I had an intriguing email conversation with a new acquaintance, a young man I met through PNWA at the recent conference. He was struggling in his writing group, trying to get a handle on the showing vs. telling aspect of writing. As he writes mysteries, the setting and environment of certain scenes are quite important.
I suggested he view the scene through his protagonist’s eyes.
Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary to the story. In creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. He said this with regard to the settings for his plays, but in terms of writing, what this means is that if your characters notice a gun on the wall, someone must fire that gun, or it should be removed from the scene.
It was a neighborhood Dionte was unfamiliar with. Just as he entered Tyrone’s gate, his phone dinged, a text from Ty. He’d had to leave for a minute, but Dionte should go on in and wait in the kitchen. Both men were on the board of the Community Action Council, but he didn’t know Tyrone well, and wondered where he’d been called off to.
What does Dionte see, and how does it register in his awareness?
He went up the walk, climbing the worn steps of the front porch. Feeling odd at entering the home of a casual acquaintance when he wasn’t there, Dionte reached for the knob and turned it. The door swung open, and entering the small sitting room, he was overwhelmed by the amount of clutter.
Tyrone had no TV that Dionte could see, but most of the furniture in the room was buried under stacks of newspapers and piles of laundry. His computer was partially hidden behind a stack of library books and a coffee cup, half full, sat atop them. A plate with a slice of toast sat beside the keyboard as if Ty had left in the middle of his breakfast.
Feeling claustrophobic, Dionte found the path to the kitchen, unsure now what sort of mess awaited him in there. To his surprise, the kitchen was immaculate.
The incongruity of the pristine kitchen contrasting with the clutter of Tyrone’s living room is all noted mentally. Each thing on our character’s path into and through Ty’s home is an image that registers in Dionte’s consciousness briefly, but is not mentioned again.
Tyrone had said there might be a serious problem, but wanted Dionte’s take on it before he brought it up at a meeting. Wondering what it could be, Dionte sat at the table, looking at the clock on the stove, seeing it was 11:15. He’d gotten the text only a few minutes before. Tyrone had to have been called to somewhere close by, as he’d left his house unlocked. He hadn’t passed Dionte in the front, so he must have left through the back.
The sound of someone coming up the back steps caught his attention, and his eyes were drawn to the screen door.
It’s a murder mystery, so who was approaching? What happened next? And why is the toast by the computer important?
Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This scene could be set several ways, and here are two, one less wordy than the other.
Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.
He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.
Either way works, but personally, I would go with the second.
In 1982 I picked up Pawn of Prophecy by the late David Eddings. This was an amazing, eye-opening book for me, both as a reader and an author. Eddings had the ability to convey a sense of place in a few well-chosen words. He put those words into beautiful, poetic prose. The book opens in the kitchen of a farmhouse with Garion’s memories of playing under the table in a kitchen as a small child.
Garion’s earliest memories are of being a toddler: the sound of knives deftly dicing vegetables, his aunt keeping him corralled and happy under the table while she works, the sparkle of the gleaming pots and kettles high on the wall lulling him to nap.
“And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off to sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.”
Later, when Garion has been completely uprooted, this passage becomes important, as it describes the place he thinks of as home. In that paragraph, we see the important things in the room, and we have a visual image of it. The child’s sense of contentment and safety that the kitchen represented is conveyed by the impressions of the kitchen instead of the image of it. The detail supports the story rather than impeding it.
The scenery in the narrative must be organic. It has to be purposeful and not just there to fill the space. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions. We see it only when it needs to be there. Sometimes we see it through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist set in the scene as described by a narrator, but everything we see must be a part of the characters’ experience.