Monday, April 2, 2012

Making Scenery Come Alive

Scenery is perhaps the hardest thing to make interesting on the page. Your characters need to travel, see the world—be it as simple as a room in their house or an exotic place across the globe or maybe another dimension entirely. FTLOW blogger, Raven Clark, did a post on weather openings and how to make them work. I thought I’d follow that up with another, similar topic that authors often use for openings: Scenery.
Now, don’t get me wrong—scenic openings can work, and many famous writers often use them—but there’s a difference to someone who’s been published before and someone who’s just started out. Novice writers often think setting the scene is the very first thing that the reader needs to know before they even meet your hero. They need to know where your character is, yes, but not every excruciating detail about the world.
Ask yourself this: How do we care about the setting and the predicament, if we don’t know who we’re supposed to be rooting for? With openings written by novice writers, I’ve noticed, they seem to separate character and scenery so much when they begin, that when the story begins, the opening lacks tension or is slow.
So, when thinking about scenery and scenic openings, don’t just write about the warm summer day, write about how the summer weather makes the character feel. Set a mood with the character as the mouthpiece. What makes this day, or this moment, different then any other day?  Whatever makes this day different then any other, then, is a sense of things changing. This change is often a good source of conflict or tension.    
In total, there are about four techniques—similar to weather openings—you need to make a scenic opening, and scenery itself, come alive.
1)      Make the scenery active.
2)      Create tension within the prose.
3)      Make the scenery as much a part of the plot as possible.
4)      Use the senses to make the scene real for readers.  
What do I mean when I say you have make scenic openings and scenery active? I mean, does the scenery appear to be doing anything? Does it appear to have a personality, almost as if it were alive? To give an example, I’ll use a part of the prologue from the first novel, The Eye of the World, of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series Wheel of Time.  

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory,
groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast
through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet
hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the
ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of
once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and
animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew
quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck
down in attempted flight by the lightnings that had flashed down every
corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into
stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost
alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colourful
tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed, except
where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings,
inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling
floors had toppled them. The mind-twisting had struck at the core,
ignoring peripheral things.
Did you notice how Jordan gave the destroyed castle almost a personality? How “The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened…” Or how the fires “seized” and “stalked” the palace occupants, or how the stones of the palace itself “…had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again.” It’s a building, yet, using similes and metaphors, he is able to give the reader a clear picture of how the scenery ‘reacted’ to the disaster.
Now, this opening is told in omniscient point of view (an all-seeing POV. Almost like a god.) and we are not introduced to a character until the next paragraph. Today, that isn’t a good idea as it seems like you’re head-hopping—jumping between POVs. The opening above could only work for an established author nowadays, as opposed to when this novel was published, back in 1990. The rules have changed regarding pace and tension and openings, so if you try to do this type of slightly slower opening today, you’d have a hard time selling your novel. So it’s better to tell the story through a character’s reactions and have your hero describe the scenery in his/her voice rather then using omniscient POV.
On the second point, creating tension within the prose, is based on a few factors:
A)    Word choice: Do the words you choose evoke an image? Do they evoke a mood? Does it incorporate the senses? (I’ll explain about that later in this post).
B)    Situation: What is happening to your character? Where is he or she? What is he/she doing? What is her goal for the scene?
C)    Stakes: What happens if your character fails? What or who does the character lose if she loses? What about if she succeeds? The higher and riskier the stakes, the more tense and powerful the scene will be.

For an example of tension within the prose, I’ll use a scene from my WIP novel, The Last Wyvern. In this scene (in the 3rd chapter, so it’s not the opening of the novel), my heroine, Calias, has been captured by the main villain, King Sacriel, who is part of a race of bird-like creatures called the Queye. She must escape and is successful, with the help of the novel’s hero, Owen. In their attempt to escape, however, they must leave behind other prisoners of Calias’s order.

A rumble of thunder drowned out his next words as he gripped her wrist. He pulled her towards the door, and slowly eased it open, the cries of the Guild members like the shrill noise of gulls overhead, nearly drowned out by the thrashing waves and rain. Guilt forced its way into her chest, lodged like a stone within. We must make this sacrifice. It’s us he wants. Slipping through the shadows, Owen guided her to the lifeboats she’d seen earlier. As he set one up to be lowered, the possibility of being caught burned in her veins, the awareness of so many Queyen eyes watching the ship’s deck, patrolling it, setting her nerves dangling on a jagged edge. No time. She kept watch as the ship cut through the waves, her heartbeat louder than the storm.
“Climb in.” He hissed.
“Owen, I—” A clap of thunder overwhelmed her words. No time. Escape. She stumbled forward as he hoisted her up into his arms and set her in the lifeboat. “Owen!”
She glimpsed a smile as a flash of lightning cracked the sky. “Don’t worry, I’m coming too.”
“No—” She glanced down, feeling sick. Below, the black waves swelled, like quicksand, threatening to swallow her whole—looming closer and closer—as Owen began to lower the boat. One thought slammed into her, and she gripped the sides of the boat with white-knuckled hands. I can’t swim…
Glancing back up at Owen, the rain soaking through her clothing, blinding her, Calias cried out as guards swarmed upon Owen. Oh, no… Weaving out of the reach of gleaming swords, Owen pulled his own blade from its sheath and combat ensued. Battle cries and shouts of pain echoed through the night as Owen delivered blow after blow, a few lifeless bodies tumbling into the sea. A sword swing caught one of the ropes and Calias gripped the boat as it lurched to one side, hanging a few feet from the waves. Don’t cut the ropes…please don’t cut the ropes! She had a brief image of the boat capsizing, tossing her into the water and a sudden bout of panic threatened to choke her. Lower the boat. Don’t cut the ropes—this storm’s bad enough! As the boat jerked again, she watched—the breath frozen in her lungs—as one rope began to unravel.
Sacriel’s voice rose above the storm, a thunderous roar. “Find her, bring her aboard!” She could imagine the Queye king, his eyes blazing, one hand unconsciously rubbing his throat, as he marched across the deck, ordering his men. “I want that witch skinned alive!”
Owen spun, swinging to cut the second rope, and Calias felt her heart plummet to her stomach as the boat fell. Caught in the violent swell of the sea, its clutch determined to overturn the tiny lifeboat, Calias grabbed the oars and forced the boat through the water, determined to get away. And leave them? The weight of the Guild prisoners’ feeble cries for help echoed in her mind. She grit her teeth and forced herself to focus.
Looking up, watching the distance slowly grow, she saw Owen—his form briefly set aglow by a flash of lightning—as he dove off the ship and disappeared into the dark water. Sacriel’s guards set crossbows and fired, arrows hitting the water, just out of her reach and that strangling terror set in again. Scanning the waves, she couldn’t hear nor see Owen. Where is he? For a few moments, she stared at the water, imaging the pain of arrows stabbing into his back one by one, the dread threatening to make her sick.

The oars felt heavy in her hands, dragging like lead weights across the water, the water itself black as liquid night, viscous like honey. Where is he? Pools of crimson splashed across her vision, staining the ocean red. The white caps of waves became fins that cut through the storm like the curve of a sword. She blinked and they were gone. Muttering prayers under her breath, gripping the oars with sore hands, she stared as Sacriel’s boat drifted, the glow of lanterns growing smaller. She hunched her shoulders as the wind cut through her clothing, cold and ruthless as the sea. “I can’t do this alone…” Calias pried numb fingers from the oars, letting them fall limply to her sides. “I can’t.”

This is rough, and definitely needs improvement, but the tension is there. I’ve tried to use particular words or descriptions, like: “…the cries of the Guild members like the shrill noise of gulls overhead, nearly drowned out by the thrashing waves and rain” Or: “…the black waves swelled, like quicksand, threatening to swallow her whole…” Even using objects to describe the scene: “The oars felt heavy in her hands, dragging like lead weights across the water, the water itself black as liquid night, viscous like honey.”
So the word choice factor is done but the important thing is, I’ve let the character have to make necessary sacrifices in order to escape the villain and the fact she can’t swim only adds to the brutality of the storm and her situation—stakes are up and the situation is dire, which—if done well—should compel readers to continue.     
But how do you do that for your writing—especially if your novel isn’t all thrilling action? That’s OK, as long as you have what I like to call “subtle tension”.
Subtle tension in openings and in scenery itself is often used during the rising action moments—when the character thinks everything is fine for now, when both the reader and the character get a chance to breathe.

Subtle tension derives from the word choice, this time using mood and active scenery, rather then dire situations or high stakes (though they aren’t totally left out), to create the tension and bridge conflict to the next huge event. An example of subtle tension with scenery and openings, is the first chapter of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World:

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that
become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten
when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the
Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long passed, a wind rose
in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are
neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.
But it was a beginning.

Borne below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their
name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of
a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into
the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat
at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track
called the Quarry Road. For all the spring should have come a good
month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear

Not much happens in this paragraph, and this, again, suffers from the use of an omniscient POV, but as an example of subtle tension, it works. The subtle tension is there if you look for it. It’s in the description of the weather itself, how it “…flailed and beat at two men…” And, as if the wind had a mind of its own, “carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow.” The weather is made into a personality, one that carries foreboding, as if the wind and chilly weather is an extension of the main villain of this series, a metaphysical being called the Dark One.

Another point with scenery and scenic openings is to make the scenery as much a part of the plot as possible. I’m not talking about how much detail you put in the world but how the scene reflects the tension. It’s perhaps the hardest to do without the scene coming off contrived. With this point, you have to mix active tone and tension, while increasing conflict within the story with the scenery itself. I’ll try and use another rough example from The Last Wyvern:
Owen allowed the question to hang in the air for a few moments and the silence stretched between them—shattered by the snapping of twigs and underbrush, like breaking bones. An impossible darkness shrouded the wood, the tangled branches above them closing them in, eclipsing the sun. Her heartbeat sounded, loud as a war drum in her ears, and she put a hand on her mount’s neck seeking comfort, holding the stone aloft. Owen still hadn't answered her questions, his expression once again hard. Unyielding. He walked ahead, maneuvering his mount around a fallen tree. She followed him and froze. What is that?
Something dangled from the branches above them, like thick silver umbilical cords. Fear latched onto her heart like the claws of a bear trap and Calias glanced around, peering into the darkness, but saw nothing but the never-ending paths—broken by fallen trees, some spreading into forked labyrinths.
“Owen...?” Her throat clenched around her words and she struggled to breathe, drowning in panic. “Owen!”
Owen spun, holding the torch high, anxiety tensing every muscle. “What is it?” His voice was barely a whisper. Then, he paled. “Calias...”
She looked at the Crystal Iris as it pulsed in her hand, a seizing heartbeat of violet light. Oh, gods. We’re close...
The noises of the forest seemed louder, every step and inhale of breath like the crash of thunder, the hiss of a twister. The trees closed in on them—dark, frail assassins moving in for the kill, to cage them within bark and moss. We can’t back down now. It’s just your imagination playing tricks! Remember what Kydren said: Focus on the mission! She took a deep breath and the trees stilled, the branches no longer looking like reaching hands.
“Easy, easy.” Owen yanked at the reins as his horse began to panic, its neck shining with perspiration, the whites of its eyes showing.
Her stomach twisted as a distant rumbling reached her ears. Too soft and consistent to be thunder, she looked at the shining, sticky film that coated the trunks of trees, dripping from the branches and cold sweat dampened her brow. Her ears strained to hear the sound, trying to judge where it came from, the rumbling echoing around them, coming from every direction. The shadows swam before her, lost amid Choketree Wood, and Calias suddenly felt very small. Insignificant.

Another point to make scenery and scenic openings, come alive is to use the senses. The basic senses: Sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch should paint a picture in the readers mind of what your scene looks like, what sort of mood the readers should feel. But there are four other senses that are often ignored: Temperature, kinetic sense (position of the body), pain, and the body’s sense of balance and gravity.

However you write your scenes and open your novels, the techniques above still apply regardless of genre, point of view, or setting. If you can make scenery engaging as an opening, try it but if not, it might be best to introduce the hero first and have him interact with the world, and create tension, compelling readers to continue.
- HC



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