Setting Scenes with Props

Reality Makes Fiction Believable. Threat makes things interesting.

Deveraux stared at the calendar on the wall while he waited: a pastoral farm scene above a month of days and dates. Young men haying in the foreground, scythes in hands, an older man – broader back, heavier build – guided a horse-drawn cart. A few passes remained. In the distance a setting sun. One of the field hands stood wiping his brow with a bright red neckerchief. Another leaned on his scythe, watching him. A white-sided farmhouse and barn with two towering red silos in the distance, at the far end of the field.
Why didn’t they start here and finish at the barn? Wouldn’t it be less work that way?
Under the picture a woman’s delicate hand wrote over specific dates: anniversaries, birthdays, doctors and vet appointments – cat? dog? He hadn’t seen any pets when he walked in – school meetings, church cookouts. Two gold stars where kids won awards. A red heart on a Friday, a church holiday. He’d have to step carefully when he explained why he was here.
Someone approached, a woman, her step light, delicate – the same woman who marked the calendar? The smells of fresh washing line-hung to dry, a lemony furniture polish, a light soap and talcum came through the door before the woman did, wiping her hands on her apron as she did, speaking his name as a question, welcoming a guest yet unsure of his purpose, her voice rising at the end, “Lieutenant Deveraux?”
He held his gray fedora in his hands, his fingers on the brim, spinning it slowly like a kaleidoscope showing nothing but dull browns and blacks and grays.

Now consider this:

Deveraux stared at the calendar on the wall while he waited. An Arrest-Me Red Corvette Stingray convertible – what year was that? Late 1960s? 70s? Definitely a classic – practically bulged from the image over the grease and oil stained days underneath. Leaning back across the hood, a pouting Daisy Duke: Creamy, flesh colored buttocks jutted from faded denim cutoffs, red toenails in red strapped CFM platforms that could cause nosebleeds and enough cleavage to make the Stingray’s bucket seats buckle. She leaned with her elbows behind her on the hood, pushing her breasts even more forward.
How is that shirt staying on? She’s got to have backaches.
Under the picture he looked at the dates, some written over in a man’s confident hand; days off, when orders should arrive, holiday closings, customer pickups and dropoffs, bay repair days, one day had a dog paw sticker on it, a reminder for a heartworm pill – a guard dog? Shop pet? He hadn’t seen any dogs when he walked in – union meetings, somebody’s tradeschool graduation. Two gold stars where the shop won awards. A red heart on a Friday, the shop hosted a blood drive. He’d have to step carefully when he explained why he was here.
Someone approached, a man, his step heavy, determined – the same man who marked the calendar? The smell of gasoline, oil and sweat came through the door before the man did, wiping his hands on an old shop rag and speaking Deveraux’s name as a statement, a question already answered, his voice dropping at the end, a “let’s get on with this” tone that Deveraux appreciated. “You’re Deveraux.”
Deveraux tilted his gray fedora up so they could see each other’s face clearly.

Both scenes above make use of a single prop; a wall calendar. The POV character, Deveraux, is the same.

Let’s assume I’ve done my job a) correctly and b) well:

  • You should accept Deveraux in both scenes. His voice, his tone, the mood and atmosphere of each scene should indicate that DeverauxA and DeverauxB are the same person.
  • You should accept that both scenes could be in the same story with Deveraux as the main character, perhaps as frames around a “24 hours in the life of” story (hmm…I kind of like that. Might use it myself).
  • Note that the intro is the same in each scene: Deveraux stared at the calendar on the wall while he waited.
  • The first paragraph in each sets the scene.
  • Note that the second paragraph in each is quite similar. Both demonstrate one thing in common: what is important to the person who owns the calendar.
  • Note that each scene’s second paragraph continues setting each scene’s tone, mood, and atmosphere.
  • You should expect the person who walks through the door to be as described. If the bodyshop owner walks through the door in the first scene you should be shocked and vice versa (more on this later).

And now for the kicker – the only prop in both scenes is the calendar. We learn that Deveraux pays attention to detail, notices quite a bit, extrapolates available data. He’s referenced as “Lieutenant Deveraux” at the end of the first scene and I doubt (hope!) you accept he’s in some kind of law enforcement, probably police.

In each case, the details Deveraux picks up reveal a great deal about the kind of person he is, where he is, what kind of people he’ll encounter, what he (and the reader) can expect, …

…that sense of reality makes the scene believable…

 
All from a single prop. The reason the single prop works is because of the detail given it. Everyone’s seen calendars like those described and I rely on so the scene becomes real and that sense of reality makes the scene believable hence the reader accepts it and reads along.

You can do a lot with the right prop. When done wisely.

And now for something completely different
The above examples are nicely written. They’re not interestingly written. Switch the secondary characters – put the bodyshop owner in the first example and the woman in the second – and you have the unexpected.

The unexpected is always interesting.

Put somebody under threat and things get interesting.

 
For example:

Deveraux stared at the calendar on the wall while he waited. An Arrest-Me Red Corvette Stingray convertible – what year was that? Late 1960s? 70s? Definitely a classic – practically bulged from the image over the grease and oil stained days underneath. Leaning back across the hood, a pouting Daisy Duke: Creamy, flesh colored buttocks jutted from faded denim cutoffs, red toenails in red strapped CFM platforms that could cause nosebleeds and enough cleavage to make the Stingray’s bucket seats buckle. She leaned with her elbows behind her on the hood, pushing her breasts even more forward.
How is that shirt staying on? She’s got to have backaches.
Under the picture he looked at the dates, some written over in a man’s confident hand; days off, when orders should arrive, holiday closings, customer pickups and dropoffs, bay repair days, one day had a dog paw sticker on it, a reminder for a heartworm pill – a guard dog? Shop pet? He hadn’t seen any dogs when he walked in – union meetings, somebody’s tradeschool graduation. Two gold stars where the shop won awards. A red heart on a Friday, the shop hosted a blood drive. He’d have to step carefully when he explained why he was here.
One date stood out. Written in a delicate hand, using a different pen. A softer touch. A woman’s writing?
Someone approached, a man, his step heavy, determined – the same man who marked the calendar? The smell of gasoline, oil and sweat came through the door before the man did, wiping his hands on an old shop rag, smiling and offering his right, speaking Deveraux’s name as a question. his voice rising at the end, “You’re Lieutenant Deveraux?”
“That’s right.” A lemony scent caught Deveraux’s nose. A furniture polish. Not industrial. Confusing with the oils and gasoline.
The man took Deveraux’s hand and nodded.
The lemon scent, stronger, behind him. He turned.
The man’s grip tightened. He jerked Deveraux back to face him.
A soft hand pushed his head forward. He felt a cold prick as a needle entered his neck.

The first two examples are nicely written but kind of ho-hum. We rely on the power of the writing to keep the reader’s interest.

The third example puts Deveraux under threat. Put somebody under threat and things get interesting.