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MichelD
May 27th, 2019, 05:09 PM
I am writing a novel as well as a collection of memoirs about "homesteading" on 10 acres of raw land in my 20s.

My background and life has always been on Canada's west coast, with lots of long narrow channels between islands, the forest fragrant with the strong smell of evergreens wafting over the water, rocky shores, kelp beds, seals, whales and seagulls. For me a lot of smells are significant, like the scent of a freshly cut down tree, the stench of rotting salmon on a river bank after spawning and the mixed fragrance of percolated coffee and diesel exhaust on the deck of a fishboat just to name a few.

The population I grew up with and I worked with was sometimes rough around the edges and unusually capable of taking on just about any task to survive.

But in my writing I include very little of this, sticking in just hints here and there.

I am always uncertain if I am describing the setting and people adequately. Am I leaving too much description out assuming the reader will like me, automatically feel the sense of place? I'm so close to it in my memory that I can feel and smell the ambience and maybe I'm forgetting to describe it enough.

I've been corresponding with another member here about this.

She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate.

The Influential Writer
May 27th, 2019, 09:36 PM
If the setting is crucial to the story then more description would be appropriate so that the reader understands the plot. There are no rules like you quoted above. If the above were the case then Dickens and Melville would never have sold a book.

Olly Buckle
May 27th, 2019, 09:51 PM
Glad to welcome an 'Influential writer' to the site, I am inclined to agree with you, most people round here know my attitude to rules :) Perhaps if you don't include much background then it is because it isn't your strongest point in writing? On the other hand if you can still smell the forest maybe you could write it up a storm! Write what you are good at.

The Influential Writer
May 27th, 2019, 10:13 PM
Thanks for the welcome and your agreement with my response. Of course, there have to be some rules or parameters with writing but I like to believe that since writing is a creative art, the rules are meant to be broken :)

Aquilo
May 27th, 2019, 10:48 PM
I'm a sucker for location and culture, but if it's in a fictional sense, I like it balanced with plot and relationship development etc. Some writers can get a setting over in a few sentences, some can really take you there with a lot more, but both have been gold-star reads. It's when there's not enough or too much that's the issue. The Goldilocks effect, lol. All readers are different, so it's learning to write what you love to see in a story first, then testing it out with readers after that.

bdcharles
May 28th, 2019, 05:42 AM
I am always uncertain if I am describing the setting and people adequately. Am I leaving too much description out assuming the reader will like me, automatically feel the sense of place? I'm so close to it in my memory that I can feel and smell the ambience and maybe I'm forgetting to describe it enough.

I've been corresponding with another member here about this.

She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate.

I think one of the best ways to get this sense of place onto the page is to first get that sense of place in you. If you live there, or if you read alot from that area (I did this with Stephen King, who fornmed my early-teenage sense of what America was like, long before I ever went there) you will pick up the sensory things (scents, as you say, sounds, heat, and so forth), the regional quirks of speech, the things that are important to the people. I'm a big fan of geograhpy. Get a good feel for the salient points of the land and let them feature. Once they are in you, you will have an easier time expressing them in your writing.

Concerning your correspondence with the other member, that's sound advice but I dunno, it is a little too reductive for me. "How do I write with a sense of place?" "Focus on the story!". How do you determine what is "needed"? Technically, very little of it is needed - I mean, you could sum up the story in a line, a paragraph, a synopsis, or you could just leave it untold - but I am guessing you want something a little more immersive. I am a little wary - sorry, unnamed other member! - of advice whose general thrust is "cut, cut, cut!", particularly around first draft stages, because I have seen many writers excise every last ounce of magic from their text way too soon, way before they really get going, simply because it was not part of the bare bones, only to be left demoralised and staring and a page that while not blank still somehow manages to have very little on it. So I would say, and thinking of those early drafts, let it fly, let yourself overwrite, do the land justice and honour it via your writing as you try and capture it just so, just right. Take joy in that process. Let it free as an artistic expression of a place. Then, hopefully, whatever little quirks of the area you have picked up and made part of yourself will flow out.

luckyscars
May 28th, 2019, 07:27 AM
I am writing a novel as well as a collection of memoirs about "homesteading" on 10 acres of raw land in my 20s.

My background and life has always been on Canada's west coast, with lots of long narrow channels between islands, the forest fragrant with the strong smell of evergreens wafting over the water, rocky shores, kelp beds, seals, whales and seagulls. For me a lot of smells are significant, like the scent of a freshly cut down tree, the stench of rotting salmon on a river bank after spawning and the mixed fragrance of percolated coffee and diesel exhaust on the deck of a fishboat just to name a few.

The population I grew up with and I worked with was sometimes rough around the edges and unusually capable of taking on just about any task to survive.

But in my writing I include very little of this, sticking in just hints here and there.

I am always uncertain if I am describing the setting and people adequately. Am I leaving too much description out assuming the reader will like me, automatically feel the sense of place? I'm so close to it in my memory that I can feel and smell the ambience and maybe I'm forgetting to describe it enough.

I've been corresponding with another member here about this.

She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate.

I think the key to achieving good setting is for you, the writer to really see it yourself first.

I find that if/when I can achieve a really clear image of the location, and not just a visual one but in terms of sounds, smells, etc. that achieving a vivid sense of place is sort of easy because it flows through other things, often in ways you won't necessarily realize because you will assume its obvious but that somebody who is not from the location will be impacted by.

Things like including regional words, especially through dialogue, are very effective at this. Place names somewhat. Local fauna and flora. Depicting references to climate and local issues - economic and political forces in play. Local customs, avoiding super obvious cliches and stereotypes.

Pretty much anything that is authentic to the way of life in the location you are depicting will achieve place. You don't need to necessarily describe the geography.

Terry D
May 29th, 2019, 09:33 PM
Your personal style, the tone of the story itself, and the effect you want to achieve all are factors in your use of description. Sometimes a few carefully chosen words can convey a powerful image, or other times, based on your goal for the description, you might want to spend a few more words to get the right effect.

The barn stood silhouetted against the setting sun, its roof slumped and sagging, shingles falling like autumn leaves.

or

The barn had been weakened by time and weather. Once strong and robust its sides now bowed outward, pushed by its atrophied frame, sheathing boards popped loose and pointing haphazardly, like twigs on a fallen limb. The roof, no longer straight and true, now curved like a saddle, shaped no longer by the hands of craftsmen, but contorted by wetness and rot, slumped by the weight of too many winters and too little care.

luckyscars
May 30th, 2019, 05:38 AM
Your personal style, the tone of the story itself, and the effect you want to achieve all are factors in your use of description. Sometimes a few carefully chosen words can convey a powerful image, or other times, based on your goal for the description, you might want to spend a few more words to get the right effect.

The barn stood silhouetted against the setting sun, its roof slumped and sagging, shingles falling like autumn leaves.

or

The barn had been weakened by time and weather. Once strong and robust its sides now bowed outward, pushed by its atrophied frame, sheathing boards popped loose and pointing haphazardly, like twigs on a fallen limb. The roof, no longer straight and true, now curved like a saddle, shaped no longer by the hands of craftsmen, but contorted by wetness and rot, slumped by the weight of too many winters and too little care.

A lot of times people confuse 'the right effect' with 'the strongest/vividest/most dramatic effect' and that's been a real lesson for me over the last few years.

Comparing these two examples of the barn: The first is what I would use to describe an object. The second is what I would use to describe a character.

So...is the barn a character? Maybe. We see this all the time with descriptions of houses, boats, heirlooms and, of course, weather. It's powerful, but it's heavy on the stomach.

When a story contains too many such descriptions it becomes overwrite.

Olly Buckle
May 30th, 2019, 06:39 AM
Sair field hinny. :)

I guess it is like a description of a person because of the terms like 'strong and robust' which so often describe people. In the dictionary atrophied can be-: (of body tissue or an organ) wasted away or rudimentary.
"atrophied muscles" ·
or,
having lost effectiveness or vigour due to underuse or neglect. (their example is of the economy)
for example, and 'bowed is so often backs and legs. It is a bit overdone, but that is pretty normal when writing an example.

Terry D
May 30th, 2019, 02:15 PM
A lot of times people confuse 'the right effect' with 'the strongest/vividest/most dramatic effect' and that's been a real lesson for me over the last few years.

Comparing these two examples of the barn: The first is what I would use to describe an object. The second is what I would use to describe a character.

So...is the barn a character? Maybe. We see this all the time with descriptions of houses, boats, heirlooms and, of course, weather. It's powerful, but it's heavy on the stomach.

When a story contains too many such descriptions it becomes overwrite.

That's what I meant by choosing descriptions which fit the writer's style and intent. Some people can pull off 'overwrite,' (though when done well it won't seem like overwrite) but you have to be careful and choose the language and cadence better than I did in my second quick example. In that purplish bit of description I had in mind a situation where the building plays a major part in the hypothetical story, much like Shirley Jackson's, Hill House, or Stephen King's Marsten House from 'Salem's Lot, or the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

I've written both ways based on just such decisions, although the first is, by far, more representative of my typical style.


Sair field hinny. :)

I guess it is like a description of a person because of the terms like 'strong and robust' which so often describe people. In the dictionary atrophied can be-: (of body tissue or an organ) wasted away or rudimentary.
"atrophied muscles" ·
or,
having lost effectiveness or vigour due to underuse or neglect. (their example is of the economy)
for example, and 'bowed is so often backs and legs. It is a bit overdone, but that is pretty normal when writing an example.

LOL. Not my best work, true dat. :sorrow:

luckyscars
May 30th, 2019, 04:55 PM
That's what I meant by choosing descriptions which fit the writer's style and intent. Some people can pull off 'overwrite,' (though when done well it won't seem like overwrite) but you have to be careful and choose the language and cadence better than I did in my second quick example. In that purplish bit of description I had in mind a situation where the building plays a major part in the hypothetical story, much like Shirley Jackson's, Hill House, or Stephen King's Marsten House from 'Salem's Lot, or the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

I've written both ways based on just such decisions, although the first is, by far, more representative of my typical style.


Mmhmm. I think it would be interesting to try to figure out broad rules for which approach to use and when in a case where maybe it's a gray area between the object in question not filling the brief of 'Hell House major' but potentially being fertile ground for a good bit of description?

Admittedly I file this under Instinct & Competency but I can't really speak to the mental process behind deciding 'Ok, there is a barn and it's kind of important to setting the scene...how should I describe the said barn and to what level of intricacy?" and it makes sense there should be one because it's a fairly easy decision to make in context. It just usually entails trial and error which is always nice to avoid!

Do you have any insight as to what process, if any, you use to make these decisions or is it a gut thing?

Terry D
May 30th, 2019, 05:30 PM
Mmhmm. I think it would be interesting to try to figure out broad rules for which approach to use and when in a case where maybe it's a gray area between the object in question not filling the brief of 'Hell House major' but potentially being fertile ground for a good bit of description?

Admittedly I file this under Instinct & Competency but I can't really speak to the mental process behind deciding 'Ok, there is a barn and it's kind of important to setting the scene...how should I describe the said barn and to what level of intricacy?" and it makes sense there should be one because it's a fairly easy decision to make in context. It just usually entails trial and error which is always nice to avoid!

Do you have any insight as to what process, if any, you use to make these decisions?

Good question. There are certain types of stories where the 'environment' of the story is as important as any character. Such is the case in the books I mentioned by Jackson and King. In those cases a writer can justify expending more energy and words on description than they would when just establishing a setting. Although I'd add a caveat to that when you can use a character's perception of a place to show emotion and mind-set. For instance, a person might walk into a perfectly normal room and have something like the wallpaper, or the lighting, or a particular knick-knack, stir an emotional response based on their backstory. The reader doesn't necessarily need the backstory -- maybe they do, it depends on the story -- but just the character's reaction to a dim over-head light fixture, or that print hanging on the wall of Jesus knocking at a door, can develop the character. In that case a bit of selective embellishment can be justified.

In my first novel, the setting, a cave, functioned as a mute character so I spent a lot of time establishing what a wild (non-commercialized) cave is like to explore. I guess my general rule for description in cases where the setting isn't as integral to the story is to try and determine what details I would pick-up on if I were there. What would stand out to me, and what words can I use to convey that as vividly and concisely as possible.

I write horror and thrillers so I'm constantly looking for ways to build suspense, or show a character's state of mind with as much impact as possible. It's easy to over-do that if I'm not careful, but creating that balance is where "Instinct and Competency" come in. Although I think instinct is helped greatly by reading widely in your chosen genre. The good stuff tends to stick around in the moldy (or mouldy for our friends across the pond) corners of my brain.

I'm not sure I clarified anything, but I hope so.

Theglasshouse
May 30th, 2019, 05:56 PM
I struggle describing places I don't know. However I am going to model from novels to see how much concrete detail is needed and how to imitate the structure of the sentences.

One advice suggested I read newspaper articles on settings. For example read about town hall tragedies or crimes in the newspaper ( to describe a zoo you need a headline among many that you can find). Maybe then you can pick up something from the description in the article. I've read floor plans can be important for a house for instance. This is admittingly research.

I bought a poetry book. I've read depending for example the career of the person or what happened ( the past of the character) you can write with more emotion and tone the settings. In 1st person there are benefits to this. In that emotion is easier to convey in setting. In 3rd person you need to work harder for the setting to make sense. Poetry is my solution to this since I have read from numerous places that any poetry you learn can be applied to fiction.

Encyclopedias sometimes help. I don't have a library nearby. I have to use the internet.

But I think Terry d said something that helps. Which is the perception of a character. It changes how they see trees like a soldier, a zookeeper, a archaeologist. You can write in many different styles and tones. There's this book that mentions 99 ways to rewrite a scene.

The problem I have is location of the concrete detail. So imitating the writer is my best bet. If I open a novel I could copy and note how they did it. Then I can try with my own way using what I read as a blueprint. That is my approach since I read it somewhere.

luckyscars
May 30th, 2019, 06:38 PM
Good question. There are certain types of stories where the 'environment' of the story is as important as any character. Such is the case in the books I mentioned by Jackson and King. In those cases a writer can justify expending more energy and words on description than they would when just establishing a setting. Although I'd add a caveat to that when you can use a character's perception of a place to show emotion and mind-set. For instance, a person might walk into a perfectly normal room and have something like the wallpaper, or the lighting, or a particular knick-knack, stir an emotional response based on their backstory. The reader doesn't necessarily need the backstory -- maybe they do, it depends on the story -- but just the character's reaction to a dim over-head light fixture, or that print hanging on the wall of Jesus knocking at a door, can develop the character. In that case a bit of selective embellishment can be justified.

In my first novel, the setting, a cave, functioned as a mute character so I spent a lot of time establishing what a wild (non-commercialized) cave is like to explore. I guess my general rule for description in cases where the setting isn't as integral to the story is to try and determine what details I would pick-up on if I were there. What would stand out to me, and what words can I use to convey that as vividly and concisely as possible.

I write horror and thrillers so I'm constantly looking for ways to build suspense, or show a character's state of mind with as much impact as possible. It's easy to over-do that if I'm not careful, but creating that balance is where "Instinct and Competency" come in. Although I think instinct is helped greatly by reading widely in your chosen genre. The good stuff tends to stick around in the moldy (or mouldy for our friends across the pond) corners of my brain.

I'm not sure I clarified anything, but I hope so.

It’s funny because in practice I often find the choice as to what to describe or not almost becomes random. I loathe to attribute anything in writing to random, but if I consider my MC going through a box of basement bric-a-brac for example how much depth I give to the objects he/she uncovers will totally depend on how much attention I imagine her character giving each item, what observations or associations if any I imagine she might have, and in this way the decision is made. Some might argue it’s not random because it’s character based but it still is essentially down to luck of the draw because there’s not necessarily any reason for her to fixate on, say, a doll with a smashed face and not an old diary. Just like in real life when we look out a window what we notice and fixate on isn’t usually for any rational reason either.

Of course I would never approach all my descriptions like that, but a lot of time they just kind of fall in a certain way based on the imagined POV.

Bloggsworth
May 30th, 2019, 08:07 PM
It rather depends on how well you do it...

Insolitus
June 24th, 2019, 03:49 PM
I believe it comes down to personal preference. I find that slowly building the location around the speech and action within any given scene. This is mostly for when I write sci-fi and try to get a particular feel of the atmosphere. There isn't anything saying that you can't have a parapgraph or two detailing the location, but it kind of stops the pace of the story for just description. I'd say try a mishmash of including details that give us an idea of what you're going for while inplementing single lines of description with the duality of action/dialogue. Then try a full paragraph instead and see which one you think reads easier and sets more of an image in your head.

Ralph Rotten
June 24th, 2019, 10:42 PM
"She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate."

This was advice you should follow.

I write as verbose as I please, and enjoy taking random segues to illustrate characters. Often I cheat by describing the scene through the eyes of the characters, so it does double duty (for half the words I get a description, and insight into the character's mind about those same things.) I do not flinch at adding another page to a scene.

It is easier to trim the fat than add missing elements.

Superfluous stuff is very easy to prune...but going back and adding something like character development is akin to stuffing a V8 in a Pinto.

Writing fat is better than writing lean.

JohnCalliganWrites
June 25th, 2019, 04:54 PM
I mean, you'll find out for sure when you get beta readers and they will tell you "this scene is in a white room," and, "what does this look like," if you aren't using enough for them. Or they might say, "this reads too slowly, too much description." And then you'll decide if you agree or not.

Almost no one knows if they are hitting the mark or not. You just got to play it by ear.

Art Man
September 15th, 2019, 06:32 AM
I know this topic is dead but I must say that as a reader my experience with reading extensive details that elaborate on setting and place seem to slow down the story and loses my interest if drawn out too extensively.

I now see choosing how detailed I should make my scenes depends upon what pacing I want the story to move at. More focus on setting and place can help an action filled thriller breath, giving the reader some time to absorb all the previous sequences if they are crammed with action and plot changing dynamics.

If you are writing a novel that moves slowly and is filled with more reflective memoir-like reminiscing then an extensive poetic scene and setting build up might serve that dormant mood.

badgerjelly
September 18th, 2019, 07:06 AM
The description you’ve given in the OP is enough. More would be to much and less wouldn’t stick. You can always flesh out details as you go along. The initial description of a place is one that creates an atmosphere for the story to build on rather than as an actual blow by blow description. I get a good sense of place and mood from what you’ve laid out in the description.

J.T. Chris
September 28th, 2019, 09:35 PM
I think you've done a fine job with your setting in your initial post. As far as setting, I consider it a character in its own right; it's every bit as important to me as the protagonist.

becwriter
March 23rd, 2020, 10:44 PM
I feel that setting can take on greater or lesser import depending on the scene in question. Sometimes an expansive, sweeping description is called for and sometimes a one-liner. It all depends on the goal of that particular scene.

Olly Buckle
March 24th, 2020, 11:13 PM
Sometimes a description gives me a whole picture in a line or two, Raymond Chandler is good at that, but I know that my picture is probably not the same as any other reader's, we each have our own. The more detail the more we will converge, but unless it is a place we all know I don't reckon we ever match up perfectly, so why bother trying? So long as you get across the important bit for the story let the reader interpret the rest as they will.

Amy-rose
March 30th, 2020, 07:50 PM
It depends on how important the setting is or how different it might be for some people. If it's a novel, appose to non-fiction about homesteading then you want to make each sentence do as much heavy lifting as possible. You can release small snippets of information. Someone said, sentences need to evoke theme, plot, character and setting and as many of them as possible. Seeing through the eyes of the characters is more interesting than just describing the area. You can combined setting and character with a character memory. So if you need to describe a river, mention it as a memory for the character. Maybe he remembers one lovely summer's day there, or when he rode his first horse through the water. Connecting things to setting works. In a novel about Boadicea I read she described in detail a field she played sword fighting in as a child with sticks - later she'd have a real battle on that field.

Hope that was in some way helpful

Olly Buckle
April 1st, 2020, 11:42 PM
'It depends ...' is a really good answer, it depends on so many things. If you are really good at descriptive and shit at character give it some. If it is the other way round, don't. Sounds obvious, but people try to do things they are shit at because they think they ought, or cut short what they are good at because they think they should.

Another good answer then would be 'The right amount.' That could be different for every writer and judging it is the subliminal skill that separates typist from writers, or one of them.

JosephSC
April 8th, 2020, 08:00 PM
I feel like description of a place should give the reader a sense of size, color, mood, but should never be overdone. Describing the color of the walls is great but going down to how the wall feels against the hand of the character is a little too much. Stuff like that should really be left alone unless it serves a purpose. Describing a cold wall that makes the character miss home is nice, but if it has nothing to do with the story it's unneeded. Big descriptions of how a setting works can also be confusing and you can lose the reader rather quickly. Overall, using the description to set up the tone of a place or setting is great just don't over do it.

Theglasshouse
April 9th, 2020, 03:43 AM
I think description was difficult for me because I was not much of an observer and I had to get my characters to interact with the setting.

starsofclay
April 24th, 2020, 08:28 PM
In my personal experience, you don't want to give an information dump. Just write enough to get an overall picture of where you are at.. throw a few colors and shapes in there.. and then have your characters describe more about the area in dialogue (would need to be an organic reason for it to come up in dialogue). You can also throw in some environmental descriptions if the plot requires a character to interact with it. Hope that helps.

hvysmker
April 24th, 2020, 08:47 PM
I have one very long action story where a certain house is used repeatedly, off and on. For that reason, each room is described in, basically, a narrated info dump.

Justin Attas
April 25th, 2020, 08:55 PM
The quick answer (which may or may not be right), for people- show those traits through their actions. The readers will pick up on it, and appreciate the organic communication of personalities, both verbal and non-verbal. For place- the depth and vividness of description is far more important than quantity. Use a blend of figurative and literal descriptions of the landscape. Never more than a paragraph or two at a time, but get deep. Describe oceans of wheat and the damage the bite of an early winter can do. Marry those descriptions with how your characters deal with them, and you're looking at a solid homesteading experience readers couldn't mistake for anything else.

apocalypsegal
May 16th, 2020, 01:35 PM
I try to think about the reader. Would they know what I'm describing? I mean, if my character goes to Walmart, I likely don't need to describe much about it, because the reader likely knows at least a little about Walmart. But if the character boards an FTL ship, they will need more to set the scene. I don't know much about the area you wrote about here, so I'd like to know more, to understand the story better.

Another thing I have a note taped to the computer about is to use the senses and emotions. You don't need long, effusive scenes about place or character, sometimes it can be summed up in a few sentences or paragraphs that set the reader firmly into the story. It's more a matter of practice, learning how to use words without being long-winded, to learn how to pick out the important details and leave out the rest.

vranger
May 22nd, 2020, 09:57 PM
Like so many writing topics, the answer is that there is no answer. It's a matter of style, and possibly of genre.

You'll find a school of thought recommending you merely provide hints to a description, and let the reader's imagination fill in the details.

Then you have something like Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, where the first page is a highly detailed description of Marlowe's attire and the room he enters. We have yet to find out anything about the character or the story.

There are great authors and popular novels using both styles. For myself, I lean toward the minimalist style. I only go into deep description where I really want to set a mood, I want to be sure the reader sees a marked difference between two things, or more details are important to upcoming action or dialogue.

As an example, if a character enters a wine cellar, I'd normally just say that. But I had a scene where two enemies were locked in a life and death cat and mouse game in a wine cellar. I described it in great detail there, because the characters' actions would have made little sense without an understanding of the layout.

But here's how minimalist can fool the reader:
Trust me, I'm mostly minimalist. For one novel, one reviewer said "Beautiful descriptive writing pulled me in". Another said, "The richness of (the) descriptions". I just kind of had to chuckle. Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted readers had that experience. It just wasn't something I focused on. In fact, that was an early effort, and I decided my first draft was "adjective heavy". I pulled out a LOT of description in the second draft. LOL