The Place is More Than Scenery

I am pleased to welcome Malcolm R. Campbell as a guest on this blog. Not only has he left myriad thoughtful comments on my posts, he has written one of my favorite books, a delightful mystery called Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. Though Jock Stewart is a throwback to the Hollywood’s film noir reporters, Campbell’s delight in words and wordplay shows through the hardbitten shell, and the novel has a gleeful undertone. If you are searching for a Christmas gift for a booklover, look no further.  You don’t have to take my word that this is a wonderful book, you can see for yourself. Click here to read: an excerpt, or the first chapter, or download 35% free at Smashwords. About scenery, Campbell writes:

“The breakout novelist does not merely set a scene; she unveils a unique place, one resonant with a sense of time, woven through with social threads and full of destinies the universe has in store for us all. She does not merely describe a setting, she builds a world. She then sets her characters free in that world to experience all it has to offer.” –Donald Maass, “Writing the Breakout Novel”

In his 1974 classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Pirsig said that he disliked traveling across country by car because the world outside the windows was too much like television. Pirsig preferred a motorcycle because it placed him solidly within the place as an engaged participant rather than a passive observer.

Young writers often focus on plot and characters, viewing the setting’s importance as minimal, a dated nineteenth century writing technique or filler to be skipped over in a modern novel. Their resulting fiction resembles a cheaply drawn animated film with talking characters in the foreground and sequence of meaningless doors, trees, and buildings scrolling past in an endless loop in the background—like the Pirsig’s unimportant scenery outside a car window.

Maass writes that “In the twenty-first century, we may have less patience for scenery, but we certainly expect a novel to show us the world as a vital force in which the characters move.”  The reality of this vital world is built on specific detail that goes beyond unsupported assertions such as “a grand old house” or “a lovely meadow” to the very heart of the place the characters willingly or unwillingly find themselves.

Place, like everything else in a story, is filtered through the character’s point of view. This makes it an interactive tool that engages all of the senses. It facilitates the creation of three-dimensional characters, a harmonious or counterpoint tone and mood, and a dynamic plot and action. Readers see, hear, touch, taste and feel only what the character perceives and believes about places. One character sees the forest as random trees, another knows their names. One character sees house as structures, another notices architectural styles. One character running from a pursuer finds a random boat and causes it to founder, another understands how to escape in it.

Detail supports assertions about the place, bringing an otherwise vague setting into three-dimensional authenticity. What–within the POV character’s knowledge and experience–makes the house grand and the meadow lovely? Symbolically, psychologically or empirically, place always tells the reader something about the character, plot and theme.

It’s a barometer indicating a character’s circumstances and attitude. For example, a snow-covered path is exciting during a sleigh ride but grim when one is lost in the woods. Frightened characters experience dark houses differently than confident characters. Same woods, same houses, different interpretations.

When place is utilized as a vital component in fiction, the characters experience, interpret and interact with settings like men or women on motorcycles rather than bored kids staring out the window of a car on a family vacation. Whether authors write about clean, well-lighted places or dank, dimly lit places, they’re not showing readers random backdrops. They’re showing worlds that mirror the characters’ moods and circumstances, worlds those characters must often navigate or fail to navigate en route to the climax of the story.

When readers hear the oak falling in the forest, feel the harsh limestone cliff below a mountain’s summit, and smell the dank stink of Cyprus swamp, then the setting has been well conjured, the spell properly cast, and the magic of enchantment into an imaginary world has been accomplished. At this moment, the novel’s world is more real than the reader’s comfortable chair.

See also: Pat Bertram and Malcolm R. Campbell Discuss the Writer’s Journey

11 Responses to “The Place is More Than Scenery”

  1. Deborah J Ledford Says:

    What a great article, Malcolm. Detailing visuals are so important in order to really take the reader where we as writers want to place them, not only physically, but emotionally. I love your term “interactive tool.” Having our characters take chances in unique and challenging locations makes for a riveting read–the key is to provide enough information (as well as implement all the senses) so that the reader is complely immersed in the journey along with these characters.

  2. Chester Campbell Says:

    The talent to make a scene come alive without indulging in a checklist of boring descriptions is to be coveted. Thanks for giving us this insight into the power of place.

  3. joylene Says:

    I loved “Zen and the Art…” Thank you for bringing that book to mind and for helping me over a difficult scene I just happen to be working on. This was a great post, Malcolm. Thank you, Pat.

  4. knightofswords Says:

    Thank you, Deborah. Thinking of your use of the Smoky Mountains in your novel, I wondered how I would perceive place (as I read) had I never been there. I saw the mountains one way as a child on family vacations and another way as an adult, and each time the place wasn’t external to myself but reflected how I felt.


  5. knightofswords Says:

    I’m often embarrassed, Chester, when I write something in a hurry–especially a blog post or an e-mail–and see that I’ve used a boring description that does sound like it came off a checklist. I think, well fooey, that sounds like it came out of a guidebook rather than a novel.


  6. knightofswords Says:

    Joylene, Pirsig’s views inadvertently came through to me in a strong way because I took his book to read on the train between Minneapolis and Glacier Park, Montana. I was taking a route west similar to his route, staring at scenery outside the window with about as much interaction as folks seeing it out a car window. The world outside the windows of the Empire Builder was a very real illustration of his point of view.


  7. Pat Bertram Says:

    Malcolm, good article! Thank you very much for such a great guest article. I especially appreciate the reminder: “What–-within the POV character’s knowledge and experience–-makes the house grand and the meadow lovely?” It’s too easy to describe a scene as anyone could see it; so much more difficult yet more vibrant to show a scene as a particular character would see it.

  8. knightofswords Says:

    Thank you bylines333 and Pat. One of my favorite writing books, Eastman’s “Style: Writing as a Discovery of Outlook” hammers this point home. Assertions are fine, but many of them need to be backed up with detail.


  9. Judith Mercado Says:

    Thank you, Malcolm, both for the reminder that description is still important and also how to make it effective.
    You say, “It’s a barometer indicating a character’s circumstances and attitude.” So true. I will use your guideline as I review my writing. I have a tendency to cut, cut, cut, especially description, but this is a welcome reminder that it still plays an important role, if handled effectively.

  10. knightofswords Says:

    Judith, maybe you can keep just a little bit of that description that ends up on the cutting room floor. 🙂

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