Way back when before I was published, many beta readers complained that although I had dialogue and plot down pat, everything was happening in a vacuum—I did not set the scene. I had ‘talking heads’, they said.
In real life I’m intensely aware of my surroundings, often capturing things with my camera that no one else notices. I also like waxing poetic about the interplay of light and shadow and life and death. I love adjectives and adverbs. However, in real life I also get bored quickly when reading lengthy descriptions in a novel—get on with the story, already, I say to myself—skimming over what seems to be irrelevancies.
But I am wise enough to know not to ignore the critics. To pacify them without boring myself and my less literary fans, I decided to make my scenic descriptions relevant in more ways than one. I was going to use powerful adjectives, some with double meanings, some with alliteration, some with rhythm. I was going to make each scenic description a coy contribution to the emotions driving the plot. A dark and stormy night, indeed. I would give my readers green grass poking through the snow when hope was on the way. We’d have icy blizzards foreshadowing death, meteorite showers accenting romance, the stench of diesel announcing danger.
Excerpt from FIREWALLS:
Outside Sergeant Kindle’s window, off to the horizon, a winter storm was brewing. The top sides of the towering clouds were glistening a bright white but the darkness between the fluffy layers held a warning. She watched the building power, reaching higher, growing darker, moving in. “Katrina, you wanted to see me?” The door slammed closed behind her, snapping her back to reality.Whether or not readers notice the symbolism and grasp the intent, the descriptions serve to set the scene, the time of year and sometimes the time of day. Hopefully they will also subliminally influence readers’ emotions and draw them deeper into the story.
Symbolism doesn’t have to be relegated to scene setting. Characters’ names, place names and even the book title itself can hold innuendo. Writers often slip symbolism into character descriptions. What kind of man has steel-grey eyes? What do we expect to see from mousy men and women with fiery red hair?
In this excerpt from FATAL ERROR, it’s no coincidence that young Katrina’s distant, cool, metallic guardian is named Mr. Cooper.
Cooper was seated on a couch in Debra's living room. He stood when Katrina entered the room. "I hear you've been a pretty busy lady lately." She knew he was trying to sound gentle, but it didn't work. He was staid and lawyer-ish, always had beenGive symbolism a try—it’s fun to write. And, the next time you read a novel, keep your eyes out for those symbols that the skilled author has covertly used to manipulate your emotions.
Eileen Schuh, Author