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Techniques for Describing Large Cities

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Netardapope, May 26, 2017.

  1. Netardapope

    Netardapope Sage

    Hello there everyone! I hope to engage in my daily practice of vomiting my writing issues on the innocent folk of this site :)

    So, my quesiton is very straightforward this time around. I've essentially reached my first city in the story, and I think I've done a decent job of getting the gist of the city. However, I am torn on what to do. A part of me wants to be very precise in how I describe the city's layout, but I know that most readers (Including myself), would have a very tough time retaining that information. Another part of me wants to write broad strokes, but I am unsure as to whether this will lead to less immersion.

    In general, the trend I see in most fantasy novels is the following. Enter city for the first time, and give a concise description of its layout, after the first appearance of the town, the actual structures in it are barely described, with extra focus being on describing the character's actions. Overall, I like this technique, but my main issue is that sometimes it makes it hard for me to visualize a scene.

    So what should I do?

    The city in question is large in terms of altitude, as it is built on a mountain, right at the source of a river. The wealth of the inhabitants is measured by how high up they live in the mountains. All the houses are on terraces carved along the mountainside, these make semicircular paths of stone winding around the mountain. Each progressive rung is indicative of the general social standing of the denizens therein. Also, it is divided in two halves by a river that courses right through its middle.

    As you can see, that is a lot to keep track of, and I want to give a nice picture of the town, but the sheer amount of details seems to bog down some of the scenes.

    I would appreciate any and all opinions.
  2. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Personally, I'd say try not to get lost in the weeds. If you're in 3rd limited, go straight to your character's impressions, don't go full bore narrator on us. Dish out info as the character experiences it. But, it's a personal decision, whatever works for you and the story.
    Netardapope likes this.
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

    Hardfortney was about as large as New York City, but not as clean and friendly and with more orcs.

    Mostly, I agree with Demesnedenoir. What is your character mostly likely to notice, and which features will stand out most to that character. If your character is from a small coastal town on mostly flat land, the striking difference of your mountain city's geography will be noticed. If your character is from a town where people of different classes are always bumping into each other, the social-geographical stratification of this other city might be something she'll notice–but maybe not until she's been there for a while.

    I'd stick to POV and start with things that jump out at the character, either because of great difference from her previous experiences with cities or because of proximity (what is nearest by as she enters) or both. This is also a great opportunity to build character, because she can react with wonder, disgust, confusion, etc., to whatever she sees.
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  4. RedAngel

    RedAngel Minstrel

    While it is nice getting an info bomb about the city all at once I feel sometimes that it detracts from the scene. I am more of a fan of getting the feel and scene as it plays out in the chapter. I feel that there should be some mystery left for the reader to fill in with their own minds. If the story takes place only in the city there is plenty enough time to go to various places within the city. Otherwise of you are just passing through you do not necessarily need to paint a picture of every ward, district, quadrant, etc. That is what a map is for. :)
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Why do you need to describe the entire city? There can be some good reasons--perhaps a siege is about to take place.

    You might ask yourself if you can handle this in dialog. The newcomer asks someone a question that might prompt a general description. You can do this as a narrator, of course, but if you use a resident then you can reveal or hide just those bits you want to at this point--the resident totally forgot to mention that the docks are dangerous or that the rich quarter has a curfew. Or recommends an inn that turns out to be awful.

    However you handle it, there remains the question of what exactly you want to describe. Not every street, every building of course, but then what is subset? Could the reader discover the city alongside the character?

    Once you know the purpose of the description, a secondary question rises: must it all be said right now? What details can be moved later in the story? Can details come from different sources (characters, MC observation, narrator)?

    Hope you weren't looking for answers; I specialize in questions.
    Dark Squiggle and Netardapope like this.
  6. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

    BTW: You just described it in one paragraph. Tweak it a little, add a few details, smells, sounds, add the people, focus on a few minute details, and I think you're pretty much there.
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  7. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

    The easiest and clearest way to do it (imo) is to stay in one pov character and use all 5 senses. Bring the readers into the setting by using stimulating language.
    Netardapope likes this.
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

    If your characters are likely to have known someone who has visited the city before, or if your plot allows the insertion of some sort of invitation by an inhabitant of the city, you might be able to use these as a prompt for description.

    E.g., if your MC has received an invitation, it could have something like this:

    I will meet you on the fourth terrace, in a tavern called The Bubbling Brook. The tavern lies not far from the river Tamril, having received its name from a small brook flowing from the river.

    When you arrive at the city, do not linger on the first level. Many unsavory denizens call this level home and engage in unlawful means of income; travelers make an easy target.

    So as your MC enters, the things mentioned here—the terraces, river, economic stratification—might be on the MC's mind, and she will more likely be of a mind to weigh what she sees with what she's been told.

    Possibly your MC and other characters in her party will have heard tales about the city already, some maybe more accurate than others, so you could play with these tales also, giving your MC a chance to survey the reality vs the tales.

    You can tailor the invitation/tales however you want, and this might allow you to focus your character's attention on the details you most want to present early with her arrival.
    Last edited: May 29, 2017
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  9. Addison

    Addison Auror

    You definitely don't want to present the whole of the city at once. It's the equivalent of throwing a bag of flour on a two year old. My advice is to describe the city as the character(s) discover it. If one of the characters is a local then some internal thoughts of the locale of that particular area would be great. If the person's new, describe it as they draw closer and deeper. You said it's on a mountain by a river? If they travel to the city by...horse carriage, describe how the city looks from afar as they turn that last bend or come out of the forest and see the city. Describe the bustle (or lack of) of civilians or soldiers at the city's edge up and keep describing as the character(s) discover the city from entry to "The End".

    The other way to describe a city, before the characters reach it to give the readers a scope of how big it is and the power it holds is for them to be in the company of a local who describes it and maps it out. This was done in "Six of Crows" as Matthias describes the Ice Hold to a band of thieves. So when the story actually gets to the city we have an idea of the size and layout so, when the characters are actually there and sneaking around, ducking death and escaping, more focus and detail was given to describing where the characters were right there and then and we weren't bogged down with the city's complexity or such.

    Hope this helps. Happy Writing. :)
    Last edited: May 30, 2017
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  10. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Maester

    People notice things that are different or out of place. I would make the focus what your character sees as being different from where they are from or the last place they came from. Other options are to have the character focus on whatever they are looking for or there to do. As well they may describe the feel of the place and its people.

    Remember the characters can only describe what their senses can tell them. You might want to have the character see the city from a distance to have hem provide a first impression. Then when they enter the city they can give a more detailed description of certain locations.

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