Joe Moore’s guest blogger yesterday, editor and author Jodie Renner, had a great post on Developing a Strong Third Person Voice that stirred other ideas for me to dove tail off. I thought of experiencing a scene through the senses of my POV narrator and giving that character an opinion of his surroundings to add setting description color as well as insight into the narrator to reflect on him or her. By making each word choice serve more than one purpose (to add color as well as insight into the character) an keep the pace moving without bogging down the narrative.
James Patterson talked about this at a Romance Writers of America conference in Reno in 2004 to a packed house of writers that filled two ballrooms. He said on his computer, he has words that inspire him to remember the basics. BE THERE were the words he posted to remind him to put the reader into the scene by using their senses to trigger images from the words on the page.
When writing any scene, get the words down, but then go back and layer in other elements to enhance the voice of your narrator and make the reading experience more vivid for the reader. Ask yourself what your character would be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and how something would feel when they touch it. Adding these elements can bring depth to the scene and draw the reader into the world you are creating, by triggering the “familiar” with them.
Below is an excerpt from Robert Crais’s The Sentry, one of my favorite authors. This comes from the very start of the book.
The Sentry – by Robert Crais
Monday, 4:28 AM, the narrow French Quarter room was smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey. Daniel stared through broken shutters and shivering glass up the length of the alley, catching a thin slice of Jackson Square through curtains of gale-force rain that swirled through New Orleans like mad bats riding the storm. Daniel had never seen rain fall up before.
Daniel loved these damned hurricanes. He folded back the shutters, then opened the window. Rain hit him good. It tasted of salt and smelled of dead fish and weeds. The cat-five wind clawed through New Orleans at better than a hundred miles an hour, but back here in the alley—in a cheap one-room apartment over a po'boy shop—the wind was no stronger than an arrogant breeze.
The power in this part of the Quarter had gone out almost an hour ago; hence, the candles Daniel found in the manager’s office. Emergency lighting fed by battery packs lit a few nearby buildings, giving a creepy blue glow to the shimmering walls. Most everyone in the surrounding buildings had gone. Not everyone, but most. The stubborn, the helpless, and the stupid had stayed.
Like Daniel’s friend, Tolley.
Tolley had stayed.
This very visual and sensory description from Crais’s excerpt incorporates elements of the senses, as well as metaphors and analogies to describe an opening scene. Using adjectives like “arrogant” to describe a breeze is unexpected yet effective to say that the hurricane winds had been tamed. You can taste and smell the rain. It “tastes of salt and smells of dead fish and weeds” which adds to the raw feeling near the gulf. The narrow French Quarter room was “smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey.” “Broken shutters” give you more than a visual when you can feel the chill of the hurricane through the “shivering glass.” The notion of “mad bats riding the storm” give the bluster a sinister feel too.
Having given these examples, it’s important not to overwrite the setting/scene. In this excerpt, there is a laser focus on setting the mood and the word descriptors are deliberate choices, like using dead fish and weeds to describe the rain in the French Quarter. It adds to the ambience without being overdone or by being unrelated to the location or mood. Recently I read a book where the metaphors and similes stood out because they were not only unrelated to the other examples on the first few pages, but these comparisons did nothing to enhance the mood or give insight into the character or setting. It made the author appear like a student trying to impress the teacher, with not much thought going into the word choices and how they pertained to the story.
We are Visual Learners
Many people are visual learners, so using the senses (and/or metaphors and analogies) can bring in the visual using something familiar. These ideas can quickly suggest a setting without slowing the pace with too much word description. They give a quick snapshot of the scene in a way to trigger the reader’s mind and delve into their own experiences to make things more vivid. These images can also trigger emotions, such as comfort or fear, at the same time. Adding these elements can not only bring color and distinction to the voice, but they can also layer in elements of emotion and visual triggers to enhance the voice. So let’s talk about metaphors and analogies.
A metaphor is an implied comparison that brings two dissimilar things together and implies that the two things are alike or comparable. Metaphors can be used to describe a complicated concept or setting, to make it more easily understood or relatable. They can enhance the imagery by adding a familiar feeling, such as the lightness of taking flight when you describe being in love, or describing death as a candle that is snuffed out.
- Ideas can mushroom
- Love has wings
- A brave man has the heart of a lion
Just like a metaphor, an analogy makes a link between two dissimilar things, but implies there is a difference between the two things, while a metaphor treats them as the same.
- A fish is to water, what a bird is to air
- A CEO is to a company, what a General is to an Army
- A mother giving birth to a child, is what an author would be to the creation of a novel
I wanted to include other excerpts that use a visual imagery well in terms of metaphors and similes. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief. If you're a regular at TKZ, you've heard me talk about this book before. I hope you enjoy these:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
“She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
“Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wire-like shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Anne Bronte - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
If you are a reader - what are some of your favorite and memorable lines from books you’ve read that enhanced the mood, setting, or characters? If you are a writer – do you have any tricks to share on adding layers of a unique voice to your work?