Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Settings Part 4: Detail - Guest Post by J. H. Bogran

These posts that appear on this blog on Tuesdays are 
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

But occasionally, I present a Guest Post by someone else.  Today, we have an interesting one on SETTING. 

As I noted in Part 1 of this series on SETTING, I ran into Jose Bogran on the twitter chat #scifichat (Friday 2-4 PM Eastern) and today we have a second writing craft post from him.

Good choices for SETTING come directly from pondering your THEME which we've been discussing in the advanced set of posts on Theme-Plot Integration these last few weeks.

We'll have to get down to the nitty-gritty of Theme-Setting Integration eventually.  One of the first articles I ever wrote on writing craft had to do with the use of DETAIL, so I found it fascinating that J. H. Bogran has focused in on DETAIL in SETTING. 

Here are the links to prior posts on THEME-SETTING

The index post collecting long-ago posts is here:


And the last few weeks have been extending those posts:

Theme-Plot Integration Part 8 - Use of Co-incidence in Plotting

Part 9

Part 10:

And here is the series on SETTING starting with a Guest Post by J. H. Bogran:




In Part 3, examining my space-war novel DREAMSPY, we begin to look at the steps in reasoning from IDEA to CONCEPT to THEME to SETTING, to see how a writer chooses to put a particular story into a specific place. 

As I've said before, it's kind of like driving a car -- you do most of the work with the non-verbal, mostly inaccessible part of your brain.  That's why it seems so mysterious to writers who just "have an idea" and then just "write the novel."  They don't know how they do what they do or why they do it a  certain way and not another way.  If they've got it right, they sell big, and if they miss they can't sell at all.   

Those very Talented writers don't make great teachers because they can't explain what they are doing (because they don't know.) 

The rest of us, though, have to figure out how to do it -- and so the process can be revealed to beginners, saving sometimes years of struggle. 

J. H. Bogran is such a "beginner" -- working in two languages!  OK, from my perspective, he's a beginner. 

So it is worth our while to pay attention as these techniques are laid out by someone who has just learned to do it, and with time we may watch Bogran polish techniques and then explain how that happened.   

Here, then is a new Guest Post. 

--------------------- GUEST POST-------------
Setting in the details
J. H. Bográn

Back on part one, I discussed the larger aspects of a setting and its direct relation with the plot, characters and other intrinsically relevant areas of a novel. This time around I’d like to expand into the old adage that the beauty is in the details. Jacqueline even reminded us about Star Trek being first pitched as Wagon Train to the Stars. Something I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know, so bear in mind I’m such a sucker for trivia bits. So, thank you Jacqueline for the added bit to my trivia library!

The setting is more than just a location. It is the place where the events of a particular scene happen. A full description of a room can break the flow of the plot, but when carefully planned it can serve to enhance it.

Picture a man that regularly visits the city museum. Except, today is different because his wife was buried the day before, and now he’s seeking refuge in the paint strokes of masters. Today he notices for the first time a tiny frame, no bigger than a post card, depicting a sailboat riding tall waves amidst a storm. He watches mesmerized as he thinks of people aboard: will they ever reach the coast or will the wave bury the little boat? He recognizes the tune coming out of the P.A. system. It’s an instrumental version of Michael Bolton’s “When I’m back on my feet again,” and although he had always hated the cheesy pop star, he now finds himself humming along the song as he discovers he remembers the lyrics.

See how the painting and the tune mirror the man’s feelings? He had probably seen the painting a thousand times, and heard the environmental music an equal number of times. They add to the setting, but also to the feelings of the character.

One of the main differences that I’ve found between writing screenplays and novels is the level of description required for each. In the screenplay, description is generally limited to one line: Day. Interior. Jose’s room. Now, try to get away with that in a novel, I dare you! One of my early writing teachers suggested to make a drawing, and to mark where the doors, windows and furniture were located. He claimed the knowledge would slip through the writing even if we didn’t use all of the details. I’ve learned other tips and tricks since then, but one of those things is that he was right!

In the case of my sci-fi short The Outpost, I conceived space stations guarding the entrance to the Solar System. Believe it or not, the awful drawings I made must still be lying around somewhere in the rusty two-drawer file cabinet. I visualized the dimensions, colors, and plenty of other little details. Not all of them went into the final draft, of course. Here’s the opening of The Outpost with the details that made it to the final draft:

Excerpt from The Outpost (Red Rose Publishing, 2008)

Karl Jackson awoke suddenly to find his face barely an inch from the metal ceiling; he was floating.

“Joe! What happened with the gravity?”

Monitoring the whole of space is an impossible task. Thus, humans settled to monitoring the edges of the solar system. They figured that Earth could only be seriously affected by something entering the system. Thousands of outposts peppered the outskirts to detect anything coming in.

Track Seven was one of many cylindrical-type stations that monitored traffic in and out of our home planet. The top of the station was a transparent dome, enabling the operators a full 360-degree view. The main control room contained two chairs placed back to back, each facing a console full of monitors, transmitters, and switches that could make the inexperienced dizzy in a matter of seconds. Between the chairs was a trap door leading to the living quarters below.

Joe Doyle’s head appeared through the hole, relief visible on his face. “Didn’t know you were awake,” he said with his usual heavy drawl. It had always amazed Karl that Joe had embraced the Texas accent so completely, having only lived there for a couple of years before taking his post in NASA.

End of excerpt.

Yep, the station is very similar to a capsule you would find inside a Walgreen’s bottle. Not sure why I designed my guarding stations that way; perhaps I had a headache and took the hint from a gel-cap.

In short, not only do you have to have a detail list, but you also must choose which ones to use.
The help make the decision, I’d recommend you consider their impact on the characters, their significance to the plot, and finally, their ability to weave seamlessly into the story.

Author Bio and links:
J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator.

Website at: http://www.jhbogran.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jhbogran
Twitter: @JHBogran

Direct links to books:

The Outpost: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B003ZDO3SY
Deeds of a Master Archer: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009DPAO7C
Treasure Hunt: http://www.amazon.com/gp/B004MDLSWK
The Assasin's Mistress: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007BOC0OW

----------END GUEST POST-------------

What I find interesting here is that when I decided to be a professional writer, even before HIGH SCHOOL, I read copies of Writer's Digest and all the books on stage, screen and novel writing in my local library. 

That trick of sketching the layout of an environment where you are placing a scene or story was often repeated in those sources (which were old and falling apart when I read them!), so I adopted it right at the very start of my first attempts to create a character and his/its story (my first was a blob). 

I have some very crude sketches of the venue for scenes in some of my published novels.

I particularly sketch scenes at formal dinner tables or long tables in restaurants, noting who is sitting beside whom, and across from whichever other characters.  Imagine the noise level, the cross-talk, and be sure that the bits of dialogue you want your character to hear or overhear are actually within his/its/hers hearing distance in that echoing environment.

Now, the big caveat for new writers is this: Don't Make Sketches For Every Scene!

And don't describe who is sitting, standing, walking, riding next to or across from whom UNLESS YOU ARE SETTING UP AN ACTION-SCENE.

When a writer introduces a scene with the local floor-plan or layout in excruciating detail, it is a signal to the reader that all hell is about to break loose.

For example, if you establish a WINDOW on the 20th floor, with a tiny ledge beneath it, you jolly well better have that ledge be either the escape route for the hero or the entry-route for the villain, or the hiding place of a Key, weapon, whatever.

If you disappoint the reader by describing details you don't later use as part of the PLOT, the next scene where you include detail the reader will likely just skip the detail.  The third scene you do that in, the reader will toss the book aside -- or maybe in the trash.

And this is where that all-powerful and all-important element THEME comes in.

How do you decide which details to USE IN THE PLOT and thus describe in many words?

Each time you set up a floor-plan or load passengers into a car in a given arrangement, or seat them all at a dinner table, or sprinkle them around a crowded restaurant, first go into that setting yourself and open your eyes (like a swimmer opening eyes under water) and take a good look around.

You will see thousands of details in that setting.  SELECT the four, or no more than five, that bespeak the THEME. 

Ask yourself, "Given that my POV character is in THIS MOOD, what exactly WILL SHE NOTICE?"  And then, what will she NOT NOTICE?  What she doesn't notice can be a cited detail in your narrative, but only if it is a near-fatal oversight by the POV character because of her mood.

Bogran illustrated this point very well in the Museum scene.  The character is in a MOOD because of the funeral.  Though the setting is familiar, suddenly previously overlooked details become IMPORTANT.

Now the story didn't progress to the point where the storm-tossed ship and the particular song he heard would become clues in solving a murder mystery, or lead to discovering the painting was a forgery which would lead to meeting the museum curator and falling in love with her.  But it could have! 

Once the character's MOOD and the details that mood REVEALS are set up, your reader is drawn deep into your story.

The Museum Scene described lacks only the DETAILS that will be the springboard into what happens NEXT to this bereaved man because of his MOOD at that point. 

For example, perhaps the Museum is about to be robbed, and this man is a retired Security Guard who really knows the place.  Perhaps among the details of the ship painting and music, something catches his eye and he's uneasy but doesn't know why.  Inspecting the tiny frame, he notices that one of the security cameras is dark when it should have a tiny flashing light showing from that angle.  Hmmm.  He looks around for someone to report that to.  BANG the robbers burst into the display room pushing the Museum Curator in front of them. 

NOW WHAT? the reader is thinking. 

Do you see how this works?  The reader expects the details of the Museum setting to have some significance in terms of WHAT HAPPENS NEXT (i.e. the plot).  The detailed detail description is not just to explicate the main character's mood of the moment, but to explicate the theme which can only be done  via plot -- via something happening because.

Remember Plot = Because Line.

Because his wife died, because he's just come from her funeral, he seeks refuge in something familiar, and because he's THERE at just that time, THIS HAPPENS TO HIM, because of which he DOES SOMETHING, because of which SOMETHING HAPPENS, because of which HE DOES SOMETHING ELSE -- etc -- until his GRIEF (the theme here is grieving) is RESOLVED.

As I set it up, this retired Security Guard would thereupon risk his life to save the Museum Curator from the Robbers, and possibly her career from ruin BECAUSE HE NOTICED THE DEAD CAMERA and had time to DO SOMETHING that thereupon allowed him to be able to save her life, BECAUSE OF WHICH she reacts in some way to resolve his grief.

Choice of detail to describe is not arbitrary.  It's not an "art."  It's not mysterious and doesn't require Talent.  Choice of detail is like choice of vocabulary -- sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation. (a Robert Heinlein quote - can you name the source?)

by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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