Friday, March 08, 2019

Getting ‘Lost’ In a Scene . . . The Right Way

By Victoria Landis, @victorialandis1

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Setting the scene is more than simply a line that says where a scene takes place. Today, Victoria Landis takes the podium to share some tips on how to give a sense of place to your scenes. 

Victoria Landis is a professional writer, editor, and artist. A 16-yr member, and former board member, of Mystery Writers of America, she Co-Chaired the SleuthFest Writers Conference from 2015-2018. She's taught at SleuthFest, the Authors Academy at Murder on the Beach, and the Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern. Her suspense novel, Blinke It Away, set on Oahu—where she lived for twelve years—was chosen as a Reviewer's Pick on Her newest novel, Jordan, is a thriller with a magical realism/paranormal element and a cautionary tale of human nature and how it hasn’t changed in thousands of years.

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Take it away Victoria…

Victoria Landis
No doubt you’ve read a scene in a novel where the character is in a building—of any sort—and you simply cannot figure out where they are? You can’t see it in your head as you’re reading? Or, it feels like the character is in an empty shell—you’ve got no inkling of the feeling of the place? Don’t know if it’s warm and cozy like Grandma’s house or cold and stark like a minimalist’s place?

It’s not your fault.

When that happens to me, I get so frustrated that I tend to skim the scene. All those wonderful words and actions the author so wanted me to absorb? Whisked by ‘em. Zoomed over. Gone. I’m onto the next part that, hopefully, won’t confuse or bore me.

The author committed a terrible sin and allowed me, the reader, to escape from their clutches and take myself out of their story.

As the writer, you see it in perfect detail. You know the floor plan. The flowered sofa with Grandma’s doilies faces the old brick fireplace. Several bedrooms are off the hallway. You know the furniture and paint color inside each of them and which has the balcony overlooking the garden. It’s all clear as can be to you.

But the reader is not in your head. It will never be that way to them. If you describe all the detail you see in your scenes, your book would be a thousand pages, and no one—probably not even your mother—would read the whole thing. So what do you do?

(Here's more on how much you need to describe your setting)

The challenge is to provide enough description that the reader will accurately navigate with your characters as they move through a space, as well as a few, well-chosen additional details that help with mood and character traits. Readers will take that and imagine the rest their own way.

There are two types of interiors when it comes to writing. One is the familiar place—a character’s home, office, frequent hang-out, etc. The other is the one-off—a place the character has never been. The frequented places warrant fuller descriptions, but don’t dump a ton of detail into first mentions. You’ll want to add more gradually. Describing the one-offs depends on how they’re used in the book.

For the frequented places, begin with the basics. Janet Evanovich does a good job with that. As Stephanie Plum approaches her parents’ house in the Burg, she describes the neighborhood, then the house—its type and basic layout. When she enters the home, there’s a few more telling details. In the sequels, she adds more where necessary to create a mood or flesh out the parents’ personalities. In each book, she briefly retells those basics in a different way—enough for a new reader, but not enough to bore the returning fan.

(Here's more on if you're choosing the right details to add to your story)

From High Five (the 5th in the series):
My parents live a couple blocks behind St. Francis on Roosevelt Street. Their house is a duplex built at a time when families only needed one bathroom and dishes were washed by hand.
An added detail for her 5th book:
My mother rolled her eyes and ushered me into the kitchen. “Have a cookie,” she said, setting the cookie jar on the small Formica-topped kitchen table.
When you read ‘Formica-topped kitchen table’, what did you see? I saw a blue-speckled, shiny laminate surface with some scratches and faded areas, rimmed by chrome and standing on skinny chrome legs. I saw a napkin holder and salt and pepper shakers. She didn’t need to tell me about those or the chrome. Evanovich may well see it as a red Formica, but that doesn’t matter. With a few words, she created a complete atmosphere/setting for the kitchen that my mind instantly filled in—because of that table. Her brief introduction of the house gave me enough to understand and see the table not as in pristine shape, but one that was well-used.

Being in the head (POV) of a character that isn’t familiar with the setting can be a good way to get a description in.

(Here's are three things to consider when writing descriptions)

Imagine this setting:
Celine gawked at the wide entry hall, nearly losing her balance as she gazed up to the twenty-some-odd-foot gilded ceiling. White French doors on the right opened to a formal dining room, while an arch with intricate moldings beckoned visitors into a living room on the left.
Pretty easy, right? I’ll bet you put a chandelier of some sort in that entry hall when you pictured it. You saw the dining room table and the living room furniture, didn’t you? Pepper in more as needed to add to the atmosphere or character reveal. Add Celine’s reaction to the place to show more about her. She might think it’s ostentatious as hell, or she may be in awe and loving the luxury of it.

As for the infrequent locations, it depends. If the location will be used later in an action scene, try your best to introduce it a bit in an earlier scene. It’s difficult enough to write a smooth action/chase scene without having to describe all that they’re running through/fighting in at the same time.

For example, a visit to the costume warehouse to interview the office manager allows an image to be already present in the reader’s mind. Such as:
I approached the concrete building’s front entrance—a single tempered-glass door and no windows. Inside, a short, pea-green painted hall led to an open space with four banged-up desks, a copy machine, and a water cooler. On top of a row of tall gray file cabinets, two box fans blew the stale air around.
From a metal door in the middle of the back wall, a young woman emerged.
And so on. I’d have the woman give the character a quick tour through the warehouse as well. Later, if there’s a chase through the building or a fight scene, it’s easier to write because the reader already knows the layout. Also, in the example above, did I have to say there were bare fluorescent lamps hanging from the ceiling? There were dust motes blown about as well?

If the location is a minor aspect and only to be visited the once, keep it simple. Add a telling detail or two, and we’re good. Such as:
Despite the open window, the tiny bedroom reeked of pot smoke. A stained bare mattress occupied most the floor space, and a tattered blanket lay on the chair under the window.
Unless our character has a reason, we don’t really care which wall the window is in. If they have to go into the room and look for something, we already know they’ll have to step carefully.

Sometimes, a location becomes almost a character in itself. For my new novel Jordan, the Boca Raton estate of the uber-rich Teigh brothers is one of those settings. It was important to relay the level of incredible opulence the family enjoyed, because it was so beyond what many can imagine. There were more details, but not to the point the reader began to skip forward.

I hope this helps with your interior descriptions. Thank you for reading!

About Jordan

When Petra Simmons and her brother, Andy, help a seemingly homeless young woman, it immediately changes their lives forever. Within days, it’s clear the woman, Jordan Crissman, possesses an amazing ability—perhaps the most miraculous ability of all.

They realize in the current world of viral social media, they must be careful. How best to employ the miracle without causing havoc? They plot a strategy.

Despite their plans, word gets out too fast, and the world comes running—invading and overwhelming South Florida—along with serious danger.

Television talking TV heads pontificate. Pundits opine. Some claim she’s a messiah. Others insist she’s the devil. Massive crowds gather, demanding to see Jordan. Everyone wants her. There seems to be nowhere to hide. Horrible rumors take hold. Protest groups march and riot. Mass hysteria reigns.

And people are dying.

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  1. Wonderful post, Victoria - appreciate the share!

    I'm glad you mentioned the availability of 'stacking' information about a room or scene, either through one book or a series.

    One thing that bugs me as a reader is the practice of every scene being presented in the same way, sometimes even in the same order of description.

    As you say, give the reader what they need for imagining the scene, but each scene should be different, with different 'important' identifiers, and presented in ways that support those differences.

    Nothing quite like figuring out a writer's 'tell' in scene descriptions, and then, to the detriment of the story, reading through that same presentation. In such a case, I will quickly learn to scan descriptions, as it will seem that nothing new is being framed.

    Must go check out your book now -- sounds great!

    1. Thank you for reading it! Yeah, I don't know why, but some writers neglect that part. Maybe it is because they 'see' it so clearly, they forget that we don't? Or can't?

  2. This is so helpful! I love the examples you give and you are right - you want to add just enough detail as a writer to evoke a sense of where the reader is in the book.

  3. Thank you. I could have written pages more about the subject, but no one would read that much. I love it when I can 'see' the scene in my head while reading.