Saturday, 10 December 2011

Strutting and Fretting Upon the Stage

Description and Scene Setting with Dan Holloway

You walk into the theatre, find your seat, climb over your fellow playgoers to get to it, settle in, open your naughty little bag of truffles, check your interval drinks order. The house lights go down; your heart begins to beat a little faster, the curtain rises and the stage is illuminated. You watch, initially in hope but with increasing disinterest, as stagehands manipulate sets and carry on props. Minutes drag by and there’s not an actor in sight. No-one speaks any lines, no music plays, though perhaps the lights are adjusted occasionally as the technicians test them for the forthcoming show. The show you’ve paid to see, but where is it? You’re already half way through your truffles and nothing has happened. At this rate, you’ll have fallen asleep under the influence of your interval gin long before it does. You tell yourself you’ll finish the truffles and then, unless something changes, you’ll leave.

The moral of this story? Whatever you do, avoid beginning your novel with a long passage of description.
To extend the theatrical metaphor perhaps a little further than I should, of course the scene must be set for the actors to perform, but the mechanics of this will be done largely in advance of the audience arriving and adjustments will be made discreetly, so as not to distract attention from the action of the play. The novelist should take the same approach. A novel is about character, conflict and resolution. Its stuff is that of emotional exposition and dramatic confrontation. Like plays, novels at their best offer catharsis. When all this is working, audiences scarcely notice the backdrop.

Of course, they would notice immediately if there was no backdrop at all, or if the scenery somehow failed to match the action being played out within it. The descriptive element of the novel is, therefore, as important as all its other components, but it must be managed with subtlety and discretion, so that readers only notice it when it has a contribution to make to the development of character, plot or theme. If, for example, your protagonist is a mountaineer or an interior decorator, their surroundings will be integral to their characterisation and, very possibly, to the development of your plot. If you are writing a murder mystery, detailed descriptions of the crime scene will be necessary to help both the police and the reader work out whodunit.

As a general rule, however, scene-setting should be unobtrusive. Just as, in life, our brains tend to notice and process only what they need in order for us to walk across a road without getting run over, or recognise a work colleague in a crowded canteen, or decide whether or not a particular outfit suits us, so, in fiction, you should be selective in what you describe. This will be conditioned by what will come to the notice of characters in given situations. If your heroine walks into a bar, for example, and stumbles across her husband snogging his secretary, she is unlikely to notice the bar’s decor, or the girl in the corner fixing her lipstick. She might, out of the corner of her eye, register the man in a lumberjack shirt whose gigantic paw is curled around a cocktail with an umbrella in it, because that is outside the range of conventional expectation. Mostly, however, she will be focused on the erring husband and secretary, and on the interior landscape this opens up inside her.

What do I mean by description? Obviously, it refers to what we see. We live, now, in an intensely visual culture. Images come at us from every angle, from advertising hoardings and the backs of cereal packets, from TV, video games, the cinema. Even flagship radio programmes are supported by visual imagery broadcast on websites. In the UK we are, apparently, the most photographed people in the world because of the amount of CCTV coverage of our public spaces. The world over, we use the cameras in our phones to record images of everything from baby’s first steps to the last breath of anti-government protestors in Syria or the victims of natural disasters in Haiti or Japan.

We are so overwhelmed by visual imagery that it is easy to forget that descriptive writing must include all the senses – hearing, smell, taste and touch as well as sight. Different senses take priority in different kinds of scenes, and may be used in counterpoint to one another to suggest the complexity of the sensual world. If, for example, you give a visual description of a rural idyll – a meadow full of wild flowers, cattle drinking at a stream, blue sky, birdsong – but then add the pungent aroma of a rotting sheep carcass, you immediately qualify the overall effect. You undermine your readers’ initial expectations and remind them that every paradise has its cost. If you are using a busy cityscape as a setting, you can achieve a powerfully surreal effect by leaving out sound altogether, loud noise being, possibly, the most prevalent sensual experience of this environment.

When you describe your settings, even in realist fiction, you manipulate your characters’ surroundings in order to achieve certain effects. This is perhaps best illustrated with reference to genre fiction. An exercise I often use with students is to ask them to write a brief scene – a couple’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – in the language of different genres. Scene-setting is one of the best and easiest ways of flagging up the different genres. Clearly, descriptions will differ greatly between a romance and a gothic horror, a police procedural and a western. Even though the setting may be identical, the demands of the genre call different aspects of it to prominence. In a romance, you might make use of senses of smell and touch as much as sight. In a horror, perhaps the sounds of hooting owls or creaking floorboards may be prioritised.

While it is important to remember that all the senses are available to you – and you may even invent new ones if you’re writing scifi or fantasy – do not try to use every one in every scene. The power of the opening of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is its focus on a single detail – the smell of baking madeleines - which triggers the memories of which the rest of the work is composed.

It is also vital that your descriptive writing is truthful. Its terms cannot exceed what is available to you in your fictional world. If that world is contiguous with Planet Earth as we know it, the sea cannot be made of fresh water and human skin will always taste, at least partly, of salt. Mammals are warm and fish cold. There is but one moon and it isn’t purple. Truthfulness, however, extends deeper than this. Excellent descriptive writing reveals the essence of its subject, and does so in ways which make the reader experience it afresh, however mundane it may be.

In her novel, Music and Silence, when describing the quality of darkness in King Christian’s wine cellar, Rose Tremain calls it ‘darkness by design’, thus suggesting the element of control, the way in which the king’s authority extends even this far underground. Yet, in this scene, the king is hunting for a treasure which may or may not exist. The darkness is also designed to perpetrate a myth. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the autistic child narrator’s unique voice is achieved partly by his unusual observations of the world around him. A policeman is described ‘as if he had two mice up his nose’. Traffic sounds ‘like surf on a beach.’ The imagery is vivid, its originality arresting, yet we know exactly what Christopher Boone means. His angle of vision is unusual, but remains recognisably human, of the human world.

This requires as much hard work as characterisation, plot or any of the other ‘big’ components of the novel. Choose the wrong simile or metaphor, or allow your description to escape the confines of the possible, and it will grate on readers and undermine their confidence in your storytelling.


Writing description is not easy. It requires discipline, in both the creation and the deployment. It must be truthful, and it must serve your characters and their plot with iron obedience.

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