Monday, October 28, 2019

Details make the scene

Q: They say it’s all in the details. When you’re writing a scene, how much needs to be told?

-from Susan

Readers need to know enough to sense it, to vicariously experience it. But if there’s too much telling, they won’t stay in the scene, they’ll be watching it from the distance on the page. So, enough description of place so they can visualize the physical setting: a gleaming kitchen or a rundown porch, city street or suburban lawn, abandoned quarry or wood-paneled courtroom, quiet interior of a car or noisy bar.
The details that pull the reader deeper into the scene are conveyed through the senses. Does that kitchen smell like just-baked cookies or disinfectant? Is the city street well lighted or disturbingly dark? Is the quarry landscape warm and sunny and can the characters hear birds singing in the trees? Is the courtroom overly chilled by air-conditioning that makes the protagonist shiver? Are the characters sitting in a new Mercedes convertible or 1992 Honda sedan?  The best stories don’t tell the reader these things, they make the reader feel them along with the characters in the scene. 

Some details let us nestle into the story, make us feel good: The juicy watermelon on a picnic table, the soothing sounds of ocean waves, salsa music on the radio, elegant furniture in an English manor. Other details are unsettling: the smell of rubber tires burning, the taste of cheap booze, the flickering candlelight showing in the window of an otherwise dark house. 

And, of course, the right details are critical to the story. That suburban lawn, before dawn, is covered with dew that has been disturbed by footprints. Those tires aren’t the only thing burning. The quarry is down a hill, hidden behind scrubby trees, and is filled with water that absorbs the light and could swallow a teenager pushed into it. (That quarry is the site of the climactic scene in LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY, by the way.)

One last thought: never use the kinds and amounts of detail that become, essentially, a travelogue.
I just read a book that, sadly, bored me because the story and characters were drowned in details about a place the author obviously loved – history, culture, geography, politics. Much of it could have been told within the action, but the author pulled it out time and again to wave it at the reader as if it were a travel brochure.

Ultimately, the answer is use enough detail to bring the story to life, to whet the reader’s imagination, and to seduce the reader to step into the scene you’ve created with all of her senses engaged. 


And now the BSP: Critics have praised the sense of place, the feeling of being in the French countryside with my characters, which pleases me greatly since that was my goal:


Paul D. Marks said...

I think you covered everything perfectly, Susan. So much so I think I can take the day off Friday. I'm not sure what I can add. But I'll find something. Seriously, terrific post.

eumax said...
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Susan C Shea said...

Thanks, Paul I'm just able to get online (barely - power outages) and) I'm glad you liked it. But I bet you hacve more to offer and can go deeper that I did/

Paul D. Marks said...

I'm not sure what more I could have added, Susan. But we were without power much of the week off and on so I couldn't write and put up pix of my dogs just to have something to put up. I'm sure they would have a lot to contribute, but they're on strike.