Advanced Fiction Writing Lesson #5: Setting, Theme, Detail, Research
Tonight’s lesson was relatively easy, in a way. Generally about setting and how it sets the mood and helps the theme along. And what helps the setting along is use of detail and doing your research. I have declared myself to be the Queen of Research. Not really. I just alwys need a realistic standpoint to come from, so I’ll look something up in a hot second.
So back to setting and detail– it’s something I think I am pretty good at, but not offhand and not all the time. And sometimes some well known authors irk their readers with overuse of descriptionary (is that a word? Is now) terms. I was just talking with a classmate about this and said that my mom cannot STAND to read Toni Morrison. She says she doesn’t want to read about all the hues of the flowers in bloom— get to the darn story!! I think a well written story, novel, memoir, is one that tells you just enough to paint the picture, and no more. I personally like to leave a little mystery.
The exercice in the lesson was to take a briefly described setting and keep adding to it and keep adding to it until you have a well fleshed out scene, for example (courtesy Steve Alcorn, Advanced Fiction Writing):
There was a path through the trees and into some bushes.
Now more specific:
There was a path through the trees and into a clump of bracken and spruce.
Let’s create action, even in the inanimate:
A path wound among the trees and into a clump of bracken and spruce.
We’ll add adjectives that convey mood:
A path of matted pine needles wound among the trees and into a shadowy clump of bracken and snow-laden spruce.
Let’s explore the other senses:
A path of matted pine needles wound among the trees and into a shadowy clump of bracken and snow-laden spruce. An icy wind carried the sharp tang of pine and the damp decay of the forest floor.
Add the potential for change over time:
A path of matted pine needles wound among the trees and into a shadowy clump of bracken and snow-laden spruce. An icy wind carried the sharp tang of pine and the damp decay of the forest floor. The swaying of the tallest pines indicated a change in the weather and more snow to come.
Use active verbs:
A path of matted pine needles wound among the trees. Fifty feet into the forest it disappeared into a shadowy clump of bracken and snow-laden spruce. An icy wind carried the sharp tang of pine and the damp decay of the forest floor. The tops of the tallest pines whispered of a change in the weather and more snow to come.
Finally, place your protagonist in the scene, and show it through his or her senses:
From her vantage at the edge of the forest, she could see the path of matted pine needles winding among the trees. Fifty feet in, it disappeared into a shadowy clump of bracken and snow-laden spruce. The icy wind reddened her cheeks, carrying the sharp tang of pine and something earthy, maybe the damp decay of the forest floor. High above, the wind swayed the tops of the tallest pines, whispering of a change in the weather and more snow to come.
The resulting paragraph is a little wordier than I would write, but a marked improvement. I don’t think I really struggle with detail and setting when writing, though I like to be aware of techniques in case I get stuck.
So the assignment was to write a few sentences describing something and then add to it to create a fully fleshed out description. I used the opening scene from my LifeTime Movie Drama Challenge piece, The Nanny, so anyone who reads this blog who is part of that challenge should STOP READING! :) because this story isn’t due till August.
Here we gooooo…
Eastside Hospital for the Mentally Unstable loomed more like a prison than a hospital. Drab, grey walls. Long, forlorn hallways were dotted with doors that always remained shut. But she could hear the moans and screams and guttural cursing and, if she listened closely, the bargains with God or the devil. Or both. Dim bulbs flickered inside bug encrusted light fixtures. The linoleum floor was mopped everyday but was still dull and caked with layers of wax, the dirt ground deep into the tiles, so deep that no matter how often the floors were mopped, they still looked dirty.
Amber thought it was kind of a metaphor. No matter how you dressed her up, or how many pills the nurses and doctors shoved down her throat, she was still dirty—ill, crazy, off her rocker, not all there. Whatever the popular term was, these days, for mentally ill. The windows had bars. She thought it was cliché, before being admitted to an actual mental hospital, but there they were. Thick, black, iron bars on every window, and sometimes the beds had bars, along the side. And if someone couldn’t maintain control, or threatened to kill themselves, they tied them up and strapped them in bed, leaving them to pull and twist in vain. That was torture.
Amber didn’t like that.
Amber McBride didn’t like much of anything, namely to be back in this place, and thankfully, it was not to stay. The five years since she’d last been a patient had been tumultuous and dramatic and a personal struggle. Sometimes she felt every second and sometimes the time seemed to float by. No matter, five years had passed since her involuntary stay. Since she had to be secured to a bed, flailing and gnashing at the worn leather straps. Since she had been held prisoner in one of those cold, grey, unsympathetic boxes along a long hallway, with bars on the windows and a steel door with an opening only large enough for a smudged plate of square glass as her only connection to the outside world.
Amber shivered, but wasn’t cold. “Let’s get this over with,” she mumbled to herself.