It’s a struggle for all writers: you want a scene that takes place on the Internet, but you don’t know how to describe the setting other than showing someone sitting at their computer. And if you’re using first person narrator, your character might be so wrapped up in Memeland that she isn’t aware her woes derive from glowing lights. How can you make browsing Tumblr or Reddit dramatic? Here are some of the online answers I’ve discovered:
Yeah, I wrote that paragraph before engaging in some heavy Googling. Turns out I’m the first (at least online) to broach that question. This post will be less “what writing authorities say” and more “here’s what I think might work.” Please help me expand on it so that we can finally unlock one of writing’s most difficult questions!
- Use Metaphor: Every advice I present here falls under this category. Could Facebook be seen as a formal party, where people put on their best outfits and discuss politics (only not in the same way people at formal parties usually do)? Does Memebase smell like cotton candy? Do you taste something bitter when you read about injustice on Tumblr… or read anything on 4chan?
- Notice what the Internet does to your body: You might not be aware of your body when surfing the web, but you may later on notice eyestrain, sore shoulders, a dirty screen, sleeping legs, and much more. Unless you portray your character as totally immersed in the Internet, you’ll have to acknowledge him as a human being at some point.
- Use active verbs whenever possible: I’m not the best at this, as longtime readers can attest. However, when you’re describing a character that’s sitting down and staring at a screen, you must fight the urge to make your sentences as passive as your protagonist’s atrophying body. Do what you can!
- Pay attention to how you move through the Internet: Do you jump from tab to tab? Are there shortcuts to use, or does your character methodically travel from the home page of a website to the specific forum she’s looking for? Observation here will help you discover what active verbs to utilize.
Here’s my attempt to concretely describe a website as a setting. It contains so fleshing-out from a novel I’m working on!
9:00 am hit, and Andy’s first all-online day began. He adjusted his too-small chair at the cubicle and uttered a soft groan— his parents once complained he spent too much time online, but only because they never met his friends. Unlike his old friends, Andy swore off Internet binges after a night of burning eyes and sleeping feet. If his old friends were right, those symptoms lay ahead in his job’s future. The Internet, seen through the beat-up laptop on his desk, would be his home within his sweat-stench-of-other-comedians-wafting-through-the-rented-office home.
Andy hunched over his laptop, and, with a heavy sigh, typed in the address for Facebook. It would be both work and play at that site, from now on.
When the website paused halfway through loading, its progress bar at the top in a tug-of-war with the building’s shoddy Wi-Fi, Andy took a pause himself. All other times he logged onto Facebook, his tunnel-vision mentality kept him from looking anywhere besides the comedy clubs’ open mic invitation posts below. But this time, the website loaded slowly. This time, he saw the blue border on top. It was the exact shade of blue that once adorned the curtains in his Grandma’s front window.
As Andy examined the now-loaded site, the associations kept piling up. Both Facebook and Grandma’s had white walls adorned with reminder notes, had photos of family members, had distantly-related visitors aiming to impress, had a focus on simplified politics… and when Andy relaxed his shoulders in the cubicle, he could smell laminated furniture decorated with minty store-brand cookies, a smell from within memory. Andy wiggled his toes, pushing his feet out of tight dress shoes to do so. His breathing didn’t change, but he let himself be aware of it, let himself be more accepting. He wasn’t trying to steer a history-making election with cat videos anymore. He was just going to Grandma’s, going to call Will and see if he can play.
Will had left him a message. Andy clicked it with the slightest touch, as if that message was a letter he found in Grandma’s creaking, rusting mailbox.
WILL: Can you believe all these RULES they made? No sex jokes, never any references to a film made before 1990… I can’t imagine what Republican limitations they put on you…
After their polite goodbye yesterday— stilted, yes, but cordial—Will still chose to dig at Andy’s current employer. But Andy’s Grandma’s house had a golden sign right next to the curtained window, a sign that Andy knew had survived the foreclosure: “Treat Others The Way You Want To Be Treated.”
Andy’s fingers, as he typed, occasionally stuck to the keyboard of the borrowed laptop. He must’ve snuck some of those mint cookies from Grandma’s Jar, and he forgot to wash his hands. He refused to entertain any other reason for stickiness.
ANDY: Only a few… there’s no naming anyone “dumb,” “optimistic,” or “shady,” they’re too mean. So we’ve run out of things to call opposing candidates other than “dipshit” 🙂
Will returned the message with two smiling emojis. Andy responded with 3, Will with 7, Andy with a gun, Will with dead face followed by a zombie, Andy with a chainsaw, Will with a zombie wielding a chainsaw (followed by the American flag), and Andy with the French flag before Will accepted his surrender and typed “lol.” Will’s “lol” couldn’t replace the time they fell into laughing fits over at Grandma’s, posting stickers all over the white walls and all over Andy. But, as Andy considered while scrolling down the Facebook wall, one benefit of placebo Grandma’s house was that he never need worry about swallowing any smiley face stickers.
Andy craned his neck. The sounds of complaining volunteers, floating in from the rented cubicles beside him, left a bitter taste in his mouth. And the white cubicle walls were too speckled as well— not nearly enough like Grandma’s. He couldn’t run from the building’s annoyances forever, not even down the shortcut through Memory Lane. But the election would only feel forever, not last so. If Grandma’s House, where 5-year-old Andy ran and sat and cackled and first invented a joke that didn’t have poop as a punchline… if that place wasn’t available, then Facebook would do. He brought his cursor to the address bar. Andy braced himself: time to go to the real world, even if it’s a virtual one. He wondered what relative’s house would most resemble 4chan.