Creating “Strange Alchemy” with the Magic of Place, Character, and Conflict
By Mary Carroll Moore
Morning: writing at my sunny desk. Task: revise a stubborn scene. Advice from recent feedback: bring more emotion into it.
Sunshine and early summer in New England today is no help. In my fictional scene, it's chilly October in the northern mountains of New York state. I'm sitting comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand. My character, in her scene, has just crashed her small plane--on purpose. She's bleeding, shaken, and starving.
So our situations couldn't be more disparate. How do I have the gall to attempt such writing--to capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination?
Because I know such desperation. I've never crashed a plane, but I know well the survival instinct that my character rides on in this moment of the story. To access my own memory of this, I use the writing techniques of alchemy.
Alchemy simply means a combination of elements to create something magical. In writing, these are three: setting, action, and the character's physical state. Combined in certain ways, they manufacture magic for the reader. That magic that all good literature offers--where we readers can lose ourselves for a few hours in a different world.
The Alchemy of Place
Place details are either wholly ignored by most writers--"too slow for me," one of my students once said--or used too much. Some writers dump a lot of setting details in the beginning of each chapter, the start of each scene, as if "setting the stage." Setting must be placed where the alchemy actually occurs.
Use of the senses is the first element to successful settings. Especially smell and sound. These access the reader's own memories of place, make your job almost effortless. Studying well-known writers for how they place the sense of place in each section of a story, chapter, scene is my favorite way to learn this trick. Some favorites are George Saunders, Judy Blundell, and Flannery O'Connor—from them I’ve learned that while many writers can put together cool descriptions of setting, good placement is everything to the alchemy it creates!
Why? Because place is echo of a character’s current emotional state. Whatever she notices--or doesn't notice--tells us, the reader, about what’s going on inside. Maybe they are distracted, remembering something painful or exhilarating, overcome by angst. Consider setting details as clues. They are too good a tool to ignore.
The Alchemy of a Character's Physical State
Next is the character's external self--not what they are thinking or feeling, which could be unreliable, but how they present themselves in the world, consciously or unconsciously. A twitch, a certain favorite piece of clothing, a way of moving their hands, an itchy ear, all reveal emotion.
As with place, it's good to have enough but not too much. In Judy Blundell's award-winning young-adult novel, What I Saw and How I Lied, she introduces the two main characters in the first page via certain physical details that completely show their future trajectories in the book: the mother who smokes in the dark and whose lipstick-covered lips catch on the cigarette paper with every drag--a tiny but revealing sound heard by her not-sleeping daughter; the young girl who carries Baby Ruths in her bike basket to the foggy beach each morning to eat breakfast alone there.
I make a list this morning of my downed pilot's physical state--what is she wearing, what is moving or held still in her body as she waits, what aches and itches, what she does with her hands.
Combined with place, carefully selected details of a character’s behavior or choices can create the first step of alchemy.
The Alchemy of Action
Place and physical attributes are only useful, though, if they are juxtaposed with action. Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and other works, talked about this in an interview I read many years ago: If a character is in the same room for more than one page, get them out of there. Stillness is a valuable pause in story, but it doesn't move the writing forward.
So instead of my downed pilot being able to sit and starve silently, reflecting on the wilderness around her, she must be doing something within a page. Action is the final element of alchemy. It's only by seeing a person in action that we really know them.
Action is specifically conflict—the rub between a situation and the person experiencing it. With my just-crashed character, I have lots of conflict to work with: her plane smoldering in the distance, the absolute dark of the wilderness around her, the throb in her leg where she hurt herself despite careful planning. Which will be the element of conflict in this scene? Which would combine best with my choices of place and physical characteristics?
When I begin a scene, I often will work on each element separately, to make sure I've covered it, then combine them in paragraph or chapter in good proportion to each other. Action usually takes the most space, then the physical state of the character, then the setting. Each is crucial to alchemy, but they work in a hierarchy.
It’s only when put together, do these three create real magic.
Mary teaches a popular workshop on book-structuring, which includes elements of alchemy, at GrubStreet. Her next workshop is Saturday, August 9. To register, click here.
Mary Carroll Moore
Mary Carroll Moore’s thirteen published books include the award-winning Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir or Nonfiction Book, based on her How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book writing workshops; PEN/Faulkner nominated novel Qualities of Light (Bella Books); How to Master Change in Your Life: Sixty-seven Ways to Handle Life’s Toughest Moments (Eckankar Books); Cholesterol Cures (Rodale Press), and the award-winning Healthy Cooking (Ortho Publications). A former nationally syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, over 300 of Mary’s essays, short stories, articles, and poetry have appeared in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers around the U.S. and have won awards with the McKnight Awards for Creative Prose, Glimmer Train Press, the Loft Mentor Series, and other writing competitions. She teaches creative writing in New York, Boston, New Hampshire, and Minnesota and writes a weekly blog for book writers at http://howtoplanwriteanddevelopabook.blogspot.com.See other articles by Mary Carroll Moore