Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Kenny Chesney taught me about setting


OK, I won't limit it to just Kenny Chesney -- I've learned how to do a better job at setting from a lot of songwriters and performers. But The Kiddo loves Kenny Chesney, and this weekend we were in the car together, which meant that if I didn't want to listen to Hannah Montana, I had to do with Kenny Chesney.

I've always been impressed with really good songs, and how they tell a story in three minutes. A songwriter's job is a hard one --- he has to hook you and build a world in three minutes flat, and there is no such thing as a prologue in a song.

That world building comes from using specific details, details that are at once universal and at the same time rise above the mundane.

Quoting lyrics would be violating all sorts of copyright laws, so I can't do that. But I'll just take one song -- Summertime -- and mention a few details Chesney packs into a chorus. It's not one of my all-time favorite songs by him -- but it's one of the best when it comes to setting.

Chesney takes a few items, bare feet on a dashboard, cheap shades, and Yoo-Hoo, and strings them together into an image. I can see the sand-covered floorboards with that Yoo-Hoo bottle rolling around, a girl's bare feet with pink-painted toenails propped up on the dashboard, the girl herself in big oversized shades.

It's universal in that, since teenagers have been driving, most everyone has either experienced a scene very similar to it or witnessed it. But the Yoo-Hoo brings it up from the mundane, makes it fresh. It still fits ... but it's unexpected. It signals to the listener that the writer has been paying attention to life as it passed him by.

And that's important, paying attention to life. A writer is at first, I think, an observer. We have to boil something complex and big and broad down to its essence, and then we have to figure out how to see it from a different angle.

In addition to writing, I love taking photographs. The Husband would beg to differ, because I hardly ever have a camera in my hand when The Kiddo does something adorable. But in a past life, I was a photographer for a small newspaper chain, and I would go out and take feature pictures to fill "holes" in the pages.

Old barns were a favorite subject of mine. They didn't require any primping, they didn't put their hands in front of my lens and say, "not without my makeup!" They just sat there, moldering away, ready for me to capture them. I had readers tell me that they had never really noticed a particular old barn until I'd run a photo of it in the paper.

I figured out why they had missed the barn that I'd seen. I saw in (literally) a different light than they had -- maybe they passed it by on their morning commute or in dusky twilight. I saw the barn on a lazy Sunday afternoon drive.

That's a secret to setting: don't reach for just the obvious. Dig a little deeper, and find the one detail that lets readers know you have been there, done that. Find the detail that makes it real -- find your Yoo Hoo bottle.

9 comments:

Piedmont Writer said...

Excellent Post Cynthia! I love that -- find your Yoo-Hoo bottle.

And I agree with you 100%, setting isn't just about sandy floors or pink toenails, it's about paying CLOSE attention to the SMALLEST detail.

I love when 'they' say to only choose 3 things to describe a room, I generally pick 2 pieces of furniture and then some obscure little hoozy dinkey nobody would ever really see if they entered the room. But that's just me.

out of the wordwork said...

Great post, Cynthia. You're absolutely right - the mundane becomes the sublime with one little detail that others might have passed over. Thanks for the reminder to keep my eyes on the details as I'm writing!

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Mmm, Yoo-Hoo.

I envy the talent of song writers too. Many times one simple line from a song inspires a whole scene in one of my stories.

Great post.

Lickety Splitter said...

Observation is a skill I'm working on. Currently, I would make a terrible witness in a bank robbery, etc. Even though I never fail to notice nature (out of love) and will sometimes even count the number of concrete blocks in the wall at the gym (out of boredom), most times, I skim over the nuances of my reality. But, I see the value in working on my lack of attention!

Sarah said...

Good, sound advice!! Setting is important that's for sure, but I also think writers shouldn't get TOO lost in them, or else it's kind of long..? Right?

Cynthia Reese said...

Anne, the thing that you pick, that obscure little hoozy dinkey (gotta use that tech term ... is it patented?), it tells more about the person whose POV you're inhabiting than any other detail. So you're right to do it! (IMHO)

Oho, Nelsa, I can only hope that somehow or other my mundane can become sublime!

Karen, me, too! Once I had this sticky problem where characters were acting exactly as I plotted ... and it wasn't working. And then I heard this song, and I realized, "THAT'S what they should be saying! That's what they should be feeling!" Went back to the keyboard and wrote a much stronger scene.

Lickety Splitter -- you and me, both. I hate it when The Husband does something as a surprise for me and makes me guess. I NEVER guess right.

And Sarah, you're very right -- and perhaps I should have belabored that point more. You know how when you're hungry for something and you don't know what that is, so you wind up eating the entire kitchen, thinking, "No, not that." Well, in my case, a tiny bite of the RIGHT thing is more satisfying than a whole kitchen-full of the WRONG thing.

Tawna Fenske said...

Hmmm...I feel like I'm missing out. Have never tried Yoo-Hoo and have never heard that song. I'm off to go remedy both situations.

Tawna

Cynthia Reese said...

Get that girl a bottle of Yoo-Hoo and a Kenny Chesney fix! Woo-hoo! The things Oregonians miss out on! :-)

India Drummond said...

Great post. It's the details that make a scene come to life!