When writing, consider putting your characters in a location or setting that contrasts the scene’s emotional impact.
This was the example the presenter gave us: you’re writing a scene about a family that has to deal with a significant death in the family. The parents have saved all year and paid up front to take their children on a vacation to Disney World… and the trip begins the day after the funeral. What would that be like?
A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton offers a great contrast between setting and emotion. The opening scene is in a bedroom in a Wisconsin farmhouse on a brilliant Monday morning in June. Alice lies in bed and contemplates her perfect life with her husband and family, and gloriously describes even the worst of smells:
I needed to get out of bed. Howard, in his quiet, sissing voice, soothing as a dove, had told me to sleep in… Howard always smelled and through the house his scent seemed always to be warm. His was a musky smell, as if the source of a muddy river, the Nile or the Mississippi, began right in his armpits. I had grown used to thinking of his smell as the fresh man smell of hard work… That morning there was alfalfa on his pillow and cow manure embedded in his tennis shoes and the cuffs of of his overalls that lay by the bed. Those were sweet reminders of him. He had gone out as one shaft of searing light came through the window. He had put on clean clothes to milk the cows.
I knew just then, in a brief glimmer of truth, that the stink and mess, the frenetic dullness of farming, the tedium of work and love — all of it was my savior. Half the world seemed to be scheming to escape husbands and wives, but I was planted firmly enough, striving, all ways striving, to take root.
The scene wraps the reader in a cozy comforter. Shortly after, Alice’s idyllic morning develops into an unimaginable horror. After breakfast, a neighbor drops her two young children off to play with Alice’s children for the day. The plan is for Alice to take the girls down to the pond for the morning, but when she goes upstairs to get her swimsuit, the neighbor’s two year old, Lizzy, slips outside unnoticed. The first chapter ends after Lizzy has been found face down in the pond.
In my novel, In the Context of Love, the narrator Angelica has an epiphany — she realizes she’s still in love with someone else and her marriage is doomed. The setting for this epiphany? The entire family is at Cedar Point Amusement park. Angelica hopes this afternoon will get her troubled marriage back on track.
The chapter begins:
Taking the children to Cedar Point for the day was my idea, the closest thing to a family vacation we’d have that year, and I suspect Gavin agreed only because I made him feel guilty over the insane hours that kept him on the road. We sat at a picnic table in the shade by the Midway for a lunch of corn dogs on a stick and limp fries. It was humid, at least ninety degrees. My shoulders felt raked by the sun. The park was packed, and the scent of overripe humans was as pungent as the livestock barns at the county fair. Jude accidentally splurted ketchup on the crotch of his shorts, and Michelle dumped her frozen cola. They gobbled their food like animals and then pestered us to hurry so we could take them river rafting on the Thunder Canyon…
The Earthquake ride jerked my family through a dark, smoky maze of burning, falling buildings to a sound track of cartoonish screams and crashes. The kids sat in the front seat, unaware of my inner crashing, and I sat next to a husband who had a hornets’ nest buzzing inside him. I shrieked when our car swung around a corner and a plummeting building stopped inches from my face. Gavin didn’t flinch, too stubborn to acknowledge me or the peril we were in…
Our family closed the day with our favorite ride, always saved for last: the Antique Cars. Gavin and Jude were in the Model T in front of Michelle and me. I barked at her until I was hoarse, “Give it gas, turn this way, not that way, hit the brakes,” as if I could teach a nine-year-old how to drive. Gavin let Jude do it all on his own, unconcerned with driving skills as their car jerked and bumped along, grinding into the guardrail while both of them howled, Gavin the loudest.
We were on a collision course.
Setting the stage is a crucial element in writing, and contrast can be an effective tool.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of In the Context of Love: a novel about one woman’s need to tell her story without shame.
2016 Sarton Women’s Book Award Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Awards Finalist
2016 Hoffer Award Finalist
2016 Readers Favorite Finalist
Angelica Schirrick had always suspected there was something deeply disturbing about her family, but the truth was more than she bargained for.
“Linda K. Sienkiewicz’s powerful and richly detailed debut novel is at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River, and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters