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.”
On 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!