Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making a scene -- it happens in a real place

I keep meditating on my writing friend Pete’s question about what it takes to make a scene.  Briefly, his short story at a recent workshop followed a protagonist traveling to a Buddhist monastery in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who rescued a fellow passenger from their sinking ferryboat and gave up a job opportunity to the passenger before returning home.  For the rest of us, this was a location exotic enough for a fantasy, and as Pete told the story to us orally, the setting glowed.  He knew what it looked like, sounded like, felt like, smelled like.  Those of us around the table could feel his love and longing, but that sensory detail never made it to the written pages.

So how do you get a sense of place in a story?  It doesn’t come by writing a travelogue.  As John Dufresne says in The Lie That Tells a Truth, “. . . by place I don’t simply mean location.  A location is a dot on a map, a set of coordinates.  Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with a history.”

Agent and writer Donald Maass suggested several ways during his workshop earlier this year in Dallas to turn a place itself into a character.  After giving your protagonist a few moments to look around an important setting, write three things that only he or she would notice.  Write one thing that surprises the protagonist.  Describe how that person feels about the place.  Now, put this in your scene.  If it’s a recurring setting (even better) bring your protagonist back after the major action of the story ends -- a day, a month, a year later – and tell us what has changed in the setting and how the character’s feelings about the place have changed.  You can be sure the emotions of Pete’s protagonist toward the ferry crossing as he left were different from those he had when he arrived aboard a sinking boat.  Now there’s a place with narrative.

(For more about Maass’s workshops, see

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