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Describing the Scenery

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Vaporo, Mar 28, 2020.

  1. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    Something I've been trying to improve on in my writing is describing scenery. I've noticed that I tend to focus very heavily on dialogue and character actions and take very little time to actually tell the reader what a place looks like. The problem is, every time I try to write anything more than a barebones description (e.g. "The house was little more than a run-down shack alongside the road") I feel like I'm seriously breaking the narrative flow. I'm coming to realize that it's just not something I'm very good at right now. Should I try to spread details throughout a scene? Or is it better to give everything at once as soon as a characters enter a room? What level of detail is necessary? When do I know I've been detailed enough? Does anyone have any advice?
     
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  2. Azeroth

    Azeroth Dreamer

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    I feel your pain. I started the first draft of my new WIP yesterday and noticed I'm lacking in description. It's currently a mix of character dialogue and world-building. Thing is, many readers get frustrated and bored with long detailed descriptions of the interior of a palace, for instance. Or an item of clothing the character is wearing.
     
  3. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    I 'see' my scenes as 'mental movie clips.' When I write them out, I do strive for short descriptions, focusing on the things that stand out, like the color and style of the dwellings, clothes, and whatnot. I have a lot of characters whose physical descriptions are all of two sentences.
     
  4. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    Are you actually "seeing the scene" in your mind's eye?

    I always immerse myself in the scene as an observer - even a participant sometimes. Then I simply describe the action / scenery as I see and sense it.

    As for when to describe it, that's a matter of judgment you'll have to develop for your own style.
     
  5. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    I would say that visualizing the details of a scene is one of my weaknesses, yes. It kind of matches how I am in real life. I'm the kind of person who tends to laser focus on my objective and ignore everything else.
     
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    pretty much how it works for me.
     
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Part of description is very dependant on your pov character describing it. It's not what the author sees, it's what the POV character sees. The words used to describe something will very much change depending on your character and the emotional mindset they are in at that moment. It's very much subjective.

    Here's a picture. It's hidden by the spoiler tag. I'll describe it--hopefully decently enough-- using three different point of view. It's the same picture but seen through three different sets of eyes. They're in first person, but it's pretty much the same with third-limited. Just change the pronouns. Hopefully this helps and makes a bit of sense.

    [​IMG]



    From the POV of a hopeful Knight.

    The island lay below me entrenched in calm waters. It's sharp edges carved a field of green out the vast sea of blue in the shape of an open palm, so vast it could only belong to a god. At its center, the palm shielded a tiny, inconsequential villa, weak and defenceless, at the mercy of the god's will. But I knew there was no danger. This god was kind. The land was green and giving instead of angry red like clay of the other lands. This god would not close his fist.

    From the POV of say... a high-tech hacker. (please forgive the faux tech talk.)

    Isolation, that's what the island said to me. All satellite-dish-shaped, and money green. All alone in an ocean of electric blue. Not a soul around for a thousand miles except distant mountains, covered in cool snow. At the island's center, a lone house sitting off-center in the dish like a turd waiting to be washed away by the next storm. But no way baby, not that I'm here. Going to tie this sucker down with fibre optics and weight it down with knowledge of the world, of the net. No storm's every going to wash that house--my house--away.

    From the POV of a snotty teen on summer vacation.

    The island was like a blob of puke vomited into an ocean sized pool. Smelled like it too. Friggen ocean. Friggen fish. Piece of crap white house with no tv, no net, not dam thing worth seeing on this piece of 'paradise'. Got the feeling I'm going to be learning how to hate the colors green and blue over the next two months. Only thing worth looking at are the mountains in the distance. Rather be on them sloshing the slops, spending all day making runs through the white instead of here on this piece of green snot. Yay.
     
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  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I want to get an overall impression of the look and style of the scene. Details are not really important, unless they are important to how the characters will interact with them.
    But I want something to help me imagine where the scene takes place, instead of just having disembodied voices in a white void.
    Good environmeny descriptions are something I very rarely see in literature. Tolkien manged to pull it off really well, though I am not sure if his specific style is good to emulate.
     
  9. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    Tolkien had lots of brilliant bits, but also lots of tedious bits where he really overdid it.

    I think most decent writers are a tad more parsimonious these days
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Penpilot's advice (and others') has it right. Especially when trying to improve in this area, you should look at it from the character's pov. What would that particular person notice first? Also, what time of day is it, what's the lighting, what's the situation?

    What would they notice but what in that particular moment? It's one thing to describe a room; it's quite another to burst into a room while being pursued by orcs. Or slip into a room while trying to elude the authorities. Even if you're writing 3rd omniscient, you'll describe the room one way if it's a murder scene, another way if it's two lovers entering a bedroom.

    Still another way to think about it: what's the *least* amount of description do I need to tell the scene? Write that. Now try moving the bits of description around until it feels like the descriptions contribute to the movement of the scene rather than slow it down. Fine. Now start adding, with the main purpose being to add to the emotion of the scene, to the feel of the place. Take a look at Edgar Allen Poe or Maki to see what they choose to describe in a scene. Sure the language is antiquated, but they were masters of the craft.

    It's a skill. Like any skill it takes practice and attention.
     
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  11. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    are your characters interacting with the setting, or are they just standing there doing nothing?

    I wrote a blog post years ago about how to figure out setting description details using a panic calming technique, but if your characters aren't interacting with the setting, it's not going to do you any good.

    let's take your example: (e.g. "The house was little more than a run-down shack alongside the road")

    I'm just going to make something up.

    The house was little more than a run-down shack alongside the road, but it had been pretty once. Minerva took the smartcar down to a crawl, hoping that the chickens pecking at the dirt and gravel driveway were getting out of the way. Her music died abruptly as she turned off the ignition and let herself out of the air conditioned bubble and into the damp heat of the late summer afternoon.

    She stepped over the crabgrass and dandelions flourishing in the gaps between paving stones. The wooden front porch sagged, its spindle-turned posts listing slightly to one side. Minerva let out a calming breath and unclenched her fists. no one should be living in a place like this, but someone did, and she had bad news to deliver.

    The boards held under her feet, but the sooner she got off this porch, the better.

    The doorbell had a strip of electrical tape covering it. A sign mounted inside the hand-mended screen door read, "no solicitors, no canvassers, no proselytizers, and no girl scouts." Minerva resisted the urge to peel a long strip of white paint that bubbled away from the silvered wooden door. Don't smile, offer sympathy, get information, and get out. Minerva knocked and listened to the floorboards creaking as the occupant swung the front door open, squinting at her through a web of wrinkles. The scent of boiled cabbage wafted out of the dim house, and somewhere in its depths, a television blared the news.

    "What do you want?" the woman asked, her voice harsh.

    Minerva held up her identification. "Minerva Jones, ma'am. I'm a forensic diviner from Arlington, Virginia. I did an ancestry trace on a John Doe at George Mason Hospital, and I believe he's your grandson."

    "I don't have a grandson."

    "The ancestry bank says you do. You're his maternal grandson. Your daughter's son."

    The woman shuffled back, and Minerva startled as the door slammed in her face.

    "Get off my land."
     
  12. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    You do both. You describe the scene at the start of the scene and you weave in details while the action in the scene is happening.

    You describe (some parts of the scene) at the start. You do this because of two reasons:
    - Otherwise you end up with your characters acting in a white space where the reader has no clue what's going on (a bit like those white scene's in the Matrix).
    - People will start filling in details on their own. They won't match what you need and this can break the narrative flow for the reader. If you write "The house was little more than a run-down shack alongside the road" then people will have some idea of what it looks like for them. My shack if a single story, wooden structure, quite small with a door in the middle and a window on either side. It has a porch out front and it sits in the middle of what was once a lawn, with a forest as a backdrop. Now, if you need to have two stories to the shack halfway through the scene or if the characters run out the back and in to a well-kept neighborhood then you shatter my image and break my narrative flow.

    There is three things you can do to paint the scene.
    First, start with the basics in broad strokes. The "The house was little more than a run-down shack alongside the road" is fine. If the reader knows where the characters are then that's enough in terms of broad strokes. If not, then add a simple "It was dwarfed by the forest that started in its backyard. The autumn leaves covered most of the backyard.
    Second, there is the rule of 3 (at least, that's what I've heard it called). Pick 3 details, preferably those that the character would notice, and mention those. Details work better then broad strokes in giving the reader a feeling for the story. Why 3? Because it's the amount most readers can easily remember, it's few enough that the reader won't get bored and it's enough to set most scenes.
    Third, use all senses, not just sight. Smell can be a very powerful on, as can touch. "The house was little more than a run-down shack alongside the road. As I grabbed the banister to walk up the steps to the porch a splinter stuck in my finger. I drew my hand away and sucked away the drop of blood. The earthy smell of composting autumn leaves on the unkempt lawn filled my nose."
     
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  13. Leonardo Pisano

    Leonardo Pisano Scribe

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    The trick is not to observe your surroundings from your own mind, but from the mind of your character, including what interests him/her or what occupies his/her mind. Avoid a tourist brochure description.
     
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  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Put the description into the narrative flow and all is well, heh heh. Easier said than done. I know when I sent Eve of Snows off to the editor I’d get back comments questioning something, description or whatever, and I’d be like no trouble I can add some explanation... and then I’d realize why I didn’t put that in there the first time: The flow of the narrative (and pacing) would get hammered no matter how I stuck the info in. It was a serious tap dance, and sometimes I just had to break the narrative and figure a way to reconnect it.

    I tend to toward minimalism in description myself, which seems an odd statement since my last book was 250k words, heh heh. I shoot for a few important details and let the reader fill in the white space.As critics have noted: I trust the reader. That, and I get bored to death reading description. So, I write what I’d like to read and hope there are others who agree.
     
  15. DustinBilyk

    DustinBilyk Dreamer

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    Description for me comes after I put the First Draft onto paper. It helps me focus on the narrative flow and characterization when I know I don't need to add description as I hammer out words.

    Of course, if the setting or place your characters are in is integral to the scene, there should be something added in the First Draft. Especially if there is an action scene, as I believe all action scenes should use the environment and setting to add variance and intrigue.
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    IMO this is trickier than one might think. Demesnedenoir mentions an important point: one doesn't want to interrupt the flow of the narrative to present a description, for down that road lies the Info Dump.

    At the same time, his editor made an important point (I hereby appropriate what the editor meant to be what *I* want it to mean): we don't want the reader to feel lost or to wonder where we are. The setting is important. So, the one argues for less while the other argues for more, and they're both right. What's a writer to do?

    Always buy good bourbon, but one presumes that's already been done. What *else* might be done?

    Here, Leonardo Pisano makes the very good suggestion that we envision the scene from the MC's perspective, not our own. I always try to do that, preferrably with good bourbon, though on first drafts it's usually my perspective that wins. I'm still trying to compose the scene. It's in later drafts that I pay more attention to the MC perspective. One of the reasons why my re-writes take so long, though maybe it's the bourbon. (I'm drinking tea right now, honest; good, stout Scottish Breakfast tea).

    But here's the thing about the MC perspective. They may not be noticing what is important for the reader to notice. Maybe if my character is slogging through the mud, he's going to notice the rain, but maybe it's been raining for two days and he's really focused on something else. But the *reader* needs to know it's been raining. I'd say MC perspective is necessary but not sufficient, to borrow the old philosopher's formula. We also need the author's perspective, but specifically the author in his role as advocate for the reader.

    I think that's what the editor was doing.

    Somewhere in there, writers figure out the right balance (which shifts from one scene to the next, donchaknow). Outstanding writers manage to get it right early, maybe even in the first draft. I'm still aiming for Draft Eleven or so.
     
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  17. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I don't completely agree with this. Yes, in most instances, you want to descibe what's going on from the viewpoint character's point of view. Especially mid scene, you don't want to zoom into or out of a character's head for no reason. That just confuses people and completely messes up the flow of the story.

    However, you can shift the focus in a chapter or scene. You can start a scene distant from a character and "zoom in" on his point of view. This lets you descibe what's happened since the last scene and set the scene in a way that no person would think like. No one walks around halfway up a hill, thinking about what that hill looks like from a distance. Or that it has been raining three days already and that the first two weren't that bad since they were on dry ground, but yesterday was terrible because they had to wade through the swamp with all the damn flies or whatever. This zoomed out description shouldn't be completely out of character. But it doesn't have to be completely in character either.
     
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  18. Leonardo Pisano

    Leonardo Pisano Scribe

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    Sometimes that could be a dilemma, but I think usually relatively easy to solve. Why is this Deep POV so important? Because you want the reader in the head of the MC. You want the reader to participate in the scene, not just as an outside spectator. So, why should the reader care if the MC doesn't care if it has been raining, or still does (In your example)?
    FWIW, people I coach who have trouble to write from this perspective I usually gave a brief assignment, i.e. I ask them to describe a setting from three different perspectives. Although it's not fantasy, an exercise I use for that is for instance a penthouse in a big city and the character wants to rent it. The apartment is shown by a real estate agent. Take (a) a successful business woman who loves gardening and seeks a place to rest after a day long work, (b) an assassin/sniper who looks for a location for his next action, (c) a yup stock market broker who finds himself brilliant and wants to show the world he is the top.
     
  19. Leonardo Pisano

    Leonardo Pisano Scribe

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    It also has to do with relevant details, and those are by default linked to the purpose of your scene. However, if you zoom out and describe it is essentially leave Deep POV and create an omniscient narrator, which is akin to the author breaking in. Of course it's not forbidden to do that, but it wouldn't fit my sty;e. There are some tricks to overcome this, but it's a bit difficult to be specific on this conceptual level, By way of example, suppose the mc has been sent to find someone in a city/region she was never before. The person who sent her may have given details of the surroundings. Upon arrival she may memorize the words spoken to her.
     
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2020
  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Much depends on POV. A classic narrator can easily jump out and notice things and even mention that the character doesn’t notice them. A 1st POV in past tense can easily throw int things they didn’t notice at the time. As with everything in writing, it depends.
     
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