W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Friday, January 13, 2006

No. 40 Ground your writing

W3 is updated by the 15th each month.

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Teachers: use anything from W3. If you quote us please give our blog site. I welcome comments: donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr

THEORY

I recently tackled a French novel. Although I had no problems with the vocabulary, the writer started scene after scene without giving any idea of the environment where the action was taking place. To make it worse she did not identify the people speaking. I wasn’t even sure if the characters were male or female. After fighting through several pages, I was able to guess what was happening and with whom. I was never sure of the where. I didn’t finish the novel although the write-up on the jacket had intrigued me. I gave the novel to a native French speaker. She had the same problem. Whew, it wasn’t my French.

That novel’s lack of grounding gave me the idea for this newsletter. I have not encountered an Anglophone novel so blatantly ungrounded, but I have sometimes had to puzzle out details that a simple sentence would have given me without leaving annoyed that I had to work so hard to figure out where I was.

When we read we create mental images of the characters and locations. Our job as writers is to provide the framework to help the reader form those images.

New writers are more apt to be guilty of not properly grounding.

Readers need to know when and where the action of a novel is taking place, but reject pages of description. The secret is to select enough information so a reader can “see” what the writer saw. Grounding is like good background music that adds to the ambience but doesn’t drown out the movement of the plot.

How a scene is grounded depends on the story. What are some of the ways?

Use outside environments

These could be a nation, city, town, country, farm, beach or forest. Although it is not necessary to have a real place, the reader must believe that the place is real. Whenever possible the details that ground the work should also help with plot or character development rather than be thrown in.

A comment that a character saw the Eiffel Tower is a dead give away of a location, but not subtle. Something more subtle would be to put the character into a taxi and have them notice that it was the first Parisian taxi driver that ever drove slowly. The simplest would be to say Paris, France at the top of the chapter. Yet at the same time, the richness of that city calls out for a few details that add to the story.

Comments about trucks parked in front of a diner ground a story in a different location than valet parking by a restaurant located on the ground floor of a skyscraper.

In writing about a location, it is easy to be trapped by clichés such as the Eiffel Tower . By interweaving the scene into other details, writers can escape that particular danger. For example: beaches with white sands and gentle waves have been described to death but if the small grains of sand get inside a character’s sandals and irritate his/her feet then we know the person is on a beach. If the character wears sandals because the sand was so hot, the writer has grounded the scene with temperature, too.

Smells can be used to ground a scene: the smell of gasoline, pine trees, mud, baking chocolate brownies all create a mood that narrows down place.

Using inside environments

The types of rooms that writers select are another way of grounding. A kitchen large enough for family conferences and games is different from a state-of-the-art kitchen with expensive copper pans that are never used. A meal at McDonald’s is different from a meal in an expensive restaurant.

Unlike the Victorian writers who wanted to describe every piece of furniture, a few details not only ground the reader but tell them about the occupants. Modern sleek furnishings with huge windows overlooking the Hudson River is different from a Cornwall cottage filled with furniture gathered from Aunt This or Uncle That. Trophies from a kid’s football team in the middle of mantle reveal something about the parents’ pride than trophies being tucked away in a closet.

And don’t forget to make it clear when locations are changed. Nothing is worse for a reader to think they are in a city apartment to realize three pages later they are on a farm.

EXAMPLES

1. “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay.”
Ernest Hemingway FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL

This is the introduction, so the hero still hasn’t got a name, but we know he is in a forest. The color of the dead pine needles is mentioned, but it isn’t necessary to bring up that the tops of the trees are green. Our minds make that leap. We also know exactly where the hero is and Hemingway has incorporated sound. We can almost hear the rustle of the top (not the entire tree) branches. Although he doesn’t tell us what time of year it is, we guess it is a warm season. People don’t lie down in forests in mid winter with their chins on their folded arms. The scene evokes tranquility.

2. “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”
John Steinbeck GRAPES OF WRATH

Here we have an exact place, Oklahoma. This opening paragraph of the novel is rich in colors. There is lushness with the rains and the growth of crops and grass, which of course will be taken away from us the reader just as it will be taken away from the characters.

3. “Catherine was not so much engaged at the theatre that evening in returning the nods and smiles of Miss Thorpe, though they certainly claimed much of her leisure also to forget to look with an inquiring eye for Mr. Tilney in every box.
Jane Austen NORTHANGER ABBEY

Here the action is intermingled with the grounding. We know we are at a theatre and that the theatre is fancy enough to have boxes along the side. Only one sentence is needed to ground the reader.

4. “Elizabeth is lying on her back, clothes on and unrumpled, shoes placed side by side on the bedside rug, a braided oval bought at Nick Knack’s four years ago when she was still interested in home furnishings.”
Margaret Atwood LIFE BEFORE MAN

There is a neatness in the way Atwood grounded this scene with unrumpled clothing and shoes side by side. The braided rug creates a more homey feeling both because of the type of rug and where she bought it. Any store named Nick Knack’s isn’t a high priced store. Again the grounding is woven into the plot because we learn that Elizabeth interests’ have changed.

EXERCISES
1. Watch a movie on DVD without sound so you can concentrate on what the camera shows to ground a scene.

2. Go to a café and describe as much as you can about the café. Then cut your writing down into three sentences that capture the mood.

3. Sit in your own living room, bedroom, or kitchen. List everything in the room. What are the most important characteristics? Imagine a character walking into the room for the first time and show something about that character by the way s/he reacts to the room.

See you by the 15th of next month,
D-L Nelson

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