to adjust to the dim interior. The smell of cooking food assaulted me like a linebacker rolling down the field. Ah! The rich aroma of steak sizzled on platters that passed me by at a perfect height. I sat on a bench and looked at the bizarre gear adorning the walls. I pondered the invention of a weapon designed to come back to you, but only if you missed. I observed the wildlife, my imagination conjuring fanciful ways in which this land should be the only one to have kangaroos and koala bears.

At 2/26/2007 10:57 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, you are just SO wrong about . . . something. I don't know what, but I'm feeling pretty riled.

Thanks for reminding Rob how thoroughly I kicked his tail at predicting the winners of the bowl games. Maybe I'll send him a signed football just for old times' sake.

Loved the writing samples, and loved the book they came from.

At 2/27/2007 3:32 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

So Jeff, now that your class is almost over, what are the chances that I'll get some syllabus pages out of you??

At 2/27/2007 8:17 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Holy crap, Stephanie, I just realized I never mailed that football-pick prize. To you or FHL. Man, I suck.

At 2/27/2007 10:11 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Well, sheesh, Rob, and here I was thinking you were perfect. Way to blow my illusions. Get the book in the mail and all will be forgiven. Well, most will be forgiven. The rest I'll save for making snarky remarks whenever the situation warrants.

At 2/27/2007 11:26 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Hey! If there are syllabi (is that right? where is Angela when I need her?) to be given out, I want one! I've run off all your writing blogs to put in a notebook with the musings of Michener, Woolley, and other notable men of letters. (Someday maybe I'll even start applying all the great things I've learned about writing . .. nah.) Seriously, I LOVE these blogs. Thanks so much -- and please keep them coming!

Love the contest, too. I'll enter just as soon as I see for certain that I have no chance of winning. The thought of receiving a picture of Rob in a hula skirt makes me almost as queasy as poor Sariah.

At 2/27/2007 12:31 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

Um.m.m there's a picture of Rob in his hula skirt on my web site if the losers want a consolation prize. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it since it could impact the number of visitors to my page.

At 2/27/2007 1:20 PM, Blogger FHL said...

Robison: I was just assuming you were putting all this time into writing something nice and personal in the book. Because, of course, "nice" doesn't come easy for you. =)

Kerry: Speaking of editors, which editor allowed you to get away with "and my editor won't let me get away with all of those extra punctuation marks, so you'll just have to imagine them" ?!?

At 2/27/2007 2:47 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

FHL: The same one who let me take an oh-so-satisfying swipe at Jeff. :-) I simply love that lady.

At 2/27/2007 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd rather be hit by a car, I thought as I stood with the other girls on the sidelines of the gym, under the long, horizontal strips of windows set high in the wall. Entering the gym had been like going to the hot place. Either the heaters were going full blast, or my cheeks were burning with the intensity of napalm. First day of junior high, first day of gym class ... and first day of realizing that boys looking for a square dance partner pretended not to notice me. Nobody except yours truly had started sweating yet. All the girls to the right and left were soon led away in clouds of flowery deodorant and citrus-y, minty shower gel smells by handsome and coordinated young men. A broken leg would be less humiliating, I thought, than watching the four remaining boys jostle each other in order to escape the worst fate of all -- having to pick me.

Melanie Goldmund

At 3/01/2007 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I completely botched the assignment with my earlier paragraph, so I'm trying again.

As soon as we entered Jürgen's so-called summer house, I wanted to fling open all the doors and windows. I only refrained because we would have frozen to death in about five minutes. The house was one hundred meters from the shore of the Baltic Sea, and the icy wind was racing straight across the water. I told myself firmly that nobody had ever died from a stench, and continued in. Because Jürgen had just been out walking with his Irish Setter, the smell of wet dog was combining with the usual mixture of cigarettes and smoke from the wood-burning stove. Jürgen's wife opened the door of the stove to shove in another log, releasing the roar and crackle of the fire, then straightened up to smile and shake our hands. Jürgen kissed my cheek as well, and I waited until he wasn't looking before I rubbed at it.

At 3/01/2007 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment number eleven was by me, Melanie Goldmund, by the way.


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