What is the right balance between the setting/atmosphere of a novel and the dramatic elements?

In “Writing Fiction”, Janet Burroway speaks of a scene as being like an oyster. The atmosphere and setting of the scene makes up the meat of the oyster, and the dramatic elements make up the pearl. As any pearl diver knows, there needs to be a balance between oyster meat and pearl. If the pearl is a mere speck, too small to be seen with the naked eye, then the fisherman will cast the oyster back into the sea without having taken anything from it. The analogy works well for a scene. What can happen in some novels is that the setting and atmosphere of the novel can begin to overshadow the dramatic plot. If that is the case, the reader, like the pearl fisherman, will not be able to take any pearls of information from that scene. They are buried too deep in the meaty atmosphere and setting. If some of the scenes do not have big and clear enough pearls, then there will be some gaps in that string of pearls that make up the dramatic story. The more gaps there are, the more confused the reader will become, and they will be less able to remain with your story.

How does one fix this?

  1. Increase the size and clarity of the pearls.
  2. Reduce the size of the meat.
  3. Do both, increase the size of the pearls and reduce the size of the meat.
  4. In some cases it may be necessary to discard the scene if it cannot be fixed, or write a new scene.

What elements make up the meat and pearl of the oyster?

The meat of the Oyster:

  • Setting and atmosphere – this is about time of day, place, period in history, cultural feel etc.
  • Tone – what tone are you adopting in the scene? This will determine the choice of words. So is the tone suspenseful, sinister, formal, dramatic, solemn, wry, cagey, sensual etc?
  • Characterisation – this is about permanent character traits and changes to them.

The Pearl in the Oyster (all scenes):

  • Character scene goal
  • Obstacle to goal – conflict (on some occasions there should be connections instead of conflict)
  • Discovery, decision, response, change – one or more of these should occur in the scene.
  • Character emotional change – these are the moment to moment emotional changes of a character within a scene.

The Pearl in the Oyster (some scenes): These are additional elements that appear in some scenes and makes the pearl of the scene larger and clearer.

  • The scene ending on a high note – withholding information, posing threat etc, making the reader want to know more.
  • Thematic elements – these will begin to make the reader aware of the theme of the novel.
  • Foreshadowing future events; red herrings and false trails; hidden clues; insights.

What sort of balance do you like between the setting/atmosphere and the dramatic elements of the  novels that you read or write?


About georgehamilton

George Hamilton likes to know what’s going on around the world, to delve into the customs and practices of different cultures, and this is often a feature of his novels. His tales are based on people's intense personal or family dramas, with major social or political events strongly impacting their story. In addition to World Literature, he also writes multi-genre novels which include: Historical, Suspense/Thriller, and Contemporary. He currently lives in London, England.
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