clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Friday, February 21, 2014


At left, rain. The preferred setting enhancement in 9 of 10 detective fiction novels.

It's a bit of vogue now to comment that "the setting was like another character as it contributed so much to the novel."

I say bullshit.

The setting didn't contribute anything but what the setting contributes. The atmosphere the author created in reflecting the setting through the actions and reactions of the characters did something.

Let's try something. A bit of prose:

There was a downpour outside on Rue Cler so Marie couldn't run for long. She tried anyway.

The sentence above almost writes itself. You figure you are in Paris ( a very upscale part of Paris for those in the know).  There's a woman and rain. We're missing a film crew and a chasing boyfriend. Seriously, the line writes itself. She could be out for some conditioning so we need more - but the setting is doing its job already.

But, it lacks. We don't have the atmosphere.

We have to be careful - because over-writing is a key consequence of trying to force atmosphere. Let's try a couple alternatives: this first time with atmosphere and clumsy handling.

Rue Cler blurred for Marie as she left infatuation for the last time, again. She edged a hundred steps into her sprint before her ragged breath, her soaked shoes, and the crying sky all begged her to seek new shelter. From under an awning, she looked up the street now alone in Paris.

Pretty close to being hideously overdone. I haven't the florid language skill of being able to pull off poetic description and so the effort is heavy. It's sodden in a way itself. Certainly it is more than halfway overdone though we added lots of atmosphere, story, and a flavor of the three hundred pages of horrendous writing to follow.

Now, a sharper approach.

Marie careened through the lobby and out the door of her now former building running into the street. The awning she stopped under down the Rue Cler hid her from the rain while through her frantic steps the rain hid her tears. She looked around. She stood alone but in Paris.

Perhaps too clever but we know we're in Paris, we have a woman "running out" on a life, crying. The language is cleaner though it has done the job with atmosphere. We made the rain an ally. We haven't emotionally cast the woman as a victim. We're in Paris and its the best place to be: "but in Paris."

It's a subtle difference isn't it? In Paris with rain is the setting. Still somewhat clumsy in the last version but our last words "She stood alone but in Paris" gave us the perspective of the atmosphere.

She's in exactly the same spot and all three scenes could describe the very same course of events.

Our language in the most recent used atmosphere - and its emotional draw - to enhance our story. In another version, we used it to wallow.

In the first, we told the same story absent any effort to create atmosphere at all. I like it best because I like Marie when "she tried anyway." I like that in a character. Didn't do well for an atmosphere and this essay is about ...the atmosphere.

While I understand what is meant, I'd rather put the all the "character" into those one the page with legs. That's me. I'm not a setting guy. I'm a character guy.

But we've covered the point.

Setting is shit. Atmosphere is everything - even in its absence.

Now, go to your setting and write. I will.

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