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:
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Tension

Like a tightrope. Around your neck. Cutting off your air. Your eyes popping out. Your brain screaming for oxygen? That’s what you want your readers to feel.

What is “tension”?

Noun: tension
1. (psychology) a state of mental or emotional strain or suspense
2. The physical condition of being stretched or strained
3. (literature) a balance between and interplay of opposing elements or tendencies (especially in art or literature)
4. (physics) a stress that produces an elongation of an elastic physical body
5. Feelings of hostility that are not manifest
6. The action of stretching something tight

Verb: tension
1. Put an object in tension; pull or place strain on

(from WordWeb.info)

 
Have you ever read James Blish’s short story Surface Tension (originally published in the August 1952 Galaxy Magazine and muchly anthologized)? It deals with people striving to break through the surface of water. Any liquid creates a surface where it meets something other than itself. This surface creation is why two drops of water meeting bond into a larger drop rather than staying separate. The permeability of the surface is called “surface tension”. Doesn’t seem like much of a story, does it? People? Water?
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An Analysis of Richard Panek’s “Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe”

Powerful Writing is Powerful Magic

Have you (speaking to the authors in the audience) ever encountered a piece of writing so beautiful, so evocative that it shuts down your internal editor and draws you in? So well written that it’s only after you’re deep in the middle of it you realize the effect it’s having on you and say to yourself, “I’ve got to analyze how s/he did this. This is incredible.”

So it is for me with Richard Panek‘s Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe. I was going through old files on my computer and saw a file listed as “Example 22KB 10/21/1998 9:08:20AM”. No extension, not even a full eight character name (that indicated I probably saved it when there was an 8.3 constraint on file names (ask your grandparents if you don’t know what 8.3 means)).

this is an example of excellent writing, I think

 
I opened the file and read the first line, “this is an example of excellent writing, I think”.

Okay, the me of some twenty years ago liked this piece. Enough to save it for personal posterity.

Sometimes I amaze myself with my presaging ability.

But What Makes It So Good?
A worthy question, that.

For me, it starts with the title, “Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe”. This is a wonderful transition from the sensory into the mythic; Climbed a Mountain, something many people have experienced first-hand or via mass media. In all cases, the familiar. Except that climbing a mountain has mythic connotations in all societies/cultures (with which I’m familiar, anyway). We climb Olympus, Asgard, Kailash, Etna, Hara Berezaiti, Taranaki, … the list is quite long, thus in the first three words the reader is given an invitation.

Saw a Comet, fewer people have first hand experience. Plus we’ve leapt from the earth to the sky, continuing our mythic journey not to mention that comets also have their place in world mythologies.

The final part, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe, combines the mythic with the sensory. We’re still going into the mythic and we’re going to get there with science, the ultimate in sensory systems because everything is measured, everything is certain, everything is explained.

Now go on to the subtitle: Just another day of the extreme science at Mauna Kea, the most breathtaking observatory in the world. The first part presents the mythic (Mauna Kea) as mundane (Just another day) with “extreme science” as the bridge, the equals sign. Imagine

mundane = mythic

and you have it, except such a concept is confusing to most people so the brain goes into acquisition mode to get rid of the confusion, your brain opens you up to the information presented in the hope that the confusion will disappear. This confusion is continued with the second part, “the most breathtaking observatory in the world”.

Consider the first paragraph, “The dormant volcano of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii rises 13,796 feet above sea level, and then it rises a little bit more: the domes and dishes of the nine telescopes that crowd the several acres at the summit, as if straining for a better view of what’s out there. Individually, even an observatory six or eight stories tall isn’t necessarily impressive, at least not here. Each one may come as a fresh surprise as it ranges into view, a blaze of white against the deep blue of the thin atmosphere or the rich lunar gray of the volcanic soil. But in this queer landscape, where the only scale of comparison is an immense and indifferent sky, it’s in the aggregate that these structures begin to assume gargantuan proportions. Two here, three more up the road, a couple others on a distant ridge: It’s the behemoth-after-behemoth audacity that lends the observatories atop Mauna Kea their lunatic grace. They’re like an elephant graveyard: It must mean something that so many of them are here.”

  • “dormant volcano”, alias a sleeping giant.
  • “Big Island”, nice juxtaposition; volcano and big island.
  • “13,796 feet above sea level”, nice, concrete fact, something our left brains can grasp.
  • “and then it rises a little bit more”, engage the right brain again.
  • “the domes and dishes of the nine telescopes”, back to the left.
  • “crowd”, anthropomorphizing. Nice.
  • “as if straining for a better view of what’s out there”, more anthropomorphizing.

The paragraph continues blending mythic with sensory imagery and validates our confusion with the last line, “It must mean something that so many of them are here.” Panek’s writing has worked hard (albeit beautifully) to get us here, to this point, and now he’s externalizing the question we’ve been building up since we first read the title.

I’ve read through the whole article at least once recently and obviously at least once in the past. What I pick up now I may have felt but not recognized twenty years ago when I put this piece in my “Good Writing Examples” collection.

Slow down. Pay attention.

 
My immediate takeaway?

Slow down. Pay attention.

This piece (to me) gets its power because it mixes lots of sensory (what you see, what you hear, what you feel) details with lots of responses to the experiences described (the height of Mauna Kea, the domes crowding…straining to get a better view. I have no idea if Panek wrote this in one burst or it went through twenty-five rewrites before he handed it in.

I do know that right now, where I am in my writing, to write something like this I would need to slow down (I’ve slowed my typing even now, paying more attention to my intention than just getting the words down), to savor the experience I want to communicate in order to share it more fully, more completely, and that means paying attention to every detail.

Analyzing Loren Eiseley’s “The Dance of the Frogs” as Horror

Real horror is subtle. It seduces.

One of the finest pieces of horror I’ve encountered is Loren Eiseley’s “The Dance of the Frogs“. I doubt Eiseley wrote this intending it to be horror. If he did, I have to find more horror writing by him (consider “The Fifth Planet“. Not quite horror but damn close). It is brilliant.

Horror done well is subtle. Horror can’t wack you over the head. It has to seduce you. It has to sneak up on you, entrap you. Horror, done well, must take you from comfort and peace to helplessness and inevitability.

Horror done well allows you no sure escape. Questions regarding safety, yes, freedom from worry, no. The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie (with the original ending and based on the Jack Finney novel, The Body Snatchers) is an excellent example of horror. Horrific things do not make good horror, horrifying situations make good horror.
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On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back

A worthy read for authors regardless of genre

On Writing Science Fiction is about writing science fiction only as a topic, not as a focus. Somewhere in the book is a money-line about the book teaching writing first, fiction writing second and writing science fiction last.

Quite true and accurate! This book is a gem for anyone who wants to write. Don’t worry about the genre aspect, it’s a great study.
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