Physical Setting: Stage Prop or Story

An old, faded blue pickup was parked out front, engine idling.

If you like suspense novels with dark souls, you’ll probably like Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Hill is one of those writers who can coax the English language into doing more than it was designed to do. A good example is his description of an old pickup truck. I’m not talking about the short sentence above. That isn’t the way Hill described the pickup when it first appeared in Heart-Shaped Box.

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the brief description. It gives the reader a quick look at the pickup, and that would be enough if the pickup was a simple stage prop. If, for example, the presence of the pickup in the driveway means the home-delivery pizza has arrived, there’s no reason to give the reader more than a generic description. If the pizza, the guy who delivers it, and the blue pickup aren’t destined to become important elements in the story, then there’s no reason to give the reader a close look at them.

In Heart-Shaped Box, however, the blue pickup turns out to be an important element in the story. In a sense, it has its own story to tell. For that reason, Joe Hill decided to give it more space and do more than merely describe it. Here’s his version:

The pickup parked out front had been blue once, but it was at least twenty years old and had faded to the color of smoke. It was a Chevy, a working truck. Jude had whiled away two years of his life twisting a wrench in an auto garage for one dollar seventy-five cents an hour, and knew from the deep, ferocious mutter of the idling engine that it had a big block under the hood. The front end was all aggression and menace, the wide silver bumper like a boxer’s mouthpiece, and an iron brush guard bolted over the grill. What he’d taken at first for headlights were a pair of floods attached to the brush guard, two round spots pouring their glare into the night. The pickup sat almost a full foot off the ground on four thirty-fives, a truck built for running on washed-out swamp roads, banging through the ruts and choking brush of the deep South.

This is a lot more than the description of a pickup truck. Consider how Hill uses it to work in background information about the main character:

Jude had whiled away two years of his life twisting a wrench in an auto garage for one dollar seventy-five cents an hour, and knew from the deep, ferocious mutter of the idling engine that it had a big block under the hood.

Notice how Hill ramps up the tension and gives beast-like attributes to the truck with phrases like deep, ferocious mutter, and this:

The front end was all aggression and menace, the wide silver bumper like a boxer’s mouthpiece, and an iron brush guard bolted over the grill.

He even brings some vivid action into the description:

The pickup sat almost a full foot off the ground on four thirty-fives, a truck built for running on washed-out swamp roads, banging through the ruts and choking brush of the deep South.

Last but not least, the way Hill describes this pickup gives the reader a clue about its importance to the story. The single-sentence description would imply that the truck is a stage prop. By contrast, Hill’s lengthy description tells the reader that the pickup can’t be dismissed so lightly. The reader will be anticipating its return—and building a sense of anticipation in the reader is one of the hallmarks of a well-crafted suspense novel like Heart-Shaped Box.

Below is an example of another way to turn a stage prop into a story. This one comes from a book I had the pleasure of editing. The viewpoint character is a young girl, and the stage prop is a piano bench.

I commandeered the bench from our black upright Mr. Steinway, a treasured possession, and dragged it to the kitchen to use as a desk. I liked knowing that under the hinged lid of the bench was a tangle of family photographs, hymnals, and a tin of Bayer aspirin that Mama scattered around like chicken feed in case one of her migraines came on. Mr. Steinway was like a member of the family. The scratches and scars it bore attested to its having been hauled across the plains of Texas and Oklahoma every two or three years for as long as anyone could remember, as well as being the playmate for a passel of kids. It was a wonder Mr. Steinway could still be tuned.

Peeing on Hot Coals, by Pat Montandon, is not a suspense novel. It’s a memoir, and in this early scene, Pat skillfully works in details of physical setting while giving the reader important background information about the family. She could have paused the emerging scene to tell the reader that the family was poor, that they moved around a lot, that religion was an important part of their lives, and that Mama was afflicted by migraines. Instead, she artfully blends that information into a scene in which Patsy Lou is preparing to do her homework.

Peeing on Hot Coals is scheduled for release on April 6, 2014.

Like most tools of creative writing, the effective use of physical setting requires some thought. Sometimes all you want to do is let the reader know there’s a blue pickup or a piano bench in the scene. Sometimes these details are mere stage props, and giving too much emphasis to them will only distract from the action of the story. The blue pickup in Heart-Shaped Box is a lot more than a stage prop. It becomes an important element, so Joe Hill goes out of his way to plant it firmly in the reader’s mind. While the piano bench in Peeing on Hot Coals is not destined to become an important continuing element in the story, it nevertheless has its own story to tell—a story of a family’s poverty, nomadic lifestyle, and religious faith.

Pay attention to how your favorite authors use this technique. And next time you need to bring a detail of physical setting into a scene—be it a vehicle, a piece of furniture, a house, or a frog—ask yourself this: Is it a stage prop or a story?