Saturday, November 15, 2008

Setting: Yet Another Consideration


Kevin Deegan-Krause reading.

I think setting a scene properly is a difficult thing to learn for someone who's only written short stories for 10 years. A few brief sentences is all there is room for in a short. In fact, I often excise lengthy atmospheric scenes to make room for character or plot. But in a novel, setting the scene can be critical.

Here's a nice piece of writing by Elizabeth Hand in GENERATION LOSS, which happens to be the book I'm reading just now.

...The steps were half rotted, and a naked hundred-watt bulb made ominous spitting sounds when I switched it on. Plaster flaked from the walls, exposing wooden lathes and clumps of horsehair. I heard scrabbling in the shadows as I walked around. Dirt floor, stone foundation; exposed beams curlicued with wormholes. Cobwebs covered shelves of old bottles and rusted tools. An oil drum served as a trash bin....

This is just enough detail to give the reader a feeling of dread without overdoing it. What writers do this best for you? Certainly Daniel Woodrell springs to mind. You can pick up Winter's Bone, turn to any page and find a scene-setting paragraph that pulls you right into it. Try it.

9 comments:

Scott Parker said...

I just posted a comment over at Bill Crider's blog about Michael Chabon. I do think he's a great writer and his prose and word choice sets up a scene very well. I appreciate those old-school pulp writers who can set the scene with few words: Chandler, Cain. I'm long-winded so I use 100 words or more to set the scene that Chandler, Cain, or Leonard take only fifty words to set the same scene. It's a talent.

Lisa said...

I think Marilynne Robinson is masterful with setting. It's funny though that in thinking about my own fiction writing, I've started to think that I focus on it too much. It's fun to write and it feels...artful sometimes. But then when I think about the novels I seem to most enjoy, I realize that the writing is really quite spare. I'm having an identity crisis, I think.

pattinase (abbott) said...

BOth Chabon and Robinson are outstanding. Love Housekeeping especially. Spare writing is "in" now, but it wasn't always. Does it jive with our short attention spans?

Anonymous said...

I'm still a big fan of the writing style of the late Alf Wight, a Scottish veterinarian, who practiced in England, and used the pen name James Herriot.

No murder,mayhem or vampires but the way he could set me on the edge of my seat over the possible death of an ailing cow was incredible.

I also think the early works of Joseph Wambaugh were brilliant in setting scenes and fleshing out characters in very few words.


John McAuley

pattinase (abbott) said...

Herriot knew how to touch the heart, didn't he, through his settings. He really took you into the English countryside. Ballykissangel captures some of that feel.
Wambaugh still cranks out a pretty great novel (Hollywood Station).

John McFetridge said...

Part of the problem for me is when the scene is 'set' and then the action follows instead of it being integrated into the scene.

Also it depends on how familiar the setting it is. I'm re-reading Alice Munro short stories these days and there is almost no descriptions of settings seperate from what the peope are doing in them. Maybe because the settings are all very familiar to me. Like this:

"I had a one room apartment with a kitchenette in an old building at a corner called the Dardanelles. The bed folded up into the wall. But I did not usually bother to fold it up because I never had any company. And the hook seemed unsafe to me. I was afriad the bed might leap out of the wall sometimes when I was eating my tinned soup or baked-potato supper. It might kill me."

There's so much information about the setting and the character packed into that paragraph. I don't think it really makes a difference if it's a short story or a novel.

I hate to use a stupid biz-speak word, but maybe stories these days need to have more than one thing shown at a time - character and setting, plot and theme - not because we have short attention spans but because we... multi-task. (okay, I can't believe I said that).

pattinase (abbott) said...

That is such a cool passage because it does double duty. I had never thought of that. Terrific.
I do like Alice Munro's early stories better. They felt more organic, coming out of childhood memories rather than adult observation. Who can beat the ones with the fox raising, Dad set in Ontario?

Barbara Martin said...

A writer I find that sets scenes well is Wilbur Smith.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A new author for me. I'll check him out.