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

On Writing: Rocks, Rocks, and More Rocks

There are no bad drivers on the road. All drivers consider themselves to be good drivers, because whatever skill they possess — fast driving, adhering to all traffic rules, weaving in and out of traffic — that is their measure of a good driver. Writing is the same. We use our own skills to determine what is or is not good writing, hence we are all good writers. But some skills supersede opinion: the basic elements of story telling, for example.

The granddaddy of all story elements is conflict. Without conflict you have a story statement, you have a description, you have meaningless dialogue. What you don’t have is a story.

Because of the contests I have been involved with, I have been privileged to read the first chapters of many books by new authors. I’m sorry to say that most of them couldn’t hold my interest. Perhaps reading a chapter or two is not a fair way to test a book, but it is the only way. As readers, we need a book to capture our interest at the beginning then give us a stake in the story and its outcome so that we continue reading. Otherwise, we put the book aside and forget to come back to it.

Most of the new writers offered rebuttals, trying to prove me wrong. To them, their first chapter was important: it set the scene, it introduced the characters, it gave vital information. Perhaps that is all true, but to me, as a reader, the chapter was meaningless. I didn’t know the characters, didn’t care about them, developed no interest in them because there was no conflict. Unless characters want or need something, have something they care about, we don’t care. And if the characters get what they want or need without working for it, we don’t care, either.

Even if your first chapter has no other purpose than to set up the story or to introduce characters, it still must have conflict. According to Donald Maass, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, there should be some conflict on every page. Sometimes authors use arguments between characters to show that conflict, but unless the argument changes the character in some way, no matter how small, the argument comes across as verbiage. If the argument is important to the book, then make it important by tying it to the characters needs and wants or move it to a less crucial part of the book.

One author described a story as getting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at it, then getting it down.

So do yourself and us readers a favor. Get your character up in that tree in the first chapter and throw a rock at it. Then we’ll read further to find out what happens next. That’s all we want. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.

Lack of good driving leads to road rage. Lack of good writing leads to reader apathy. Both conditions are dangerous.