An active scene is a better scene.
At least, that’s what I ended up learning this spring that has helped shape The Light in Darkness. After making substantial progress on my complete rewrite of The Light in Darkness, at about 65,000 words back in February, I attended a writing workshop hosted by my local writers association, Literary Cleveland. LitCLE assembled a beautiful event at Case Western Reserve University, with great author panels, attended by gracious hosts, and brimming with curious attendees that were willing to share their writing experiences.
One of two breakout groups I joined was on writing settings. I’m glad I chose it (although, I could have used a bit of every breakout group). DM Pulley, author of The Dead Key, gave a presentation on framing settings. As an aside, I am currently reading The Dead Key and it’s excellent – a thriller / mystery / spooky novel. It has a magic to it, chronicling the detective work of two women at one historical building, but in different time periods. Check it out.
My takeaway from DM’s talk: Make your settings a character in the story. Give them a personality. Have the scene interact with the characters.
I decided to apply that to my revisions of The Light in Darkness. It made a huge difference.
Let’s take an example.
From my zero draft of The Light in Darkness, I framed the opening setting as such:
“Torchlight kept the two working in the midst of a dust storm that had afflicted the outside. The storm had become so violent that the two dismantled their tenting and brought in to their work area, fastening the hide and cloth to the surrounding rocks. Ihara even brought the donkey in. Now they stood, intently and tireless working, encased by the protective barrier of hide as the weather raged outside.”
That was it. There wasn’t really anything else that hit the reader with an idea of the scene. My characters – father and son – were working in a cave that had saved them from a storm, and it hadn’t been touched in thousands of years. I thought to myself, “That was all I could say about it?” I wondered whether the reader was hooked on the scene, or even knew where they were.
I decided to make it a character in the revision based on the prompting I got at the clinic.
Here’s the setting as revised (highlighted on my home page):
“The cave had beckoned them in the midst of a brooding, swirling dust storm. At first it presented itself as a mound against a featureless, blotted plain. Then a shield against the wind and dust. Then a fold in the blurry hillside. Ihara grasped at rock to find a cave entrance, and then a great cave chamber, then this enclave within. All of it was illuminated beyond reason by their torches. The walls and air glowed like sunrise.”
Much better! (or not? Comment below)
There was something at work here, I noticed. Something practical that didn’t occur to me in the clinic. Anthropomorphizing the setting, giving it a personality, meant that I wrote the setting in the active voice. Passive voice had been limited.
During the rewrite, I could use less of “it was. . . “ / “there was. . . .” and use more of “The hall called to them” / “the road cackled as the wagon wheels rolled” – giving the setting a way of talking directly to the reader and avoiding the dirge of passive voice descriptions.
As I have gone along these past two months, the setting in The Light in Darkness has become a character, no matter the location. In fact, a key aspect of setting – the light – has become the title and the theme. It felt right. Light plays a key role in identifying characters and settings throughout the book and their alignment to the protagonist. Now I feel like the story has a theme that runs throughout, all starting with a focus on the setting. Awesome!
If you find that certain sections of your MS are stale, check for this. It may mean that you have used passive voice to describe the setting in a way that might disinterest your reader.
Fix it by making the setting a character, therefore making it active.
As I've found, an active scene is better.