Monday, January 26, 2015

More on description and setting

On my last post about describing a setting, where I suggested having a character interact with the setting, Mary Catelli left this comment (for which I hereby thank her):

"Eh, only if you include 'notice' among 'interact.'
Got a work in which every time a character walks past a flowerbed, he notices what flowers are blooming, and whether they used wizardry to keep them blooming at the same time, and whether the plants need dead-heading. Never touches, but he notices.
Some characters, of course, will notice things only when they are actually using them. But the point-of-view will determine what gets described."

And I was excited enough by these ideas that I decided to just do another blog post, continuing this topic.

Yes, in this context I would agree that "interact" includes "notice." I would even include situations where the sight (or smell, or sound, etc.) of something in the setting triggers a memory, decision, emotion, etc. The interaction need not be a physical activity. I think what's important is that this aspect of the setting becomes more interesting because of its involvement in the plot or characterization (or both); it becomes charged with meaning.

Of course, this all reflects my personal preference, too, as both reader and writer. I tend to shy away from paragraphs like this one:

"The wallpaper was green with beige stripes. In the far corner sat a wooden chair with a cushion seat of forest green. Next to the chair stood an end table with crooked legs; it held a deck of cards, a heavy glass ashtray, and a large lamp with a dusty shade ..."

I could give these lines to twenty different writers and ask them to put a character into this scene, a character who would interact with these objects and have opinions about them and reveal things about him/herself in doing so. And I would get twenty different scenes, all of them  more interesting than my original wording.

As pointed out by Mary Catelli, the character might not even need to touch any of the objects to interact with them. The character could "notice" them by remembering how his late grandfather always sat in that chair, or by longing for a cigarette at the sight of the ashtray, or by judging the room's owner for not fixing the table legs, or by planning to hit someone over the head with the lamp, and so on.

The one way I probably wouldn't incorporate "noticing" would be by just tacking it on to the scene, like so:

"John noticed that the wallpaper was green with beige stripes. In the far corner sat a wooden chair with a cushion seat of forest green. Next to the chair stood an end table with crooked legs; it held a deck of cards, a heavy glass ashtray, and a large lamp with a dusty shade ..."

However, as Mary Catelli also noted, sometimes the particular objects a character focuses on tell us something important. So, I actually could use the above "John noticed" lines if the objects he's noticing are very important to the story, if there's a reason he's noticing them among everything else in the room. But if they're just background, I wouldn't bother to describe them in such detail, because then that just becomes an inventory, and not too interesting.

2 comments:

  1. The interesting thing is when different characters notice different things about the same setting, and the differences in what they notice tell us something interesting about the characters.

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