Thursday, January 30, 2014

Technical Topic -- Using the City

A wonderful reader wrote, asking "What sorts of resources do you use to make your cities--London and Paris, in particular--so convincing?  . . .   find your London to be almost a character in and of itself."

As to making the city part of the story . . .  I think we gotta use scenery in a dramatic sense.

When two characters are talking, we layer in lots of stuff between their dialog and internal thoughts to make 'time' pass at the correct rate.  Scenery is one of the things used as a pacing device.

When Justine is walking down the steps in the Coach House and she's really scared I put in description of what's on the walls and what the downstairs looks like so the reader can get a gut feeling of being scared along with her.  That emotional response wouldn't have time to form if I took fifty words to move her from the upstairs to outside the door where she listens to the Tuteurs. 

Likewise, when Jess and Sebastian have left Lazarus and sit looking out over the Thames, the description of the Thames spaces out realization and revelation.  Lets it  unroll slowly. 
Likewise the underground journey in Forbidden Rose is meant to make clear that the rescue attempt is a long, perilous, uncertain, process. If I just said -- "and then they spent a couple hours bumping around in the semi dark till they found ... "  -- it wouldn't let the reader absorb the emotion.

Scenery puts the characters in passing time.

 attrib esprit du sel
Scenery is also symbolic.  It has meaning.

In Forbidden Rose, that passage through the darkness is Orpheus rescuing Eurydice.  Justine going down the stairs to face a great fear is every hero picking up his sword and going forward to meet the dragon. Sebastian and Jess sit face to face and talk, while the River Thames, which is their past, (Jess' mother used to take her there; Sebastian used to scavenge the banks,) flows beside them and away, carrying their past while they reveal it to one another.

The writer needs images.  Contemporary paintings and drawings are great for this. 
But it's not just about having the images in the writer head.

I think it is a mistake to just  'travelogue' a setting.    Sure enough, we need to describe the city.  Describe it vividly.  Tell everybody what the city looks like and what the weather is and colorfuldetailslikethatthere. 

But that's not enough.  The writer has to use the setting to accomplish more than "Isn't this exotic?"  We have to make the setting tell us about the characters.  We match setting to the characters' feelings and purpose. We make setting symbolic.

We supercharge the visuals.  We make them full of feel.


  1. I was thinking about your last two paragraphs, especially "We have to make the setting tell us about the characters." I wonder if this is partly about points of view. Some writers tend to step out of their character's point of view and into omniscient each time they describe anywhere from a room to a city, which I suspect results in the travelogue feel to which you refer. But if they stayed in the POV used in the rest of the scene, and described what the character would notice and in terms of what s/he would feel or conclude, that could continue to reveal the character to us. Maybe?

  2. Yes. I think Helena is absolutely right about describing what the POV character would notice. But even when the author is describing the setting from an omni point of view before focusing on whatever character is about to be focused on, the details need to be relevant to that character. For example, you could have a scene set in Times Square and talk about the noise and the people rushing about, but you would describe these things differently if you are about to introduce a small child who has gotten lost than if you are going to introduce a young man thrilled to finally be here.

    1. Hi Lil --

      Very true. To steal and then gnaw apart a phrase from Auden, the experience of the setting is modified in the guts of the character. The city, Times Square, the suburban tract house, the stone dance under the moonlight become the possession of the character. The reader sees the scene through the prism of his eyes.

      That's the challenge for the author. First, to see the thing. Second, to see it as the character sees it. Third, to convey that to the reader.

  3. Hi Helena --

    That' s an insightful comment. We make the city belong to the character, and vice versa, when we see it through the character's eyes.

    Omniscient has its place. Sometimes we want to step away from the character and talk about the scenery without being in POV.

    Butcher does this nicely in the Dresden Files. Lovely details of setting from Butcher and he uses both Omniscient and Deep POV.

    1. I am working on a story where I feel the City is important, especially for the characters. I like the idea of pulling away as you pointed out here. Just have to figure out how to do this without overwhelming reader. More work. Nice post. :)

  4. Hi Melinda --

    Right. it's all about the characters. Make the reader care about them and you can't do pretty much whatever you want.