Agnes, thank you for referring Maddi to my post about Ella Enchanted the movie. I just want to add one comment, which I make whenever I talk about the film at schools and conferences. The movie has brought many readers to the book, for which I’m exceedingly grateful – so, if any of you are producers or directors or future producers or directors, please keep in mind that I have lots of other books! Making a movie costs a great deal and you’ll need studio support, but I’ll be eager for you to succeed.
On to the post question: In September Julia wrote, I have some problems with settings. I don’t like to include big hunks of nothing but setting descriptions because they seem unnatural. But when I try to slip in details about the setting in little tidbits, (for example: She ran her fingers down the rough tree bark. She was sure they had been through here before. “Are we lost?”) there aren’t enough of them, and the reader is left feeling as though he too is lost in a hazy, half-invisible environment with a couple of rough-barked trees. Does anybody have any suggestions on making setting descriptions seem more natural, while still having enough details that the setting is clear and rich?
I agree about avoiding long chunks of nothing but setting, if you can. Crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard has offered the world his Ten Rules for Writing, which you can Google. Rule number nine is, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” And rule ten is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
You all know that I don’t approve of blanket rules. Sometimes we have to spend a lot of words on places and things, and sometimes we need to force readers to pay attention to what they might like to skim. But these rules are worth thinking about.
I’m thinking about them right now in Beloved Elodie. Our heroine has recently reached the brunkas’ Oase. (Never mind what a brunka is.) The Oase is the brunka sanctuary and museum, which is built into Ineberg Mountain. (If you speak German, get it?) Something that’s kept at the Oase has been stolen. If it isn’t recovered and the thief caught the consequences will be dire.
The first time a character encounters a new place is the best moment to show it to the reader, whose interest will be at its peak. I took advantage of this in a way I’m especially proud of when I wrote Dave at Night. This is the moment when Dave first sees the orphanage he’s going to live in:
….We turned the corner, and I saw the front of the asylum. My eyes traveled up to where a pointy tower rose, like a witch’s hat, three stories above the entrance. Below the tower was a clock, and on each side of the clock was a smaller pointy tower. The whole building was only four stories high in the highest part, the middle section. The rest was just three, but each story was very tall. The building wasn’t made for people. It was made for witches, with plenty of room for their hats.
Too bad I can’t do something similar for Elodie. When she goes into the great hall at the Oase, the chamber is dark compared to the outside daylight, and it’s smoky compared to anything but a chimney, and I’m writing in first person, so the reader can’t sense anything she can’t sense. What’s more, the reader’s interest in the setting, while high, is much less than his worry about her danger from the thief and his curiosity about the people in this new place. It’s a moment of high tension and I can’t be long-winded.
What I did was write a short paragraph about the little she can see and a sentence about what she hears and moved on. A few pages later, when her eyes adjust to the dimness I added another paragraph of description but only one, because the scene is still pretty tense.
Tension is what we all want most of the time. Any kind of tension, not necessarily action tension as in a battle scene. Can be interpersonal tension, like when Phillippa and Wes are arguing, or psychological tension as when Phillippa faces the examiners who can expel her from her interstellar exploration program. Or any other kind of tension. But tension makes it hard to insert description. Phillippa enters the exam room. We need to show the room to the reader but we don’t want the suspense to dissipate.
Details that heighten the worry are great. The room is torrid, and Phillippa doesn’t know how she’s going to keep the beads of sweat from running down her nose or how she’s going to concentrate while she’s melting. The examiners are on a dais, which makes her feel like a child, and she has to crank her neck to look at them. The huge windows behind the examiners turn them into black shadows that she can hardly make out because the sun is in her eyes.
But if we want to tell the reader that the room is rectangular and the ceilings are high, we simply may not be able to. We may have to leave those elements to his imagination. You can let him know that the desk is made of oak if a former examinee has carved a warning into the wood grain, maybe something like, “Watch their teeth.”
In my book, Elodie is about to be taken to her room at the Oase. I haven’t yet had a chance to make the great hall come to life, but I figure I can do something with the corridor on her way to her room, so I’m wondering what she can see or smell or feel that will knock her medieval socks off. Since the Oase is in a mountain and I love caves, I’m thinking rock formations. The point is, when you can, make a detail striking. Make it leave an impression on the reader’s mind.
In the forest example that Julia gives, the tension is in the question, “Are we lost?” That question will likely awaken setting curiosity in the reader, because being lost requires a place to be lost in – the writer’s opportunity. Now we can look around. What kind of trees are in our main character’s destination? What kind have we got here? What’s the sunlight doing? Can we tell east from west or have we lost all sense of direction? What noises are we hearing? Is anything howling? As for striking, what can distinguish this forest from the generality of woods? What can rouse the reader’s sense of wonder? The size of the leaves or their color? The enormity of the tree trunks? It doesn’t have to be anything big; the tameness of the squirrels will do, or the bright blue caterpillars.
Here are three rompts:
∙ Phillippa is playing Monopoly with two enemies who have been tormenting her at school. If she wins, the torment will stop, but if she loses, they’ve devised a particularly embarrassing penalty. Write the scene, and find a way to bring in a description of the setting, the bedroom of the meanest enemy.
∙ Write Phillippa’s interstellar examination from the point of view of one of her examiners. Work in a description of the setting.
∙ In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the imp is overheard by one of the queen’s messengers as the creature sings a ditty about his name. Describe the interior of Rumpelstiltskin’s cottage. Show him bustling about, in a good way or an evil way, preparing for the baby’s arrival.
Have fun, and save what you write!