Setting-Up a Scene with Isabel Allende

With breezy confidence and breathtaking detail, Isabel Allende evokes the forty year history of a slave woman from 18th century Haiti and other people connected to her. Allende’s prose moves with the speed of a jet ski and the grace of a ballerina, and a few chapters of THE ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA cover several years in a handful of sentences, while always grounding the reading with specific details.  And it’s details we’ll be talking about, primarily. Using detailed summary, Allende effortlessly evokes many scenes in this novel. We’ll be taking a look at an excerpt that does this. 

THE CHALLENGE

Sometimes my prose really drags. Setting the scene, evoking the setting, getting to the juice of the conflict, takes forever. If Allende’s prose is a jet ski, mine’s a barge. But when I’ve tried to speed it up, I can’t seem to maneuver properly. So how does Allende use summary to introduce her scenes and evoke her settings? How does she transition from summary into scene and how does she escape when she’s ready to get out?

THE STORY

Although Allende’s ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA was not exactly what I was expecting, it really kept my attention. Part of that is the pace at which the story proceeds–it changes with every paragraph, only dipping into scene at the most precious moments. Sometimes those changes are huge (the fall of the French government, the burst of revolution in Haiti, the sale of Louisiana to the Americans) and sometimes they were small and personal (the beginning of a pregnancy or the starting of a hobby). But the story evolved through 40 years of time, 2 different countries, and thousands and thousands of nouns.  Detailed and specific nouns are the main way that Allende builds scenes, usually using summary to evoke a setting before dropping down into an actual conflict.

The following excerpt, from the start of the chapter titled “The Bastard” is an excellent example of this tactic:

The Temple turned out to be an island in the swamps of the delta, a compact mound of shells ground by time, with a forest of oaks that once had been a sacred site of the Indians and still held the remains of one of their altars; the name derived from that. The brothers Lafitte had been there since early morning, as they were every Saturday of the year, unless it fell on Christmas or the Virgin’s Ascension. Along the shore were lined up flat bottom skiffs, fishing boats, pirogues, canoes, small private boats with awnings for the ladies and rough barges for transporting products.     

The pirates had set up several canvas tents, in which they exhibited their treasures and distributed free lemonade for the ladies, Kentucky whiskey for the men, and sweets for the children. The air smelled of stagnant water and the spicy fried crawfish served on corn husks. There was a spirit of carnival, with musicians, jugglers, and a show with trained dogs. A few slaves were on display on a platform, four adults and a naked little boy about two or three years old. Interested parties were examining their teeth to calculate age, the whites of their eyes to check health, and their anuses to be sure they were not stuffed with tow, the most common trick for hiding diarrhea. A mature woman with a lace parasol was weighing with gloved hand the genitals of one of the males.     

Pierre Lafitte had already begun the auction of merchandise, which at first view lacked any logic, as if it has been selected with the single purpose of confusing the shoppers, a mixture of crystal lamps, bags of coffee, women’s furniture, paintings, vanilla, church goblets and candelabra, crates of wine, a tame monkey, and two parrots. No one left without buying; the Lafittes also acted as bankers and lenders. Every object was exclusive, as Pierre shouted at the top of his lungs, and should be, since it all came from boarding merchant ships on the high seas. “Look what we have here, mesdames and messieurs, see this porcelain vase worthy of a royal palace! And what will you give for this brocade cape bordered in ermine! You won’t have a chance like this again!” the public responded with clowning and whistling, but the bids kept rising with an entertaining rivalry, which Pierre knew how to exploit.   

In the meantime, Jean, dressed in black, with white lace cuffs and collar and pistols at his waist, was strolling through the crowd, seducing the incautious with his easy smile and the dark, beguiling gaze of a snake charmer. He greeted Violette Boisier with a theatrical bow, and she responded with kisses on both cheeks, like the old friends they’d come to be after several years of deals and mutual favors. “May I ask what might interest the only woman capable of stealing my heart?” Jean asked. “Don’t waste your gallantries on me, mon cher ami, because today I am not here to buy.” Violette laughed. She gestured to Morisset, four steps behind her.

THE SOLUTION

Discussing the above excerpt presents and interesting challenge: how do I talk about the details it uses without just re-copying the entire text. Few of its sentences lack detail. But there are, I think, a few sets of details doing the bulk of the work. 

This whole excerpt serves to bring the setting of the Temple to life. One of the first things to notice is how the details zoom in, both in space and time. We start, in the first sentence, zoomed way up, seeing the delta, the swamp and zoomed way back, learning the space’s history with First Americans.

While on the surface, the history of this space seems irrelevant, it ties in well with the central focus of the novel on power disparities along racial and cultural lines, which you can of course track throughout this excerpt. Throughout the entire book–including this scene–there is a focus on and centralization of hierarchical social relations; this opening serves to show how the pirates, who are themselves an oppressed minority of sorts, have removed and replaced the people who occupied that land before them. This may seem like a diversion in this discussion of setting up a scene, but it isn’t really, because these sentences help set up an atmosphere and a layered sense of history that the scene depends on. 

The following sentence, we zoom pretty far in to the arrival of the pirates that morning on the shore. Here is where we get the first list of details: [1] “Along the shore were lined up flat bottom skiffs, fishing boats, pirogues, canoes, small private boats with awnings for the ladies and rough barges for transporting products.” Lists are an interesting way to present details in a scene, and a common method among fabulist authors like Allende, Marquez, Kelly Link and Kij Johnson, among others. When handed details in a rapid-fire list sort of way, like in the above list, it’s almost impossible to actually categorize all the objects in a logical way. She’s clearly not trying to build a blueprint for a setting, preferring in this instance to toss a glut of images your way that call up specific associations. And it is specificity that makes this list function so well for that purpose (consider, for instance, the minute difference in image called up by “flat bottom skiffs” when paired with “fishing boats). The use of “along” with this extended list almost gives you the feeling of traversing the shore, seeing the boats all pass by. This list is an intentional sketching of the setting, not allowing you to focus too closely on any one object, but still moving those images through your mental field of view. It really is an expert technique for dropping you into the setting, and if you look at other “listers” they often use lists for the same purpose, although few other authors manage to capture this level of incredible specificity. But notice how quick a sketch of the setting this creates–these frequent list sketches are one of the reasons why Allende’s prose feels so quick and sharp. 

As Allende starts to really give you a sense of the setting, wanting you to hold on to some ideas, she pulls away from long lists and cuts back to lists of three–much more manageable for our brains. She describes how the pirates set up “canvas tents” with “treasures” and hand out “free lemonade for the ladies, Kentucky whiskey for the men, and sweets for the children.” Notice how much easier it is to even recall this info, none of it being surprising or particularly specific. If you asked me to repeat it back, I almost certainly could. That was not true with the list of boats. At this point, Allende is really engaging our sense of taste, and she zooms in farther to our sense of smell, providing a list of just 2 smells: “stagnant water and spice fried crawfish served on corn husks.” That’s incredible specific. It really plunges you into the feeling of the market. We learn that there are musicians, jugglers, and trained dogs–engaging a sense of sight and sound. But as much as we’re starting to get a sensory feel for the setting, we still don’t have a lot of specifics on the actual layout.

We finally get an anchor in the next moment: the slaves being sold. [2] “A few slaves were on display on a platform, four adults and a naked little boy about two or three years old. Interested parties were examining their teeth to calculate age, the whites of their eyes to check health, and their anuses to be sure they were not stuffed with tow, the most common trick for hiding diarrhea. A mature woman with a lace parasol was weighing with gloved hand the genitals of one of the males.” Notice that this description takes a good chunk of the scene’s words. In this book about slavery, Allende often physically orients us around depictions of slavery, centering it in the world of her novel. This scene’s only real anchor is the stage on which the slaves stand and they (four adults and a naked little boy) are the most physical, real, distinct element of the setting. We get a look at the whites of their eyes, their teeth, their anuses. What this setting evokes most explicitly, what we see through the entire scene, is just “background,” it’s just the objectification of these people while life goes on all around them. Only one of the characters is bothered by the display, and he was there to buy a slave himself. 

When I said we would return to power structures, this was the moment I meant. In this scene there will be a conflict over power–the way the pirates are subjugated by the American government, but also the way they hold power over Violette, who is a quarter black. But this layering of power extends well into the background, with the objectification of the slaves, and even farther back, with the absence of the natives haunting your mind. In this latter example, the details are more than just listed. Because they’re actions being taken, and because of how dramatic they seem, the prose manages to really turn this into a visual moment. It focuses you on the importance of the slaves and their journey. All of this background is important for preparing us for this scene, putting it into context, and evoking it for us on physical, sensory, and thematic levels. 

But we’re still stuck in the morning, you may have noticed, so we need to zoom forward in time. For this, Allende uses another list: [4] “Pierre Lafitte had already begun the auction of merchandise, which at first view lacked any logic, as if it has been selected with the single purpose of confusing the shoppers, a mixture of crystal lamps, bags of coffee, women’s furniture, paintings, vanilla, church goblets and candelabra, crates of wine, a tame monkey, and two parrots.” We see here the same listing technique as before, meant to toss you random images, which just give you a sense of what’s being sold and who might be buying. There’s an interesting nod to the chaos of this kind of list in the way that it points out how the auction lacks any logic, but Allende is careful to prepare you for the list by moving from the generic “auction of merchandise” to the specific, the list. The effect is very similar to the boats, if less specific. You almost see a line of goods progressing down a conveyor belt. Just when you think you can’t get any closer to the scene, Allende zooms in one final level. [5] “Jean, dressed in black, with white lace cuffs and collar and pistols at his waist, was strolling through the crowd, seducing the incautious with his easy smile and the dark, beguiling gaze of a snake charmer.”

This exceptional level of detail about Jean’s dress is a common tactic in ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA. In this case, it’s a little strange, because Jean plays such a small role in the novel (this is the only time you ever see him) but it sets up his personality well, and it brings us away from the stage of slaves and other goods, moves us through the crowds. It’s at this point that the actual dialogue and conflict of the scene begins. 

That’s a lot of time spent setting up. But it doesn’t drag by any means (giving the history of the space, and covering the passage of the entire day), and once the dialogue starts, it jumps immediately into conflict, because all of this background work has been done ahead of time. 

FINALLY

Despite being not particularly notable in the plot, this is one of the most memorable scenes in the book for me. I instantly wanted to write about it.

It’s so careful and detailed that it’s hard to imagine it’s not intentionally done this way. The setup is really what makes it memorable and powerful, transforming it from just a scene where something happens (and in fact, one of the few actually grounded scenes) into one of the most thematically and sensorily interesting parts of the story. The rapid-fire details and the layering of themes through time and space are a set of tools to keep in the back pocket. The choosing of precise details, well, that’s something to work on. 

How do you go about choosing what details to include to set up a scene? What do you think about during revision, when you want the scene to physically parallel your scenes? Do you have any favorite scenes you turn to that use similar techniques like layering and listing?

Act One with China Mieville

Clicking the picture to the left will take you to the Amazon page for King Rat by China Mieville. Seems obvious to  me that you won’t be reading this novel in preparation for reading this blog post, but we’ll be talking about plot so beware of spoilers below. Today I’m going to be talking about plot–the first act of a novel–in the sense of how Mieville keeps his readers interested. 

THE CHALLENGE

People (and writing books) have a lot of advice for how to start a novel. Much of this advice seems contradictory–for instance the idea that you need to start immediately with high-stakes conflict, but the sort of opposing idea that no one will care about those high stakes until they care about your characters. So wait, do you start with solid conflict? Or do you start with character? Or is it some strange amalgam of both, precariously balanced? Although I don’t know yet, I imagine it’s some version of the latter, although perhaps King Rat does little to really clear this up, beyond providing an interesting example. 

THE STORY

Mieville’s debut novel, King Rat, has its weaknesses. They’re fairly evident: sometimes the prose gets far too purple with little to gain from it, some major characters lack any real kind of agency (which might have improved some portions of the book), and the very end reads like rather forced, disingenuous philosophizing (although that ending still interested me, because of how different it was from most novel ends, philosophically). That said, this book blew me away because of it’s array of morally-grey characters, its distinct plot twists, and a handful of exceptional prose moments, full of poetry and voice. It also managed to really keep my attention in Act 1. 

Well, not exactly. Chapter 1 left me unmoved, and so did chapter 2, largely (although the structure of this piece, with multiple clipped little narratives, was fascinating), but the end of chapter 2 through chapter 8 really had me enthralled. I began to wonder why. What exactly was driving this opening?

THE SOLUTION

Mieville tries to open with high-stakes conflict. The story opens with (following an excruciating driving/subwaying-to-the-story scene) the murder of Saul (the protagonist’s) father, and Saul’s subsequent arrest for this crime. Ultimately, this bored me. One reason for this was simply confusion: beyond the level of mystery, I had no idea what was going on. The disjointed narrative of chapter 2 probably contributed to this. But also, we never met Saul’s father on the page, so his death had no effect on me, and although Saul seemed pretty distraught by his father’s death, it didn’t reach me. 

And maybe part of the reason I was unmoved by this initial conflict was a lack of a clear desire for the main character. Actually, Saul does not develop a desire at all until the end of Act 1, and does not become fully active until the end of Act 2. 

But when the title character hit the page, he immediately increased my engagement with the story. He was strange, he was gross, he was dark and of questionable morality. And that level of engagement for the next six chapters remained fairly high (on average), but also kept a number of those qualities, following a fairly predictable sort of structure. Each chapter had a central purpose. Chapter 3 showed King Rat and Saul escaping from prison. Chapter 4 described Saul’s lunch. What made these chapters intriguing was context–all this took place in (as the text constantly affirmed) a new world. This Act 1 is a kind of exploration, and that exploration has the same flavor as King Rat himself–in Chapter 4, Saul’s lunch is strange and gross and dark. 

Two caveats here. (1) There were some mini conflicts going on, although they didn’t really capture me. These were necessary and important in the longer term of the plot, foreshadowing later conflicts that come to the fore in acts 2 and 3. (2) If you broaden the definition of conflict enough, you might argue that this whole act is a conflict, Saul interacting with and coming to terms with this new world he’s exploring. And there’s a good point there, but I think it overgeneralizes something super practical: some readers engage most with a story when it takes them somewhere new. Exploring a world vastly different from your own is a pleasurable part of reading. That pleasure can drive a reader through your story. 

When does lunch capture a reader’s interest? When it’s surreal. 

When does an easy prison break become intriguing? When it launches you into a new world. 

FINALLY

Despite its failings, I fully recommend King Rat especially if you enjoy genuinely strange novels. What works here works exceptionally well. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was that strangeness can drive a story, and sometimes frontloading conflict for the sake of frontloading conflict can do more harm than good. 

What’s your take on strangeness vs. conflict? Let me know in the comments.