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How important is scenery in a book to you? (1 Viewer)

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Llyralen

Senior Member
I write with hardly any description of scenery unless a character is interacting with their environment and I often just launch into dialogue. How important do you feel setting the stage description-wise is to you? Without it do you feel disoriented? I've had some feedback from some personalities who seem to feel disoriented and disappointed without it and really crave that in writing and other people who said that in general they don't need it and even feel slowed down and bored by descriptions of scenery.

What about you?
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I write with hardly any description of scenery unless a character is interacting with their environment and I often just launch into dialogue. How important do you feel setting the stage description-wise is to you? Without it do you feel disoriented? I've had some feedback from some personalities who seem to feel disoriented and disappointed without it and really crave that in writing and other people who said that in general they don't need it and even feel slowed down and bored by descriptions of scenery.

What about you?

Love scenery! Yes, I can picture it myself, but why should I? The author must have a vision in their heads when they are writing it, so why not share. Plus, scenery can be a huge part of showing. For example, they fell to the ground and made out on a persian carpet, vs. they fell to the ground and made out on a worn out Ikea rug.

Yes...tell me what you are seeing.
 
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TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
It's important if you want to establish atmosphere and mood. If you simply have your character walk though a woods, how is the reader going to pick up he/she is a naturist or animal lover if you don't describe the scenery? Unless you 'tell' them ...

If you've just had a long and exciting action sequence and want to give the reader a breather (and by default character), what better way than lovely, meandering sentences describing the following scene?

If you want to build up 'dread' (the bread and butter of horror), how can you achieve that if you don't take the reader on a tortured journey through an old mansion or gnarled wood?

edit: as JBF said below. And don't forget the 5 senses.
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
Scenery is critical, provided it's done well.

Ideally the setting comes through via character; they see it, smell it, interact with it, or are somehow inconvenienced by it. If not, I assume A) they aren't paying attention or B) the author omitted the description for a reason. Of course, this can and usually is offset (badly) by bringing all forward progress to a crashing halt when while they pour on the detail in excruciating purple detail.

Organic scenery is worth its weight in gold.

Badly executed scenery is worth its weight in gold to a drowning man.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
When I was a teen I read every L.M. Montgomery book in our library, but I got really bored when she would write a 1/2 page about a sunset and I'd skip it. I have had a hard time finding these long descriptions online in order to cut and paste them. Probably nobody else could be bothered either with typing them out. But here are some tastes:

“November--with uncanny witchery in its changed trees. With murky red sunsets flaming in smoky crimson behind the westering hills. With dear days when the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes--days full of a fine, pale sunshine that sifted through the late, leafless gold of the juniper-trees and glimmered among the grey beeches, lighting up evergreen banks of moss and washing the colonnades of the pines. Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape and dream about the lake. But days, too, of the wild blackness of great autumn storms, followed by dank, wet, streaming nights when there was witch-laughter in the pines and fitful moans among the mainland trees. What cared they? Old Tom had built his roof well, and his chimney drew.”
--L.M. Montgomery


"March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight which gradually lost itself in an elfland of moonshine.”
L.M. Montgomery

“Anne came dancing home in the purple winter twilight across the snowy places.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

“The woods are never solitary--they are full of whispering, beckoning, friendly life. But the sea is a mighty soul, forever moaning of some great, unshareable sorrow, which shuts it up into itself for all eternity.”
L.M. Montgomery, Kilmeny of the Orchard

“Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

"Oh, Marilla," she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, "I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn't it? Look at these maple branches. Don't they give you a thrill--several thrills?”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables




I guess this is telling rather than showing, which is the problem. And that little bit of annoyance when Anne actually says these things outloud is a hallmark of Anne's particular character, but it IS cringy, right? You allow it because it's so ANNE and we love her whole self.... but did L.M. Montgomery not think this was annoying about Anne? ? ? I'd never thought about that. I half love her for it, half am super annoyed. But does anyone not feel the annoyance? ? ?



 
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Llyralen

Senior Member
On the other hand something like this just floors me....

“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”
Halldór Laxness, Independent People
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Scenery is critical, provided it's done well.

Ideally the setting comes through via character; they see it, smell it, interact with it, or are somehow inconvenienced by it. If not, I assume A) they aren't paying attention or B) the author omitted the description for a reason. Of course, this can and usually is offset (badly) by bringing all forward progress to a crashing halt when while they pour on the detail in excruciating purple detail.

Organic scenery is worth its weight in gold.

Badly executed scenery is worth its weight in gold to a drowning man.

Good points. I agree on the huge difference between well done and badly done. Are there times when you think scenery is not necessary? Or does it always feel needed or feel missing if it's not there?

This kind of feeds into a different but related question of mine: Do we need to have descriptions of what our characters look like? But that's kind of a bonus question, I guess.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Well, she is obsessive.

Anne of GG, the character? Or L.M. Montgomery in general? Maybe you'll say both.

I should have made it clearer, but the 2nd quote that I love is from Halldor Laxness' book Independent People. His descriptions of Iceland's countryside are pretty central to the plot. It's a man against nature and man against self. Basically this stubborn sheep farmer buys land that all Icelanders call cursed (there are multiple generations of people who have gone insane or been eaten by those who are possessed by the spirits with the result that it came cheap, nobody has lived there for a long time) and he shouts back, daring the spirits to do their worst and then brings his young bride there who he starts to watch go a bit crazy. Some of the descriptions make you feel so happy when the sun is shining and you're listening to waterfalls and sometimes the descriptions just sink you and make you feel the weight of all this filthy hard work/drudgery. It does what you were saying. It directly affects the tone and mood of the book and also stirs up fears of what could happen.

Dang it, I read it over after reading the quotes by Montgomery and all together it all feels like too much. If you just read the quote from Independent People (Laxness) on it's own without being already bombed out by too much description, then to me it's amazing... but anyway...

Laxness won the Nobel Prize after writing this book. So... it's not really a fair comparison between him and Montgomery, except for these quotes are from the same time period, sort of. And I think they show what I'm saying about boring and superfluous versus what you and JBF are saying about description of setting being crucial.

But I still don't know if it's always necessary to describe setting. This thread was stirred up by my friend's story in our writer's group that has basically no description but is hilarious and dialogue-heavy and I don't know if description would add to it or not. Half the group wants her to add it. The other half says "It's not necessary, you don't need it."

My bonus question: I don't always want a character described. I love Daphne Du Murier's Rebecca, how the MC is not named and never really described except for her youth, but we get well acquainted with her character through the telling of the book, which is 1st person POV. I'd rather picture her however my imagination wanted to, rather than be told something which truly is arbitrary like hair color. But I know many people feel differently about that. I think it's an interesting difference in people and I'd like to understand that difference better.
 
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TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
Anne of GG, the character? Or L.M. Montgomery in general? Maybe you'll say both.

I should have made it clearer, but the 2nd quote that I love is from Halldor Laxness' book Independent People. His descriptions of Iceland's countryside are pretty central to the plot. It's a man against nature and man against self. Basically this stubborn sheep farmer buys land that all Icelanders call cursed (there are multiple generations of people who have gone insane or been eaten by those who are possessed by the spirits with the result that it came cheap, nobody has lived there for a long time) and he shouts back, daring the spirits to do their worst and then brings his young bride there who he starts to watch go a bit crazy. Some of the descriptions make you feel so happy when the sun is shining and you're listening to waterfalls and sometimes the descriptions just sink you and make you feel the weight of all this filthy hard work/drudgery. It does what you were saying. It directly affects the tone and mood of the book and also stirs up fears of what could happen.

Dang it, I read it over after reading the quotes by Montgomery and all together it all feels like too much. If you just read the quote from Independent People (Laxness) on it's own without being already bombed out by too much description, then to me it's amazing... but anyway...

Laxness won the Nobel Prize after writing this book. So... it's not really a fair comparison between him and Montgomery, except for these quotes are from the same time period, sort of. And I think they show what I'm saying about boring and superfluous versus what you and JBF are saying about description of setting being crucial.

But I still don't know if it's always necessary to describe setting. This thread was stirred up by my friend's story in our writer's group that has basically no description but is hilarious and dialogue-heavy and I don't know if description would add to it or not. Half the group wants her to add it. The other half says "It's not necessary, you don't need it."

My bonus question: I don't always want a character described. I love Daphne Du Murier's Rebecca, how the MC is not named and never really described except for her youth, but we get well acquainted with her character through the telling of the book, which is 1st person POV. I'd rather picture her however my imagination wanted to, rather than be told something which truly is arbitrary like hair color. But I know many people feel differently about that. I think it's an interesting difference in people and I'd like to understand that difference better.

All that stuff is too much for me. I'm a simple man with simple tastes. Whilst I admire the artistry, it bores the pants of me and couldn't even consider reading a whole book written that way.

As far as setting mood is concerned, it depends of what the writer is trying to achieve. This little snippet from an unfinished short I was writing, uses description for comedic effect:

The sun was nothing more than an orange strip as they pressed on. The road they travelled dark, the trees and bushes either side, shifting shadows. An owl hooted from a treetop, its sorrowful tone eerie in the crisp, night air. Bats spiralled and swooped to catch the night flies that gathered in clusters beneath the canopies of the trees, their mice-like squeals, a macabre counterpoint to the hoots of the owl.

“It has been a pleasant day thus far,” Farilon said.

“Glad you think so,” Trux said, batting gnats away from his bitten nose.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
All that stuff is too much for me. I'm a simple man with simple tastes. Whilst I admire the artistry, it bores the pants of me and couldn't even consider reading a whole book written that way.

Exactly.... I skipped over L.M. Montgomery's descriptions as a teen and I still would. I have a different feeling about Halldor Laxness Independent People for sure, though. The beginning chapter reads like a really creepy Scandinavian ghost story (they really have a history of good ones... the Vikings were good at ghost stories too, imo) and there are concepts there in his description. But it ALL is too much after looking over L.M's descriptions.

As far as setting mood is concerned, it depends of what the writer is trying to achieve. This little snippet from an unfinished short I was writing, uses description for comedic effect:

LOL I enjoyed this clip and the currant of humor was there even in the lines about eerie owls and spiraling bats and nightflies.
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
Exactly.... I skipped over L.M. Montgomery's descriptions as a teen and I still would. I have a different feeling about Halldor Laxness Independent People for sure, though. The beginning chapter reads like a really creepy Scandinavian ghost story (they really have a history of good ones... the Vikings were good at ghost stories too, imo) and there are concepts there in his description. But it ALL is too much after looking over L.M's descriptions.



LOL I enjoyed this clip and the currant of humor was there even in the descriptive lines.

I've decided I'm going to post the whole thing in the workshop. It's not finished but it gave me a good old chuckle. It's called The Long Journey.
 
I like scenery because I like to be able to orient myself physically in the space of the story. I also feel that stories that lack description are more likely to lean toward melodrama, since everything is just ungrounded emotion, without physical reality to balance it. Of course, there are cases where description can be intentionally excluded -- I don't think the characters in Journey to the Center of the Earth are ever described, because, well, they're hardly important. What matters is going to the center of the earth. But, it's not as if the story is description-less -- the atmosphere and place is very well-described! Essentially, every part in the story should contribute to the whole. A blank void of "plot" is not a story. If you need to exclude description, sure, but know why you're doing it. If you need to include description, same thing.

But just on a personal level: I'd have trouble getting through a story without scenery. I feel that I also have simple tastes: I love beauty, I love wonders, and I love new (or old, but I can pretend they're new) facts about physical reality. Honestly, it's probably that my tastes are too simple: a story about a leaf, woah, that's a bit much -- I just want a leaf. A nice leaf. Or a weird leaf. Action, characters, plot, oh sure, I've developed a taste for them, but my first love is just beauty and strangeness and Things for their own sake. I constantly re-read the "boring" parts in Out of the Silent Planet where Ransom is just living on Malacandra, walking around the Martian countryside and learning the language. Mmmh, the best.


ETA: I think some of the kerfuffle about how awful "boring description" is, is probably because some authors just aren't very good at writing it. Of course, you don't want your readers skipping your scenery bits, but the problem is not scenery, the problem is that the scenery bits are skippable. Bad dialogue or bad action sequences are also skippable.
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
Are there times when you think scenery is not necessary? Or does it always feel needed or feel missing if it's not there?

Depends, I think.

I'm inclined to believe that you need to establish the general lay of things early on. Excessive detail can hurt you here, especially if this means crucial information gets front-loaded to the opening of the story. By and large a reader is an outsider looking for an idea of place and characters. When you first bring them into the story they need at least an idea of the who and where, and probably some hint of conflict. No matter if this isn't the protagonist, the primary setting, or the major conflict - your reader just needs something they can latch onto until they've gotten their bearings.

In essence: your opening needs a character in a place with a problem. Broad strokes will suffice here. You can shade in the details later.

I'll throw out an opening to one of mine that may or may not get used for the end product.

***

As in a dream he chased a girl through a shifting night-world, between the dappling leaves of summer oaks and sagged lines of a fence laid half-over until at last the field ended and broken sandstone ridge sloped sharp down to winding creekbed. He stood considering the chipped surface of the water, breathing hard with the blood hammering in his ears. Fresh tracks crossed the sandbar.

Upstream a flash of movement. The looping blur of pale legs and white running shoes.

A gap in the brush marked a deer trail down the slope and he went, sinking into loose sand to his ankles and stumbling as gravity carried him to the gravel bank. Somewhere in the rush he missed a step and rolled flailing to the water’s edge. Righting himself, he waited and let the night talk. The bushes on the opposite band were stilled now, no telltale crash from the upper bank or swaying branches by way of sign. Downstream, the soft chuckle of sluggish water negotiating a bend in the creek. Somewhere high and left a night bird sang curt and shrill.

***


Do we have a character? We have two. The relationship is unclear save one pursuing the other. We can gather that he has both a familiarity with the terrain and an instinct that may or may not be predatory. We don't know much about her yet.

Do we have place? We know it's nighttime in a field in the summer. There's a creek in there, too, and fences in disrepair that suggest a we're someplace that's rural but not wild.

Problem? Not strictly. What we do have is a pursuit which gives us a degree of tension, which should tide us over until the larger conflict comes along.

If we excise any of the three, the product falls apart. We have a guy in the boondocks at night, or we have a confusing chase scene without a setting, or a we have a guy and a girl apart in the woods in the dark.

What is omitted is the place (North Texas, ca. 1987) the relationship between the two characters (they've been dating for a year or so) or why they're out playing tag in the woods at night (they're teenagers being spontaneous and probably dumb, he's leaving soon for a job that offers him a better future than he could get locally, that she can't go with him, and they wanted to make the last evening together memorable but there's nothing to do in town). All this is important for the larger story and unnecessary at the introduction.

If the opening is successful it buys me time to explain the complexities that form a backdrop for the larger narrative. If not, and I lose readers here...such is life.


This kind of feeds into a different but related question of mine: Do we need to have descriptions of what our characters look like? But that's kind of a bonus question, I guess.

Fodder for a thread unto itself, I imagine.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I write with hardly any description of scenery unless a character is interacting with their environment and I often just launch into dialogue. How important do you feel setting the stage description-wise is to you? Without it do you feel disoriented? I've had some feedback from some personalities who seem to feel disoriented and disappointed without it and really crave that in writing and other people who said that in general they don't need it and even feel slowed down and bored by descriptions of scenery.

What about you?

I like it. I must like it a lot because I was reading Anne of Green Gables to my daughter a while back and found myself delighting in it. But I think practitioners of it have to know what they’re doing. I like a bit of voiciness in my scenery. If it’s too passive, too generic, too “There was a tree. Beside it, a brook babbled” then I’d say it needs work. It works best imo when it’s kind of threaded in with some character’s doings.

But nothing bores me quicker than a total absence of scenery. It makes my heart sink whenever I realise a book is going to be like that. It’s like a failure of the imagination.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I like it. I must like it a lot because I was reading Anne of Green Gables to my daughter a while back and found myself delighting in it. But I think practitioners of it have to know what they’re doing. I like a bit of voiciness in my scenery. If it’s too passive, too generic, too “There was a tree. Beside it, a brook babbled” then I’d say it needs work. It works best imo when it’s kind of threaded in with some character’s doings.

But nothing bores me quicker than a total absence of scenery. It makes my heart sink whenever I realise a book is going to be like that. It’s like a failure of the imagination.


Do you ever get disappointed when something is described and it isn’t how you had imagined it yourself? Has that ever happened?
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Love scenery! Yes, I can picture it myself, but why should I? The author must have a vision in their heads when they are writing it, so why not share. Plus, scenery can be a huge part of showing. For example, they fell to the ground and made out on persian carpet, vs. they fell to the ground and made out on a worn out Ikea rug.

Yes...tell me what you are seeing.

Taylor, I will ask you the same question I asked above. Have you ever been disappointed when the author described something and it’s different than how your imagination pictured it?
 

druid12000

Senior Member
I find myself checking while writing to make sure the descriptions are necessary to the overall feel of the story. I like minimal description and I can sniff out 'fluff' and padding to build word count pretty easily and nothing bores me more than an author telling me about every rock and tree or paving stone along the way. Or describing a character in such intimate detail that my imagination has nowhere to fill in the blanks. That is one of the joys I derive from reading as opposed to watching a movie, it makes me an active participant in the story.

But I do need some framework to hang my imagination upon.

Going back to the overall feel of a story, if my characters are walking through a swamp, there's a good reason for them being in the swamp and I will set that scene with as much description as necessary to give a gloomy, oppressive feel -or- perhaps it's bright daylight while they are traversing said swamp and it's teeming with life. The same goes for characters walking in a city. If it's like a scene from 'I Am Legend' then the chilling silence and loneliness of the surroundings must be described to make the scene work, while, in contrast, if the characters are in a bustling city then that scene should convey that bustle and, if necessary to the character development, how it makes them feel.

When done well, the scenery is a character unto itself.
 
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