How to people scenes like R. O. Kwon #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

How to people scenes like R. O. Kwon

A couple of years ago, my very talented critique partner Elle Marr (debut The Missing Sister forthcoming March 2020 from Thomas & Mercer), with respect to the first chapter of one of my books, asked me via line edit why I had only described my setting according to its non-human characteristics. The scene was outside a palliative care facility during the day, so wouldn’t folks be visiting relatives? I had a *slaps forehead* moment and added this one line:

Past baby boomers pushing relatives in wheelchairs, she followed a path inside a topiary castle.”

And just like that, my chapter’s setting wasn’t devoid of other people besides the characters actually involved with plot. The thing is, though, I struggled with this one line for a good hour. Fast forward to this week, and while audiobooking The Incendiaries, I zero in on just how good author R. O. Kwon is at peopling her scenes. Like the line I wrote above, Kwon also makes use of generalizations when describing groups of people⁠—not all the time, but often. It’s one of the choices that makes the voice in The Incendiaries so mesmerizing. I could have aimed for accuracy with the line above, as in, “Past THREE baby boomers pushing relatives in wheelchairs, she followed a path inside a topiary castle,” but that didn’t sound as pretty to me. In the end, I decided there’s an implicit pact with readers, one that states that they don’t take generalizations literally in real life conversations with people, and they won’t take them literally with my conversational writing either. Below are examples of how Kwon does it. Because I audiobooked her novel, I guessed at the punctuation.

At parties, listless bodies held ice drinks to hot, moist skin.” If Kwon had instead aimed for accuracy, as in, “At parties, at least ten percent of the crowd held ice drinks to hot, moist skin,” it wouldn’t quite have had the same effect. Her generalization is more elegant, at least in my ear.

On arriving at university: “I was in the main quadrangle. Spires and belfries spun out from stone citadels. Frisbees soared. Bronze statues gazed forward, frozen in heroes’ poses. Sunlit paths crossed the green, lines in a giant palm, holding students who lazed in the grass.” Notice how she doesn’t even have to tell you that people are playing Frisbee for you to be able to imagine them.

At an outdoor protest: “Wind gusted, flapping nylon jackets.” Again, she doesn’t tell you the jackets are worn by people, but you intuit it nevertheless.

A memory about the beach: “Surfboards gliding, iridescent. Swimmers beaded with sea-foam. Harlequin kites spooled high, lolloping toward the sun.”

How to people scenes like R. O. KwonOn Coney Island: “Toddlers squalled. Clowns tottered past on painted, salt-glazed stilts. Street acrobats flung up agile legs. Ignoring the fall chill, girls on the beach lolled in bikinis, flat bared stomachs shining like mirrors to the sun.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

When you people the background of a scene, do you tend to aim for accuracy, generalizations, or a bit of both? Do you think you’ll play around with this in the future? Chat with me in the comments!

71 thoughts on “How to people scenes like R. O. Kwon #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. What a great point. I thought I had learned this when my agent long ago told me that how my characters were dressed needed to tell more about the plot. But, I can see I need a refresher. Excellent article.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “she doesn’t tell you the jackets are worn by people, but you intuit it nevertheless.” My goal is to jostle the readers’ imagination so they participate in creating a clear description. If you over-describe, the reader is just a passive receptacle.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I think it ate my comment – which was I have been thinking about singular words that add clarity without the fluff. The behavior of listless above describes the attitude of the whole party. Fitzgerald is good at that and then isolating individuals in the mix. Now, if we could all get as good as John D MacDonald at five word character descriptions life would be good.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I really like this post. I have a lodge setting and I didn’t realize until reading this post that other than the talkative characters, I don’t even consider other people who would be there. That’s something I’ll need to work in during my editing. Great post!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Brilliant blog post, Raimey! Love the different examples you chose, and (even though you credited me at the top) it’s a great reminder to continue providing layers to my scenes as I’m drafting my book 2. Love the toolbox for this reason! Thanks for sharing!!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Am I doing this? I never thought of it before, but I’ll bet my scenes have the protagonist and whoever he’s reacting with, with nary another person in sight. Something to work on…

    Liked by 3 people

  7. The sentences could easily be a piece of poetry. Beautifully written using few words so the reader can visualize the scene and be a part of it. Well done! The samples you chose illustrate your point. Thank you.
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Great post! It’s something I’ve never thought of before, but the best novels do have lots of people – just not named people. Generalizing is a great way of filling the stage without adding unnecessary characters.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Making a scene come alive like that is still one of my struggles. I tend to zero in on the characters and what they are doing and not so much what and/or who is always around them if they are out and about. Great tips, and things to keep in mind going forward.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I think this is a really sharp observation.
    In many ways it reminds me of how someone can reference part of a well known song or quote, and listener naturally completes it. There’s that natural desire to see something complete (whether it be the book we’ve started reading, or a single line of text). As long as audiences have the right details, the mind naturally fills in the gaps.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. The generalization of the scene makes the people in the background what they are – background characters. It is also interesting how placing people in the background does add in more character to the scene. Your main character is not alone in a place, there are other people, too, but you don’t need to give them too much attention.

    Thanks for this article! 😀

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Thanks for this article. Adding people to the background when writing reminded me a lot of my time as a background performer (extra). You think that the director can use any human blur to move around out of focus, but a good director had an eye for the whole composition, the type of person they wanted or the color of their clothes mattered. It’s another paint splotch on the canvas. I think this can be translated to a story as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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