Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Doing more than seeing the scene

"It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats--the hobbit was fond of visitors."

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

Many artists over the years have found inspiration in those words. John Howe, Alan Lee, Ted Naismith, the Hildebrandt brothers (among others) all painted Bag End in their own unique styles, yet it was Tolkien's words that inspired their imaginations and gave birth to their artistic creations (click on the names to see their versions of Bilbo's home).

This is the writer's goal: to write descriptions so lush and detailed that artists can picture the scene inside their heads and then draw or paint so that you, the writer, could look at their work and say, "Yes! That's exactly what I had in mind!" Then you'd know your writing was successful.

Take a look at the types of words Tolkien used in those two sentences. Adjectives describe some the things of the scene (shiny yellow brass knob, comfortable tunnel, paneled walls, polished chairs), while verbs are used to describe other items (floors tiled and carpeted). He even throws in two similes to help with the image (like a portholea tube-shaped hall like a tunnel). The closing image, that of the many pegs for hats and coats, leads to a statement about character: Bilbo likes company.

(Sidenote: notice he also throws an adverb in there (a perfectly round door), a part of speech many writers eschew and for good reason. Still, the judicious use gives a simplicity to the style that fits with the personality of hobbits.).

Note the description does more than just allow us to see the setting, however. It also gives us character clues. In only two sentences (the fourth and fifth of the entire novel) we discover that Bilbo's home is comfortable, neat, clean, smoke-free and has room for company -- a traits that are later reinforced by Bilbo's words and actions. Tolkien sets us up right from the start so his reactions to Gandalf's proposal are not a surprise. We know Bilbo from his home and we understand why he would not want to leave it for "an adventure."

This is what we want to accomplish in our own writing. Descriptions that are clear, yet do more than simply describe the room, the building, the field. Remember, a complete scene has several parts: setting, characters, rising action (what happens later as a result of this scene?) How can you write your settings so that they do double duty and bolster character or plot?

How? By focusing on the specific items that reflect on either. Tolkien chose to describe the door, the hall, the chairs and the coat rack, each of which comes in to play later. He's given us character clues about Bilbo, but also already set the scene for the entrance of both Gandalf and later, the dwarves. That way he's free to simply mention "a tremendous ring on the front door-bell" and we fill in the rest from his previous description.


You can use either a scene you've already created or write fresh. In either case, you're looking to create a description that either 1) gives us character clues or 2) sets up a later plot point. You're going beyond just describing what's there and giving specific pieces meaning.

A caveat: be careful not to over describe. It is possible to get so lost in the description and in layering in meaning after meaning, that you forget to tell the story. I love Taylor Caldwell's book, but will admit that I often skipped over her very lengthy descriptions because that's all they were: descriptions of setting. I found they bogged down the story and made it lag because nothing was there that moved the story forward. In fact, it was as if the story stopped so there could be description and then, once it was given, the story could move on again.

As you write (or rewrite), be aware that you're always moving forward. You might slow the pace some, invite the reader to linger in a particularly pleasant spot, but you're still planting little gems that will come in handy later. A character point there, a piece of foreshadowing there...all add up to create a beautiful scene that will inspire artists for years to come.

Go write! And leave a tip if you find this useful :)


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