Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Literary Tour Guide: How Much do you Need to Describe Your Setting?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
 

Description is a blessing and a curse. Setting the scene is vital to help readers immerse themselves in your story world, but too much of it becomes boring and causes the reader to skim. But find the proper balance between words and word pictures, and your reader will feel like they've stepped into the book and live in that world.

So how much do you need to describe your setting?

The pat answer is, "enough to make it feel real without bogging the reader down in too many details," but that isn't very helpful. How do you know how much detail is too much? Where is that fine line between immersive and oppressive?Let's look at a few guidelines.

Five Tips on Describing Setting 


1. Describe what's unique to the world or situation 


When you introduce your setting, pick details that are unique to that setting. Everyone knows what a town looks like, or a spaceship, or a medieval village, but what makes your town, spaceship, or village different? What are the three or four key elements that readers need to know when they enter this setting?

(More tips on description here)

2. Describe what will be assumed incorrectly 


Readers make assumptions based on what they read. Sometimes those assumptions are wrong because the writer has done the "typical" differently. If your setting is a forest and you say "forest," readers will imagine tall, green, trees, birds singing, and sunlight filtering in between the leaves of the canopy. But if your forest is comprised of white crystalline trees that resonate with musical chimes when the wind blows, that's an entirely different forest than the default "forest" setting. Get those details in there right away so readers won't get the wrong image in their heads.

3. Describe what's relevant to the scene 


If your protagonist is trying to escape a madman by running into a maze of crumbling buildings, it's not a good time to describe the overlay of the entire city. Keep your descriptions to what's nearby and what matters. What elements are important to the setting at that moment?

(And one more on description here)

4. Describe what's relevant to the character 


Tunnel vision occurs when emotions run high and everything else drops away. Even if your protagonist isn't emotional, they'll only remark on things that matter to them. If they couldn't tell you the difference between a palm tree and a maple tree, they won't be describing the local landscape in meticulous detail. But if they're an architecture fanatic, they might describe the buildings in more detail (if this is an important thing for readers to know of course). This will also help you show instead of tell, as you'll see the world through your POV's eyes.

(More on how setting can affect your story here)

5. Describe by showing it in action versus explaining it 


Setting details work best when they're backgrounded into the scene and flow seamlessly with the rest of the text. If it's raining in a city, show people stepping over puddles on the sidewalk, pulling on raincoats as they leave cafes, the squeak-thunk of windshield wipers. Pick details that make it clear it's raining without having to say "it was raining."

Tips on Not Doing Too Much 


It's easy to go overboard with description, especially setting description, so here are some things to think about to keep your details in check:
  • What does the POV character care about at that moment in that scene?
  • What does the POV interact with in that scene?
  • What is critical in the scene to understand where this is going on?
  • What details are critical to understand the overall world?

Personally, I like to use the rule of three here. Three is an easily manageable number and gives enough information without overloading the reader. Try sticking to three details and/or three sentences about something at one time.
Palm trees swayed in the breeze blowing in from the beach.

The League had never looked so mean.
Like an arched cat, hissing and spitting. A bold crab, claws at the ready. A mama croc, guarding a nest full of eggs.
One note of caution here: Don't use three things every time you describe something. It'll feel repetitious and clunky if every noun has multiple descriptive tags on it.

If you're still unsure if you have too much or too little, try printing your pages out (or reducing the page size so it's all grey lines) and looking for large sections of solid text. Odds are those passages are description heavy and could be places to trim. No large blocks of text at all? Then perhaps those are areas that could use a little more description, especially if they're at the start of a new scene or chapter when it's important to ground the reader in where they are.

Are you an over-describer or an under-describer? Do you set the scene first or do you weave in the details as the scene unfolds?

25 comments:

  1. I'm an under-describer for sure. I don't really like reading much description and I don't like writing it much. Thanks for the tips for making it a bit less painful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. i've been searching for this post! thanks for writing it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post Janice. And the timing is perfect. I just got my ABNA review for Sendek and one of the things the review suggested I work on was "add a few effective descriptions without losing the pace."

    I love writing descriptions and it was a surprise to me that I had over edited them out. At least adding a few things will be easier than cutting. :)

    The reviewer also suggested "more exact comparisons" which makes so much sense. I used the phrase: He was drowning, but I wasn't exact in how binding with a demon felt like drowning. It was left too open for interpretation and I need to ground the reader just a bit more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, Janice, very practical tips for keeping the right balance in the amount of description.

    I haven't written enough yet (or had enough feedback yet) to know whether I tend to go over or under. Maybe with tips like this I'll be able to keep it well balanced from the start 8^)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm generally an under-describer, though not on purpose. I think part of it's that I don't pay attention to my surroundings—and when I do, I promptly forget what I saw.

    It's mental conditioning I did to myself, because I'm naturally nosy and a bit OC. If I let myself, I'll be so focused on getting everything perfect that nothing will get done. Seriously, my makeup company changed the size of the eye shadow containers by about a millimeter, and it's driving me up the wall.

    And then there's the detail that if I pay attention, I'll notice things like pregnancies before they've been made public. Which gets awkward.

    Still, I'm at a point in one story where it's time to make sure the description's worked in, so I hope this post will help me. :)

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very good tips! When writing my first draft I do not describe the setting very much. I'm just focused on getting the story written. Then I go back through and while editing add in the necessary details.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love writing dialogue - so the descriptions get neglected - thanks for sharing all this good advice.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm a big-time under-describer. When I see description in a book, I start to skim, and I think I'm worse now than when I was a kid! I've really had to force myself to slow down and read it to see how others do it.

    I really like the idea of looking for those big blocks of text - if I don't have them in the beginning of a new scene, I need to take a second look at that.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm definitely an under-describer. When I make a specific effort to write description, it comes out in a thick clunky section. Though I suppose that's fine in a first draft. That clunky description is essentially an author note of brainstormed things I could work into my description-thin parts.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is fantastic info!! I always wonder if I'm doing too much, too little, this guide will help tremendously. Thanks!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Natalie, I'm with you :) I'm always looking for ways to make this easier on myself.

    Tara, most welcome!

    Charity, sounds like you got some helpful advice there. I've found that less is more, cliches as that is. You can do more with a few very specific words than a page of generalities.

    R.E. Hunter, well can hope! Be nice to spare a fellow writer some of the bumps along the way.

    Carradee, on the upside, sounds like you have really good eye for detail :) You might make a good character actually. That's a trait I can see in a protagonist.

    BJ Kerry, most welcome. Dialog is what I almost always write first myself. Then I fill in the blanks.

    Khanada, I'm a skimmer too. Looking at the combination of dark vs light on a page really does give a decent sense of the balance in the text. Zooming out to show six or eight pages seems to work nicely for me.

    Jaleh, I'll give myself a paragraph to blurt it out and deal with later. Or I'll just write (describe) and move on :) Sometimes it's easier once I see finished scene.

    Traci, most welcome!

    ReplyDelete
  12. This is really helpful, Janice! Thanks so much!!

    ReplyDelete
  13. http://crystalwhimsey.netMar 27, 2012, 8:05:00 AM

    This is good stuff. I'm an over describer which means I end up going back and paring down many scenes. Not particularly productive. People like me get maximum benefit from your article. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  14. I would also suggest reading your writing out loud. If you are out of breath, or bored, chances are you've gone overboard. Loved the advice. Thank you for posting. I'm editing my novella, "SUKI" right now, and am looking at exactly this. Did I paint a clear, but interesting picture for my reader in each of the scenes? This was shown to me at just the right time.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Crystal, if you're over describing to figure things out, it's not not bad. But if you're not getting anything useful out of it, it can indeed hurt your productivity.

    Christina, good tip. Reading out loud catches a lot of snags.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I ignore descriptions for pages, and then cram everything I can think of into two paragraphs. So...both?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Rachel, do you go back later and spread those descriptions out over those pages or leave it in as is?

    ReplyDelete
  18. I typically cut the big chunks down quite a lot; a few details get moved elsewhere, but usually I just add new stuff to different scenes.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Sounds like a process to me :) Whatever works, works.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hi Janice,
    Another awesome post to follow-up the character post!
    Tracy

    ReplyDelete
  21. Tracy, thanks, glad you liked it. I always enjoy pulling the older ones out. They deserve some time in the light :)

    ReplyDelete
  22. You KNOW I needed to read this! THANK YOU!!! :) e

    ReplyDelete
  23. Elizabeth, lol, I write them just for you :)

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm an under-describer. For some reason -- maybe out of habit -- this is the hardest thing for me to do. I have to research a setting in advance so I have the details to draw on. I get things like names of common trees, plants, and animals. I'm doing a story in central California, so it's things like giant kelp, cudweed, and sea gulls. I also look for place names that would help set the location. After that, I have the setting somewhere in the opening of the scene and then add more pieces throughout (if I don't make the effort, I will completely ignore it).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like that--the specific words to set the scene. A great way to use details without bogging the story down. They bring up images a general detail wouldn't.

      If I didn't have a crit partner who whacked me with the description stick, I'd barely have any. It's good to have one of those when description is not your thing (grin)

      Delete