Writing a scene is a busy job. The characters in that scene are all supposed to Have Goals. The goals can be simple–let me eat my ice cream in peace!–or complicated: Find the bomb, diffuse it, get out safely and collect the king’s youngest daughter before the enemy’s guards swarm the throne room, and DO NOT SNEEZE even though the palace is overrun with cats to which our heroine is allergic.
The scene should contain tension, which is a job in itself. The point-of-view character’s goal is usually thwarted (sorry, your dude-ship). The character’s emotions are usually conflicted (it was a stupid goal anyway, and the princess is a pain in the behonkis on a good day, and ice cream is never as scrumptious as it’s supposed to be), and the other characters in the scene are generally throwing sand in the gears (because they DO want the bomb to go off).
Wheee! With all that emotion and activity, the result can be “talking heads in a white room.” I’m guilty of this, at least in first drafts. I’ll be so focused on getting to the snappy repartee and ‘splainin’ the feels while the characters do the stuff, that I forget that this drama, or even this quiet moment of despair, takes place in a setting.
To neglect setting is to neglect an entire layer of the story, for in that setting will be a treasure trove of symbols, small and large, that add subtle depth and complexity to the tale: Westhaven’s relentlessly clicking abacus, the dilapidated estate Valentine is trying to salvage with its terrace “listing hard to port” like Valentine’s life, Nick’s mare Buttercup–the wrong mount for an earl’s heir, or is she? Tremaine, the shrewd, self-interested wool nabob who loves a late night snack in a warm, shadowy kitchen. Lucas Sherbourne, whose remote Welsh manor house is elegantly appointed but impossible to keep warm.
The physical realities in a character’s scenes should give the reader insight into the character’s interior life, longings, and secrets. Writers know this, and they also know that symbols and settings aren’t just for works of fiction. Many of my author buddies have a “glory wall,” or a place where they keep the visible reminders of their successes: A deal memo from a publisher, a glowing review, a landscape they snapped when researching their first novel.
Other authors go more for affirmations, or pictures of loved ones, or physical copies of the books that motivated them. These words and objects have the power to inspire, to reassure, to remind us of who we are or who we want to become.
Everybody’s symbols will be different, but we do know that the objects we keep around us tell part of our story. Can you think of a scene where the setting made a particular impact on you? If I was writing a scene about YOU, what objects would you want me to mention, and why?
To one commenter, I’ll send an audio book of Too Scot to Handle, in honor of Colin and Anwen’s nomination for a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award for Best Historical Love and Laughter (urchins, represent!).