Scene Setting in Novels – Part II

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that “scene setting” remains a popular technique for beginning a story or a novel. According to Janice Hardy, “The opening scene is the first glimpse readers get of the novel. It’s an audition for their time, and provides the critical elements and details they’ll need to understand the story, protagonist, and setting. Some novels open with the story, but others open with a prologue or glimpse of something outside the main characters and time frame.”

The overarching metaphore in my short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” is moonlight, so moonlight was my focus in the story’s opening: “The light of the harvest moon was brilliant all over the Florida Panhandle. It released the shadows from Tallahassee’s hills, found the sandy roads and sawtooth palmetto sheltering blackwater rivers flowing through pine forests and swamps toward the gulf and, farther westward along the barrier islands, that far-reaching light favored the foam on the waves following the incoming tide. Neither lack of diligence nor resolve caused that September 1985 moon to remain blind to the grounds of the old hospital between the rust-stained walls and the barbed wire fence, for the trash trees and wild azalea were unrestrained, swings and slides stood dour and suffocated in the thicket-choked playground, humus and the detritus of long-neglect filled the cracked therapy wading pool, and fallen gutters, and shingles and broken window panes covered the deeply buried dead that had been left behind.” [Copyright © 2019 Malcolm R. Campbell]

One way to add depth to a scene setting opening is through a reference to a scene in a novel, short story, or film. In my case, my opening lines were inspired by the closing lines of the James Joyce novella-length short story “The Dead” which appeared in his 1914 Dubliners collection that focussed on middle class life. I didn’t mention the link in my story, because mentioning it didn’t really fit, and because what I was thinking about was Joyce’s use of a snow metaphore in a story about the dead (which is how my character saw the existence of forgotten people in mental instutions). Here’s Joyce’s closing to “The Dead”:

“Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Those who recognized the structure of my opening, would understand–as they read the story–my allusion to Joyce’s story and snow metaphor. Those who didn’t recognize it really didn’t lose anything except another piece of information.

My indirect reference to “The Dead” was in no way an attempt to elevate my story to the level attained by Joyce’s story that  T. S. Eliot said was “one of the greatest short stories ever written.”  You can read Joyce’s story here.  John Huston adapted the short story for the screen in his 1987 film starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. The closing lines of Joyce’s story made a very effective voice-over in the film.

I agree with Shmoop’s contention that those lines are among the most famous in 20th century literature. Sparknotes states that “The snowfall itself, like death, is indifferent; it falls on everyone dead and alive, regardless of class and nationality. In this way, death is also the great unifier between past and present, suggesting a broader connection to ‘the wisdom of the ages.'”

I view light, moonlight or other light, the same way: it’s a force that is open to everyone, ghosts or otherwise, though I don’t think the light is indifferent. These thoughts inspired by “The Dead” were on my mind as I wrote “Moonlight and Ghosts,” the opening story in Widely Scattered Ghosts.