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Home > Publications > Quill > Setting the scene


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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Setting the scene

By Jon Marshall

Stories come alive when readers feel like they’re at the scene of the action. The writers of the following descriptions accomplish this by using vivid sensory details, action verbs and dialogue.

Nouns

Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “This Is Paradise” in the May GQ explores a landfill near Los Angeles. Laskas makes her nouns as specific as possible to help us picture the massive dump:

This is a 100-million-ton solid soup of diapers, Doritos bags, phone books, shoes, carrots, watermelon rinds, boats, shredded tires, coats, stoves, couches, Biggie Fries, piled up right here off the 605 freeway. It’s a place that brings to mind the hell of civilization, a heap of waste and ugliness and everything denial is designed for. We tend not to think about the fact that every time we toss out a moist towelette or an empty Splenda packet or a Little Debbie snack-cake wrapper, there are people involved, a whole chain of people charged with the preposterously complicated task of making that thing vanish — which it never really does. men.style.com/gq/features/landing?id=content_6769

Verbs

In “Without a Trace,” Bryan Smith of Chicago magazine describes the life and mysterious death of pilot Steve Fossett. Smith’s action verbs take us with Fossett on his death-defying travels:

While climbing Mount Olympus, he slipped near the summit, rocketing toward a cliff, desperately digging an ice ax into a smooth, snow-covered slab to stop the slide. When he did at last find purchase, the lower half of his body dangled over the side of the cliff like a comic book hero at the end of a white-knuckle thriller. Swimming the English Channel, he stayed in the water so long — 22 hours, 15 minutes — that he suffered hypothermia, a cracked rib, and so much saltwater in his lungs that the pH of his blood was more fish than human. On one of his balloon trips, a lack of fuel caused him to ditch in India, where he banged into a forest of 50-foot trees, then bounced into a small village. He emerged from his capsule to find himself worshiped as Hanuman, the Monkey God.

www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/March-2008/Without-a-Trace

Sound

Greg Thomas uses his ears in Gambit Weekly’s “Under the Bridge” to re-create nighttime at a homeless camp in New Orleans.

Later, few remain outside but most are still awake, listening to a loud, surrealistic cacophony of blaring sirens, the roars of giant 18-wheelers and the off-rhythm, staccato “brr-rump-rump” of an endless stream of car tires striking the bridge’s joints at 60 miles an hour.

Despite the clatter above, those who have lived under the bridge for months learn to tune it out, like white noise that lulls them to sleep. www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2008-02-12/cover_story.php

Sight

“The Things That Carried Him” by Chris Jones in the May issue of Esquire narrates the journey that a soldier’s body takes between his death in Iraq and his burial in an Indiana cemetery. Jones uses visual details to show us the long procession after the casket arrives at the nearest airport:

Volunteer fire departments, dressed in full uniform, stood at attention in front of their shining trucks. Farmers drove across their fields of baby corn and soy to reach the shoulder and stood in the beds of their old pickup trucks. As reports of the procession spread -- traffic helicopters joined in, flying overhead -- and long-haul truckers shared the news over their radios, they pulled over and climbed out of their rigs, and cars filled with families did, too, all of them standing and saluting from across the grassy median, the northbound lanes stopped nearly as completely as the southbound. www.esquire.com/features/things-that-carried-him

Talk

In The New York Times Magazine’s “Battle Company Is Out There,” Elizabeth Rubin mixes fragments of dialogue with bursts of description to put us in Afghanistan with a brigade of American soldiers.

One full-moon night I was sitting outside a sandbag-reinforced hut with Kearney when a young sergeant stepped out hauling the garbage. He looked around at the illuminated mountains, the dust, the rocks, the garbage bin. The monkeys were screeching. “I hate this country!” he shouted. Then he smiled and walked back into the hut. “He’s on medication,” Kearney said quietly to me.

Then another soldier walked by and shouted, “Hey, I’m with you, sir!” and Kearney said to me, “Prozac. Serious P.T.S.D. from last tour.” Another one popped out of the HQ cursing and muttering. “Medicated,” Kearney said. “Last tour, if you didn’t give him information, he’d burn down your house.” www.nytimes.com/2008/02/24/magazine/24afghanistan-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

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