SETTING THE SCENE
A great irony of creative nonfiction is that one of its chief assets is also one of its chief liabilities. This is the fact that in nonfiction everything actually happened. It’s all true. One of the reasons we eagerly turn to nonfiction is because we have it on reliable sources—most often, in any case—that the events on the page actually took place and the people who did them were, or are, real. A good part of our astonishment at reading Ernest Shackleton’s account of his eight-hundred-mile open boat voyage from Elephant Island across the terrible frigid sea to South Georgia Island, for example, is that real men went through this, with real fears and real hopes, who had real families at home and real men left behind cold and hungry depending on their success. This happened.
This is what makes the book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, so strong, as well. The story of an airplane crashing in the Andes and the survivors resorting to eating the flesh of their dead comrades in order to survive moves us deeply. Real people, not so unlike us, went through that experience. Who is to say that one day something like that might happen to one of us? We wonder how we might act. If this were in a novel, we might easily dismiss it, and it probably wouldn’t plague our hearts and minds with sympathy and horror in so intimate a way as it does in Alive.
But the cold clear fact is that no matter how astonishing the story, there is no guarantee that it will be interesting writing. Many writers of nonfiction, particularly in the ever-burgeoning category of memoir, seem to believe the strength of their subject is enough to keep the reader captivated. After all, if you slept with your mother, or father, or both, and your dog, shouldn’t that be sufficient to keep the reader turning the pages? More seriously, the stories of memoir, and of nonfiction in general, are often desperately sad, even tragic—and in some cases, as with Ernest Shackleton’s, heroic—and so writers, under the sway of the powerful emotions associated with those events, often feel that simply by spilling out those events on the page, like the contents of a tool box, the reader will experience these emotions as clearly and strongly as the writer.
Not so. Or, often enough, not so. So, the fact that something actually happened is both the boon and the bane of creative nonfiction. It’s a terrific asset, because so many of the things that happen in real life would just not be plausible in fiction. How many times have we heard someone say, “If this were an idea for a novel, it would be laughable. But it really happened.” So, you can tell those implausible stories in nonfiction, because, by the very nature of the genre, they did indeed happen. However, the fact of a crash in the Andes, or a climb up Everest, or a battle against cancer, or living under a cruel and repressive government, is not enough to make the writing good. In too many cases, the subject matter can work against the writer. It can lull the writer into a false sense of literary security.
Let’s now take a look at what nonfiction writers can learn from fiction writers in terms of setting the scene.
Many works of nonfiction actually do a good job with this. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that so much of it takes place outside—or in houses or cabins or tents in or near the wilderness. Think of all the splendid nature writing, and adventure writing—from Thoreau to Muir to Dillard, from Shackleton to Saint Exupéry, where we have fine settings of scenes. I think memoirists need pay heed here. Setting the scene precisely and well is too often overlooked in memoir. I’m not sure exactly why. But we—the readers—want to be grounded. We want to know where we are. What kind of world we’re in. Not only that, it is so often the case in nonfiction that the scene itself is a kind of character. Take the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, for example. Capote takes pains right at the beginning of his book to set the scene of his multiple murders on the plains and wheat fields of the Midwest. I think the movies of his book were influenced by this emphasis, as well.
Photography can help here, as well. If you look once again at the astonishing photographs Walker Evans took as part of what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, you will have a memorable lesson. The people are heartbreaking, yes, and some will stay with you until the day you die. But look at the setting, look at the scene, look at the black and white photographs of the houses and the rooms and the porches these people lived in. Look at their beds, at their chairs, tables, walls. That is in many ways as heartbreaking as the people themselves. They tell a story. There is one photograph in particular that has seared itself into my heart. It’s a simple shot of the inside wall of one of the sharecropper’s houses. The wall is probably pine, rough-hewn, unpainted and unvarnished. There is a small piece of wood nailed against it, leaving a space where the owner has crookedly put seven or eight knives and forks. This is all you need to know about how they live. Sometimes, presenting a life indirectly is the most effective way.
Nonfiction writers should show the reader where the story takes place, and in vivid detail. John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is an example how of one can set a scene. Here’s how that novel begins,
This not an especially dramatic opening; in fact, it’s very calm, and easy. What one notices, though, is the soft personification of the school. It is “more sedate,” and “straight-laced.” Right away, the school is being likened to a person, perhaps to a typical boarding school teacher, who knows? I think the point here is that this kind of method can be applied to any place, to any building, to any store, and so on. When I spoke to some students recently about setting, I asked them to describe the building we were all in—which happened to be an old wooden church—as a person. They were to do this in the form of a metaphor, not a simile; in other words, the building was the person, or vice-versa. Any nonfiction writer can employ this method in describing the house they grew up in, or the school he or she attended. It gives more bounce to the prose. It makes it stronger.
I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and straight-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put on everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.
Let’s compare this to the beginning of Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens, an author best known for his book, By Love Possessed. Guard of Honor is a fine book, and you will often see it on “Neglected Novels” lists that are compiled every once in a while. Here is its beginning and scene setting:
Aside from the extended alliteration, most of it with s’s, and quite surprisingly successful, one can find in this long paragraph some good ideas for setting the scene. Now, granted, the scene is being painted from a perspective far above, but just look at the wonderful “enormous, flat, metallic-gray splotch” that is the Gulf of Mexico. A splotch! The idea that you can transform an enormous body of water into a mere splotch is not just an act of creativity, but a leap of faith. You have to be more than simply creative, you have to be bold. You have to trust yourself. Somewhere inside, you are telling yourself, well, it looks like a splotch, like some ink I spilt. Perhaps another part of you is saying, don’t be absurd, this is a gigantic body of water, you can’t call it a splotch. Cozzens listened to the right voice, and we, his readers, benefit from his courage. Let this be a lesson for our nonfiction.
Through the late afternoon they flew southeast, going home to Ocanara at about two hundred miles an hour. Inside the spic and span fuselage—the plane was a new twin-engine advanced trainer of the type designated AT-7—this speed was not noticeable. Though the engines steadily and powerfully vibrated and time was passing, the shining plane seemed stationary, swaying gently and slightly oscillating, a little higher than the stationary, dull-crimson sphere of the low sun. It hung at perpetual dead center in an immense shallow bowl of summer haze, delicately lavender. The bottom of the bowl, six thousand feet below, was colored a soft olive brown; a blending, hardly distinguishable, of the wide, swampy river courses, the overgrown hammocks, the rolling, heat-shaken savannas, the dry, trackless, palmetto flatlands that make up so much of the rank but poor champaign of lower Alabama and northwestern Florida. Within the last few minutes, far off and too gradually to break the illusion of standing still, the dim, irregular edge of an enormous, flat, metallic-gray splotch had begin to appear. It was the Gulf of Mexico.
----------------------This article originally appeared in Writer’s Chronicle and it is also included in Richard Goodman’s book The Soul of Creative Writing.