Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Can Someone Please Tell Me Where I Am?

When I was reading a book the other day, I came to a chapter that began something like this:

“Your hair looks different today,” Matt said.
“No, it’s the same as it’s been for a long time,” lead said.
“Maybe it’s something else,” he said. “So how’s that trouble you were telling me about the other day?”
Lead and Matt spend several paragraphs discussing the main problem of the book.

I’ve changed the character names and the dialog to protect the author and shorten the passage, but it was essentially what I wrote above. But before I go any farther, let me ask you a question. What is missing? It may be difficult for you to answer, since you don’t have the benefit of having read the rest of the book, but go ahead and make a guess. You don’t have to tell me if you are wrong.

Having read the book, I had already met these characters. The lead I met on page one and Matt I met in a later chapter. But Matt is not a main character. I had forgotten about this guy, so when he is reintroduced into the story with only a name, I had the feeling that these two characters are just talking to each other out in the ether.

The thing that is missing from the scene above is a sense of place. Had we remembered that this guy is the lead’s psychiatrist, we might have assumed that the scene takes place in his office, but there’s nothing that says a psychiatrist has to stay in his office. So, even if the reader remembers the characters, it is helpful to provide a sense of place. It doesn’t have to be done on the first line of a scene, but it needs to be done soon.

Watch television and you’ll see that they frequently provide a sense of place through point of view (POV) shifts. (Yes, I know that’s against the rules in novel writing, but it’s worth our consideration anyway.) These point of view shifts happen so quickly that most of the time you don’t even notice. They work like this: We reach the end of one scene in one location or the end of an commercial break and the image on the screen changes to a building or the ocean or the exterior of a plane. It may be a video clip showing people walking or it may be a still image. It doesn’t matter because we’ll probably see it for less than a second to a couple of seconds. The next shot is usually a wide shot of a room the principle characters are in. It may be of an office, or a bedroom. The dialog may have already started at this point, but we aren’t through shifting POV yet. The camera moves in to focus on the primary characters in this scene. Then as they talk, the camera will move to a close up of the individual who is speaking. If they are doing something—hanging wallpaper or whatever—the camera will move back out to show what the characters are doing. When this scene ends, we jump to the exterior of another building and repeat the process.

The main reason I mentioned the television method is because I wanted to point out that the folks in television recognize the need for a sense of place. The equivalent to this method in novel writing is when an author puts location headings at the beginning of a chapter. They might say something like, “November 8, 2:00 PM, War Room.” We assume that the reader is actually reading these tags and can drop right into what is happening. But not all readers pay much attention to these tags. For that matter, in television, there is also the risk that the viewer was off getting a cup of coffee and missed the two second exterior shot. That isn’t so bad in television, since people can usually tell from the set dressing where it is, but we don’t want novel readers turn back to find the tag when he figures out that he doesn’t know where he is.

Keep in mind that I struggle with assuming that the reader knows where we are as much or more than anyone, but when I write a scene, I try to pull in elements that remind the reader where we are. To do that, I imagine myself in that location and I look around to see what is there. If the characters are there, they won’t just be sitting there talking. They will be interacting with the scene, but what will they be doing? If you’ve read my Fiction Friday posts, you may have noticed that I will usually begin by saying where I met the character I’m talking to. This is a little like the exterior shot. I went down to Ellen’s café to talk to Sara. If you’ve read my books, you know that Ellen’s café is an expensive fine dining restaurant, with a pastry shop out front, that also has something of a family restaurant atmosphere. But I don’t need to remind you of that every time. I’m just trying to remind you. It is sufficient to begin with an image of a café. Then I will move inside.

Sara was busy with a customer when I walked in. Carla seated me at one of the tables next to the big windows.

At this point, I’m still reminding you about Ellen’s café. The fact that Carla seated me, tells you that this probably isn’t a greasy spoon.

This is also like a wide interior shot, so we’ll move closer.

Sara came over and sat down across the table from me.

Now we’ve tightened our camera to a single table in a large room.

“What’s going on?” She crossed her arms and leaned her weight on the table. “I didn’t think I’d see you for a while.”

This tightens our camera even more. If we began here, we wouldn’t know where this table is. One way to help the reader with this is to provide details within the right shot that remind him.

I opened one of the sweetener packets with “Main Street Café and Pastry Shop” printed on the side and poured it in my empty cup.

“Do you want more coffee?” Sara asked. “I’ll go get a pot.”

“No, that’s alright. It looks like Carla’s bringing a pot around.”

“So why are you here?” Sara asked.

That brief interlude in the topic of conversation expands the camera for a moment, reminding us that there are other people around doing other things and that we are sitting in Ellen’s café. We can then tighten the camera again and go on with the details of why I visited on that particular day.

The details are important and if we do it right, we can give our readers a sense of place without the wider shots. In some cases, that’s exactly what we want to do because we don’t want to risk the reader seeing something that reveals what we aren’t ready to reveal. Consider the following:

Ann opened her eyes, but she could see nothing, only black. She looked into it, thinking she should be able to see something, but her eyes couldn’t focus. She felt the hard surface beneath her pressing against her spine. It hurt, like she had lain there for hours. Her left shoulder bumped against something hard and flat. She moved the other way and felt the same thing. She lifted her hands, still bound by rope and felt rough wood above her. She extended her toes, thinking she could find the end of her enclosure. Her legs felt them stop, but she couldn’t feel what they touched. She couldn’t tell if she was wearing shoes or barefoot. The rope had cut off the circulation, she told herself, but then a sense of panic overwhelmed her as she began to wonder if her captors had cut off her feet.

Here we can’t use a wide shot because there is nothing but the interior of a small wooden box. We don’t know if this box is in a vehicle, or underground or out in the open, but it still gives us a sense of place.

I don’t have all the answers by any means, but I do know that we need to be careful about assuming that our reader knows where we are. We must provide a sense of place or our reader won’t be able to form an imagine in his head and he won’t care what the characters are saying to each other. Having written this, I much now go off and see how many times I’ve made this mistake in my manuscript.