Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tell me where I am

Pretty sure I've written about this before, but I kind of hate writing scenery. I can either see the location in my head and don't want to waste time thinking up how to describe it, or I don't care about the location because it doesn't impact the scene at hand (especially in dialogue-heavy scenes). So I can't say I was surprised when a big part of the feedback I received in my class last semester was that people didn't know what time period they were in (it's a period piece) or what places looked like. They wanted more grounding in the scene. At the time I wanted to throw up at the thought of taking time away from the plot to describe things, but my professor gave me what has come to be an invaluable piece of advice:

Diagram the scene.


As in, draw it out. Where are the chairs, what does the carpet look like, how many levels does the house/building/spaceship have, what kind of doors are there, does it have a kitchen, are there windows, etc. Don't just think about it, draw it out. This might seem like overkill for some stories, but it was essential for mine, and a handy tip for anyone telling a story that exists in a physical location (yeah, I'm talking to you).

In diagramming you'll find yourself asking questions you never thought of before - now that I know where everything lives, what about decorations? Colors? Does it make sense to put a chair right in the middle of this room? Is the bed too large for the room? Could the character really open the window from there? It's also a lot easier to describe a room when you're looking at a physical picture of it, not just trying to hold images in your head. You'll have a blueprint that you can hold yourself accountable for in all the scenes in your book, and you won't have to bother trying to remember where you put that pesky bookshelf.

You don't need to diagram all the locations, just the most essential ones. Think about it like an episode of Saved By The Bell - how many places do they really go? There's the school hallway lined with lockers, usually a classroom or two that look mysterious alike, and The Max. If you've watched the show, you can clearly see these locations in your mind when thinking of pivotal scenes of the show. You want your readers to have the same instant recall about your own scenes. If you don't ground your readers in the scene they'll feel lost about where they are and what they're watching.

Have you ever diagrammed a location in your story before? Did it help?

11 comments:

Patti said...

I've tried mapping out an area to get a feel for where everything is, but I like your idea of mapping out a room. I can think of a particular place in my book where this might come in handy.

Tere Kirkland said...

If I'm using a building as a major setting, I usually draw out the floorplan to keep myself from getting too confused. Really comes in handy later during the editing phase.

Everything else about the setting, sensory details, etc., I try to layer in slowly, between dialogue and subtly weave it into the narrative. Of course, if it's something my pov character wouldn't notice, I don't add it in.

Great post, JEM!

Solvang Sherrie said...

I have a floorplan drawn out for my current wip because where everything is in the house plays a really important part. Plus it helps me write my scenes better.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

That's a pretty good idea, actually! I have never done that and I DO describe the setting when I write as much as I feel is needed. Then somewhere in the trenches of revision I realize how I have contradicted myself! Doh!

A map might help!

Lydia K said...

Hmm, no, I've never diagrammed. But I vividly see some rooms in my WIP. I don't really like doing scenery stuff. It's tedious getting it to go from my head to the computer.

WritingNut said...

This is a really great exercise! I've never done this, but it's very helpful.. I REALLY struggle with scenery and setting too.. like you I can really "see" the place in my head, but getting it down always proves to be a bit more difficult :)

Emy Shin said...

I've never diagrammed a scene before, but this is a great idea. I'll definitely have to try it in the future. Thank you!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I haven't tried because I suck at drawing, but this is a great idea. :D

Cruella Collett said...

I probably should, as this is often a fuzzy subject for me. I can research certain things till it drives me insane, but still have no idea what city (or country) the story I write take place. Very weird, actually, as I love a book that is appropriately set in time and place.

Christina Lee said...

GREAT idea, because I struggle with that too! GOOD STUFF over here!

Margo Berendsen said...

Found you from Stina's Friday Links, new follower here and I love this post! Thanks for sharing such a great idea. I've created maps for my novel before - but I never thought to try this for the smaller-scale settings like rooms and so forth.