Thursday, March 25, 2010

How High is Your Sky?

The horse was enormous from my point of view, with my eyes at her knee level.I looked up - way up. She was golden tan with a shaggy cream- coloured mane but she was dusty. I giggled thinking about getting grandma's dust rag to make Queenie all shiny. My mother lifted me up so I could scramble onto Queenie's back. She felt all rough and hairy like a paintbrush, on my legs. They stuck out because Queenie really was very big and very broad and I was only four. I bumped up and down trying to make her go but she didn't want to go. She wanted to stay in the shade of the chesnut tree with the breeze lazily lifting bits of her mane and ruffling the overlong yellow lawn grass. The late afternoon sun poured beams of light through spaces among the chesnut leaves. Queenie's tail made swishing sounds as it swung back and forth batting at flies. Riding the biggest horse in the whole world was boring.

Not much of a story, but it follows Jack Bickham's advice about writing settings.

Generally speaking - which you should never do when describing the setting - your description should follow the pattern we all tend to follow when we look at any scene ourselves.

The first thing we all notice is the size of the setting. Is it the broad prairie meeting the endless sky, or a hall so narrow the only way to use it is to walk sideways?

The next part of the scene we notice is colour: the blue sky, the brown prairie, the white and red polk a dot dress, the yellow scarf slumped in the watery black mud. But the sky is not simply blue. It stretches through shades of blue and maybe mauve or white as well. The prairie is not all brown. There is always a plethora of shades of brown, yellow on brown, black or red skeletons of bushes, patches of green weeds, black-brown bull rushes on faded yellow stalks, black and silver still water in a slough. Where is the light coming from - a bright sun or sun through a dull cloudy sky, moonlight or the faint beam of a flashlight?

What does a horse smell like? Or a slough? Is the polka dot dress silky? Is the scarf sheer or heavy wool?

Taste is not often used when describing a scene, but boy tramping through a field is almost bound to pick a stalk of grass to chew on so what does that taste like? If he is pushed down and gets a mouth full of mud, how would you describe it?

My scene has indicated first size, then colour, texture, movement and sound. Having never eaten a horse, describing the taste was beyond me but little details are essential and they must be accurate. The tree is a chesnut tree and the lawn grass is yellow, suggesting late summer. Therefore, there would not be any blossoms on the tree.

Interpretation by the onlooker can be important. Is that crashing through the bush your dog or a bear?

Did I need both the words lawn and grass? Is 'whole' repetitive in writing about the world?

This scene did not call for much sound, but if it did, the sounds need to be specific: loud or soft hum of insects, the startling or soothing chirp of a cricket, the low clicking sound or the low hum of a grasshopper leaping to a different stalk of grass, loud music or sound barely able to be heard issuing from a radio in the house, the silence of grandparents dozing on the porch or the squeak of the porch swing. Music swept upward in a crescendo before the conducter cut it off abruptly with a downward sweep of his baton.

Setting is a character. It has appearance, voice, touch and colour which need to be slipped among the action words of the plot.

Sometimes it is quite correct to have an omniscient voice describe the setting. This can happen only at the beginning of a chapter or section though and it is used because the onlooker is unable to describe a vast or a hidden scene from their point of view. The squall sweeps over the vast area of the sea. There is a strange white glow on the horizon, seen through the fitful breaks in the sheets of rain. The sailor sees huge wave, driven by the screaming wind, about to crash onto the deck. Once the overall scene is described by the omniscient voice, all the rest of the scenes must be described from the point of view of the onlooker.

Imagine yourself standing on a bridge. Do you need an omniscient voice to describe the parts of the valley out of sight e.g. the valley slopes down to the sea or the river becomes a cataract just around the bend.Or is it unnecessary to see the vast view? What is important to see from your point of view? Does size or colour or lack of colour matter? Is there the fragrance of blossoms or the dank odour of a cold wet place? Is it hot or cold? Do you need to say it is hot or cold or can you do so by showing someone lifting up the collar of their coat and hugging the coat closer or taking off a jacket and slinging it over their shoulder?

Maybe one way of being sure you have given the reader enough description to put them in the picture - which is exactly where the reader wants to be - is to think of written scene as video. Is there a clear picture in the background or bits and pieces on a mostly blank screen?


Karyn Good said...

Great post today, Connie. And I beg to differ, it's an excellent story!

My works-in-progess tend to be light on description of setting. Thanks for the reminder to treat the setting as a character and give it the attention it deserves :)

Vince said...

Hi Connie:

The start of your post was so real I didn’t think it was a story. I thought it was a real experience. I was disappointed when you stopped.

I know I need work on writing settings and internal descriptions. I never thought of writing a scene in the order that we notice things. I just assumed you started writing about what was going to be the most important element in the story line. It might be the smell of smoke or the sound of hoof beats in the distance. Also using landscape features to give the reader the time of day and month or season is also very economical. There must be many more things that can be conveyed with setting without ever saying them. This is very useful.

I’ve pasted this in my article file for future use. I will have to try this on my next descriptions.



Janet said...

I'll have to go through different sections of Lady Bells and see if my 'view' of the setting holds up to your very wise, very interesting post, Connie!

And for what it's worth - I loved your 'story'. Very visual, very in-depth, and flows effortlessly. Well done :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
Excellent post. I tend to be light on the description of the setting unless it's one (like the prairies) that I know very well. I know I have work to do there.

I hadn't thought about describing what my character would see first, then second, etc. What a great way to get deep into this person's POV.

And I thought your story at the beginning was wonderful! I could totally see that horse from the perspective of a child.


connie said...

Thank you for your comments on the story. It is based, more or less, on my true story.
There is a chesnut tree and my grandparents were married under it in 1895. When the farm was bought and leveled for a super highway, I happened to be driving by. I lived in Brandon then and was only in Niagara for a day. I saw that a workman was headed for the tree so I stopped in a no stopping area and ran over to ask him to spare the chesnut. As far as I know, it is still there.
I hadn't thought of setting carrying part of the story but it is true isn't it?
I walk into a small room. The wall paper is a garish red on pink. She is so proud of it. Her father, an old man, sits in a armchair that was probably green once upon a time. He tells me he has found a new way to calculate the square root of pi. He is so excited. He wants me to write a story for the front page. I have to tell him no.
Large to smaller detail to action. (By the way, it hurt to tell him no. He had so little).
There are so many good blogs here that I will have to devote a day to transfer to a file.
Any thoughts on the magic of the dagger?

connie said...

Hey Janet,
Almost time to be able to walk on the beach. Woo hoo ---whuh huh huh boo hoo. I love walking along big bodies of water and telling the gulls where it's at.

I am really wanting to read Lady Bells. Have you submitted it anywhere yet?

If I helped, I'm glad

connie said...


I agree it is hard to write about something you haven't seen. Sure as shootin', some turkey used to live right there and feel it necessary to sneer and tell you the castle faced the other way.

Some things we couldn't know about would make US sneer and say "Oh really?" To whit: palm trees grow in the small parks in the old residential part of London. Who would ever have thought it? Now we can all spread palm trees all over London with gay abandon.

I tend to write about scenes so old nobody knows what used to be. I can always say there was an earthquake and....


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Connie, I enjoyed your story. I started riding when I was 11 and our Shetland pony was still bigger than me. LOL

Excellent post. Thanks.

connie said...

Hi Anita
Unfortunately, that is about the only time I got to 'ride a horse'
and I'm kind of stuck at age 12 when horses were my big dream.
I have a fabulous chalk drawing of Big Red (Man o'War) were it is the first thing I see every morning.