Adding Necessary Grime

Watching movies from the early days of cinema, one thing that is often clear: They were frequently filmed on studio sets, which were obviously sets because even a dirty back alley was often cleaner than the average teenager’s bedroom. It wasn’t until the 1970s that on location filming became more common and even studio sets began to be dressed to look like the disorganized, grimy, lived-in places that we all can recognize in an instant.

Fiction can be like that too.

It needs detail. It needs grime. It needs weeds growing out of cracks in the sidewalk.

In the midst of revising A Cold Day to Drown I came across a passage that was severely in need of revision. In part because some details of the story and characters had changed for the better since I wrote my initial outline oh-so-many months ago. In the interest of saving the world through fiction, I’m sharing that awful section below, as well as my vastly improved revision.

The first draft read simply:

I catch up with Darby in his shooting gallery down in south hills. There’s not many places in the city you can get away with firing a weapon, but this place does the job fine. It’s a legit business, as far as anything Darby is involved with can be legitimate.

Clouds are beginning to gather overhead, their gray bellies leaden with threats, as I stand in the parking lot, watching my summoned car pull away into the orange sunset. Here, within the city’s girdle, there’s no need for a driver and no way for someone like me to keep an autocar on standby for more than a few minutes.

Not that I need it. Darby’s goons will either let me in for a long conversation or kill me on sight.

The shop door opens at my approach, swiveling into the wall like the airlock of some scifi space ship. I step into the tight space, wondering how in hell Darby could fit his bulk into this space. It’s perfect for restricting the size of an assault team, but way to tight for a man of nearly four hundred pounds, especially since he never goes anywhere without his bodyguards.

Not terrible (other than a few typos) but definitely spartan and short on description. I know what I was picturing, but the scene is not immediately clear to readers and, to be honest, the rundown parking lot outside of Raleigh that I had in mind when writing this scene is terribly boring as a setting. Moreover, if I wanted to keep the story this bare I’d need to drastically strengthen the images and language in order to make it more punchy, more hardboiled.

So let’s make it better.

Now, longer isn’t always better, but in this case I believe it is. I’m writing a modern novel inspired by hardboiled fiction and dark retro cyberpunk, but I want more depth, more richness in my descriptions so readers can become fully immersed in Talbot’s decaying world. More importantly, in the revised passage below, you’ll see several more features that I’ve added to improve the overall telling of the story.

See if you can find them as you read, before I point them out.

The autocar pulls to the curb nearly a mile from my destination and pops its door locks, the restrillect announcing that that it cannot deliver me any closer due to “exclusive road access privileges.”

I scowl and swipe my finger across the battered map display, cursing the jargon. I’m in a district near the river wall, on a street that’s half buried in layer after rusting layer of crisscrossing railroad tracks and raised streets. Down here, “exclusive road access” could equally mean that some corporate lab is paying to keep indies away from an off the books research facility or that the autocab company doesn’t want to risk their vehicle being hijacked by skeletal teenagers with a directional signal jammer.

Either way, I’ve got to hike it if I’m to reach Darby’s gallery.

I set off along the cracked concrete, keeping one eye out for stalkers in the warren above my head. In my old life this place would have presented a tactical nightmare scenario, the sort that we would have been loath to risk actual Federal troops on. Better to send in a drone swarm, scout the place, then eliminate all threats with remotely controlled weapons. Probably not even send in people at all unless an asset needed rescuing. But those days are passed, washed away in a tide of blood that most were fortunate enough to drown in.

A few ferrel children run past on a side street, laughing as they chase one another with sticks. Above, an ancient internal combustion vehicle growls by, spewing the scent of burning peanut oil from its biofuel engine. All about me, the concrete pillars and metal cross struts are decorated in garish, multilayered graffiti, which serves to bring some sense of life to the dying husk of the city’s infrastructure.

I finally reach the block where I expect to find Darby. Before the river wall was built, this was an industrial area with warehouses lining the streets and a dozen shipping quays jutting out into the river. Now, many of the warehouses sit abandoned or have been repurposed as low rent offices and housing. There just isn’t as much need for storing goods these days. Demand tends to dry up when half the population dies in the space of two years. The remaining quays are hidden behind the river wall, a thirty foot high concrete and steel barrier which runs through the middle of the city on either side of the river to prevent flood waters from ripping out the city’s heart. At the upstream end of the wall, at the south west edge of the city, the wall curves back away from the banks up as it slowly decreases in height, opening like a funnel to swallow the rushing waters as they overflow the banks. To the south, some of the water is diverted into side channels in the wall, where half a dozen of the largest corps run their own small scale hydroelectric operations, before the river is disgorged, frothing and laden with industrial effluent, into the unending swamplands of the new coast.

I’ll find Darby three levels up into the tangle above the streets, in a structure that looks to have once been a tobacco cigarette factory before somebody grafted a steel supporting structure beneath the third floor and cleared out the lower two levels to make room for a bypass and playground, both of which now lay fallow. As I climb the yellow steel staircase up to the entrance level, I study the tangle of pipes, wires, and girders beneath the suspended building, wondering whether the residents of this district ever look up at the building hovering over their heads and suspect that it might come crashing down upon them, or if they simply ignore it as part of the landscape, as so many of us ignore our own looming fates.

Now, this passage isn’t perfect. It’s essentially a first draft of a massively expanded section of text, but a few important things are happening here:

  1. The descriptions are more rich.
    Color. Rust. Paint. Grime. Everything that makes a setting feel real and lived in. You don’t want to overdo it and bog readers down by describing each petal of every flower growing out of the concrete, but it certainly helps to mention that there are some dandelions in the parking lot.
  2. There are hints to the character’s backstory.
    I probably need to make these more subtle in my next revision, but Talbot it noticing certain details because of his history in military intelligence, back before the plague. You might also note that he’s rather cynical, commenting that those who died in the plague were the fortunate ones.
  3. It’s more dramatic. 
    It is entirely possible to use too many set pieces, even of the dramatic variety, and still have a dull story (see: The Black Hole and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for examples from film). That said, I much prefer the image of a building grafted into the structure of a multi-layer tangle of overpasses to the dull strip mall parking lot of the first draft. It  adds to the multilayered history of the world, suggests how weirdly empty the city feels after the plague, and gives a sense of the chaotic nature of life in the midden.

If you’re a writer, take a moment to dig into your latest story and see if you can add more description without breaking the momentum of the tale.

Readers, let me know what you think about the revised edition.