Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

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

Status
Not open for further replies.

Llyralen

Senior Member
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.




Fodder for a thread unto itself, I imagine.

I have appreciation for the ability to write what I call “logistics” well. Basically the mechanics of the environment and make it easy to picture and the decisions of the characters make quick easy sense. Thank you for sharing your writing!

I will share a clip of one of mine in return. The plot required me to do more description than my usual stories have and it did take extra work from me, where I think logistics might be easier for some people to describe.

I should have asked it this way from the get-go, but I will ask you this question this way: Does it help to orient you more when there is description of place? Does it anchor you a bit? It sounds like it, maybe?

I think I do want to make another thread on my bonus question as that might be more orienting for people too. Let me fetch that clip and edit...

This was my response to a writer’s prompt about a cave, but this is probably the most logistics I’ve ever written (which isn’t much) and I am well-acquainted with climbing in red sandstone canyons, but it still was a thought for me. Probably the description and/or logistics would not have been as tough for someone else: I’m still not at all sure if they are effective. Let me know if you’d like to. Actually you can kind of see what is more usual for my writing as the story progresses more into her thought process. The crystal cave would always need a description. Do you need a description of Elony? Would that help orient or picture? Or can you easily conjure what she looks like for yourself? What is preferred? Also... it’s easy to read on my phone but I’m not sure if the copy/paste won’t look ridiculous on my computer...grumble grumble...

Elony strained her eyes for the white fur of her goat in contrast to the red cliffs and dull green cedar and juniper trees. She was covered in sweat and dust, and was a bit breathless after a climb down. She had followed the goat's trail for hours, afraid that she would return home empty-handed. Now the goat's bleating echoed off of the standstone. It sounded like the little thing should be right where Elony was standing. Elony was sure that her eyes were playing tricks on her with the hot sun rebounding from the rock and surely she would suddenly spy the goat in plain sight. Perhaps the poor thing had broken its leg. The goat grew quiet for a second. A bramble scratched Elony's arms when she brought her hands to her mouth to call her goatherd call. Yibideebeedeebeedoo! The little thing answered plaintively, the sound seemed to surround her, almost as if coming from inside of her. Had it fallen where she simply could not see? Elony grabbed ceder roots from a tree above her and found footing to get a better vantage point, and all of a sudden she was falling, not really understanding why except that what had seemed solid footing had crumbled, she was sliding down sandstone along with some sand she had dislodged. The fall was fast, her feet could not do much to slow her in those seconds. She slid about 30 feet with her backpack against the wind-swept rock at an angle only barely better than vertical. Elony stiffly stood up, thankfully not really hurt other than bruises and scrapes. She was in a sort of small ravine, a slot canyon. There was no flat ground, just a V where two cliffsides met, each side under one of her feet with a jagged crack between. There, almost under her was the poor little goat, it's leg broken indeed. Sand strewn across its fur. She reached down to pet it, it let out another echoing cry.

Elony looked around her. She knew she could push her back against a side of the cliff and "walk" up a bit, Elony did so to get on top of a boulder where she could look outside of the gully. What she saw next astounded her. She sat on the boulder, looking down, there it was... a crystal cave. A 17 foot azure crystal spike decorated the opening like a bizarrely big tooth, the other "teeth" being roughly 5 to 8 feet, green and pink. Sometimes on the same "tooth", gold, clear, and amethyst intermingled.. Small and large crystals glistened back towards the "throat" of the cave.

It seemed like a whole different world to Elony, she could look around her to the left and right and see the usual red rock, or she could look ahead and down into that gaping sparkling mouth. Elony longed to walk inside, but then realized her feet would get shredded to bits. "Just wait until I show Ashu!" she thought in delight! But then.... she realized an even deeper need. "It would be better", she thought, "infinitely better, if no one knew about this cave except for me". Elony wasn't sure why she thought so, she had shared everything her entire short life with everyone in her village, but the thought struck her as deeply necessary. "No one must know!", she thought in a sort of ecstasy," And when my body is ready to die, I die here, I walk here, I will fall here, my face likely cut by the beautiful crystals." Elony wasn't sure why she thought such a thing. It frightened her. The strength of the desire also frightened her. “But it must be exactly so,” Elony thought.





Actually I think you can see what is more my style and more important to me as the story goes on getting to her thought process. I’m still not sure if I described the logistics effectively. Also why can I only type down here? Sheesh...
 
Last edited:

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
I should have asked it this way from the get-go, but I will ask you this question this way: Does it help to orient you more when there is description of place? Does it anchor you a bit? It sounds like it, maybe?

I'd say so.

Granted, it's not impossible to have a riveting scene in a featureless white room, but it is significantly less likely than then same scene with at least a little backdrop.
 

Llyralen

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.

I think this is what I prefer, usually. Yeah.. too much detail on what could be left to imagination— things like how a MC looks just annoys me (unless needed like The Portrait of Dorian Grey or something). It makes my own imagination irrelevant and often I keep insisting in my head or asserting that the way I pictured them is going to stay the way I picture it.

I think J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter type level of deacriiption is great, especially for unveiling a world different from ours. I’m okay with the amount she gives us on the kids’ looks especially since there are so many kids and Harry’s scar is important. But if a book is mainly from one person’s POV and Im going to get to know them so well, then I’m not sure how much detail I want. Hermione’s crazy hair was enough, but in du Murier’s Rebecca it was actually really nice to not have a description of the MC. It was easier to put myself in her place that way and added to the ordinariness of her, which was part of her appeal to Maxim.... anyway...

I think this depends on the book’s needs for it to work but I also think there is a preference involved, but I’d like to understand it even more, and maybe try to reach all audiences.
 
Last edited:

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Do you ever get disappointed when something is described and it isn’t how you had imagined it yourself? Has that ever happened?

Sometimes, but usually what I imagine is based on what the author wrote in the first instance. So if they then contradict their own setting, it's their problem hehe:)

I dunno though - it raises the question of whose responsibility it is to set the scene - the author's or the reader's? I think the author has to do something, even if it's just a quick line to establish the scene. I like novels with a strong sense of place. Nothing disappoints me more when a book could be set anywhere, or nowhere, or in a white void.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Sometimes, but usually what I imagine is based on what the author wrote in the first instance. So if they then contradict their own setting, it's their problem hehe:)

I dunno though - it raises the question of whose responsibility it is to set the scene - the author's or the reader's? I think the author has to do something, even if it's just a quick line to establish the scene. I like novels with a strong sense of place. Nothing disappoints me more when a book could be set anywhere, or nowhere, or in a white void.


I would like to understand this disappointment more if you don’t mind delving a bit. Is it disappointment because you don’t get to travel and go anywhere new with this novel? Do you love getting a new place to explore? Would it be equally disappointing if the scene was laid out but it was plain and uninteresting and similar to what you’re used to? Or do you still need that to feel more oriented and connected to the book?

For example, what if the characters and the plot are very different from what you are used to and funny and engaging but there is no description of the scene at all? And if there were it would be “living room and kitchen painted white.” Would you still want that description?

Let me understand what you’re craving in a book a bit.
 
Last edited:

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
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?

I can't remember that happening. But I do have preferences for how the scenery is described. For example, I really liked the way you described the scenery in your post:

"Elony strained her eyes for the white fur of her goat in contrast to the red cliffs and dull green cedar and juniper trees."

That description is perfect! It gives me a strong visual, and its purpose is just that, to set the stage.

The only thing that really bugs me, and I often find myself getting impatient, is if the author is using either too many adjectives or 'creative' adjectives, just to be clever. And if they do both, I can get downright annoyed. I am a very visual person, so if you give me what are supposed to be visual words, I will try to picture them, so they better make sense. And by 'creative' words, I mean words that would not typically be used to describe that noun. I think some people may call this style of writing 'purple'.

That being said, I like when an author is selective, and uses a creative word in a way that enhances the image. For example when personifying nature, (an area where writers seem to go crazy), an "angry sea" makes sense -- it adds to the visual. But an "angry sunset", or "angry pathway" might be harder to imagine.

 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
As has been previously said, description communicates mood as well as the POV characters state of mind. It also paints a picture for the reader, but I would be willing to bet that what we (mentally) see when we write isn't exactly what the reader imagines. As such, I don't think it's necessary to describe every stick of furniture and bump in the road... if it doesn't directly relate to the plot. For the rest, the reader will draw from their own experiences and places they've visited and make the scenery their own.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I would like to understand this disappointment more if you don’t mind delving a bit. Is it disappointment because you don’t get to travel and go anywhere new with this novel? Do you love getting a new place to explore?

I think it must be. But bear in mind that this is just me. And don't get me wrong - pages and pages of static description is going to put me off too, but I do like a sense of place. Why? I don't really know. I just like as many senses to be engaged. I like to escape when I read. And good description makes it more real and immersive. But as I say that's just the type of reader I am. I'm sure there are many books and readers that are good matches and where this sense of being elsewhere isn't so important.#


Would it be equally disappointing if the scene was laid out but it was plain and uninteresting and similar to what you’re used to? Or do you still need that to feel more oriented and connected to the book?

I think it might. I tend to read books that are quite far removed from my life. But ones I enjoy that are in familiar locales do exist. They tend to be quite voicey and make me view the familiar land in a new and interesting way.

For example, what if the characters and the plot are very different from what you are used to and funny and engaging but there is no description of the scene at all? And if there were it would be “living room and kitchen painted white.” Would you still want that description?

Let me understand what you’re craving in a book a bit.

They'd have to be bloody engaging, but it's possible, sure. I don't see it done often though...
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
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.

Would you mind delving into your thoughts on this a bit more too? Is it like visiting a different world and also revisiting each time you read it? It's not like that doesn't have appeal for me. I think I also want to re-visit characters, concepts and feelings. The Witch of Blackbird Pond doesn't have too much description or too little for me and the whole book feels like home to me. A Wrinkle in Time kind of feels like home too... maybe because it is a place unto itself that I've loved since I was a child.

I'm trying to think if the books that I re-read more often than others have more description... I think they have feeling combined with a little description for me. Its the emotions I get nostalgic for, I think. Interesting!

I love hearing about people's experiences.
Is there a way to tag people without quoting, btw?
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
As has been previously said, description communicates mood as well as the POV characters state of mind. It also paints a picture for the reader, but I would be willing to bet that what we (mentally) see when we write isn't exactly what the reader imagines. As such, I don't think it's necessary to describe every stick of furniture and bump in the road... if it doesn't directly relate to the plot. For the rest, the reader will draw from their own experiences and places they've visited and make the scenery their own.

So true on everyone imagining differently. It's interesting to me to hear from others how we don't just write differently, we read differently and for different reasons... I don't know why by thoroughly laying out the details...or not... we help each other enter a world created by someone else or enter a world created more by ourselves-- depending on what we want. Fascinating.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I think it must be. But bear in mind that this is just me. And don't get me wrong - pages and pages of static description is going to put me off too, but I do like a sense of place. Why? I don't really know. I just like as many senses to be engaged. I like to escape when I read. And good description makes it more real and immersive. But as I say that's just the type of reader I am. I'm sure there are many books and readers that are good matches and where this sense of being elsewhere isn't so important.#




I think it might. I tend to read books that are quite far removed from my life. But ones I enjoy that are in familiar locales do exist. They tend to be quite voicey and make me view the familiar land in a new and interesting way.



They'd have to be bloody engaging, but it's possible, sure. I don't see it done often though...

I will remember how important it is to engage senses. I think I prefer concepts, though...which is sometimes the opposite of senses, but not always... And why wouldn't we need both in a book? Just like we do in life?
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
The basic ingredients of writing are Plot/character/setting, so clearly settings are important. But then you have to consider things like mood and pacing. My general rule is to paint with much broader strokes when needing to keep the pace flowing and dig into the detail when I want to slow the pace or create a specific atmosphere.

For instance, if I was trying to create a claustrophobic scene I'd start inside out, put if I was trying to create a sense of scale, I'd start outside in.

Claustrophobic: grass, mud, close bushes and trees, mountains and sky.
Scale: sky, mountain, bushes and trees, mud and grass.

Generally speaking of course.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I can't remember that happening. But I do have preferences for how the scenery is described. For example, I really liked the way you described the scenery in your post:

"Elony strained her eyes for the white fur of her goat in contrast to the red cliffs and dull green cedar and juniper trees."

That description is perfect! It gives me a strong visual, and its purpose is just that, to set the stage.

The only thing that really bugs me, and I often find myself getting impatient, is if the author is using either too many adjectives or 'creative' adjectives, just to be clever. And if they do both, I can get downright annoyed. I am a very visual person, so if you give me what are supposed to be visual words, I will try to picture them, so they better make sense. And by 'creative' words, I mean words that would not typically be used to describe that noun. I think some people may call this style of writing 'purple'.

That being said, I like when an author is selective, and uses a creative word in a way that enhances the image. For example when personifying nature, (an area where writers seem to go crazy), an "angry sea" makes sense -- it adds to the visual. But an "angry sunset", or "angry pathway" might be harder to imagine.


Oh yay! My "tickled pink" moment for today so far was your comment on my clip.
I agree! Make description interesting and different and also I'm very visual too. It's got to work, not just sound the part.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
The basic ingredients of writing are Plot/character/setting, so clearly settings are important. But then you have to consider things like mood and pacing. My general rule is to paint with much broader strokes when needing to keep the pace flowing and dig into the detail when I want to slow the pace or create a specific atmosphere.

For instance, if I was trying to create a claustrophobic scene I'd start inside out, put if I was trying to create a sense of scale, I'd start outside in.

Claustrophobic: grass, mud, close bushes and trees, mountains and sky.
Scale: sky, mountain, bushes and trees, mud and grass.

Generally speaking of course.

I think you do the same with cinematography on fear, I think. Scary movies are usually filmed close to make you feel that you don't have all of the information. A sense of freedom comes from grandeur and space. Actually... it's the same with composing music, come to think of it. Notes close together have tension and cohesion and more predictability and leaps between notes give a sense of freedom and wonder. And great music uses it all to effect and great writing uses it all to effect.
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
I think you do the same with cinematography on fear, I think. Scary movies are usually filmed close to make you feel that you don't have all of the information. A sense of freedom comes from grandeur and space. Actually... it's the same with composing music, come to think of it. Notes close together have tension and cohesion and more predictability and leaps between notes give a sense of freedom and wonder. And great music uses it all to effect and great writing uses it all to effect.

Yep. I think most writers (at least I do), have an internal camera. I first see the location and character through the lens and imagine how I'd 'film' it for a movie. Then I take that and describe it. You can't use some techniques though, such as jump scares or wildly shifting the camera from one crack in a door to another, so you have to build 'dread'. The longer you hold out, the bigger the impact of the scare. That actually goes for films and games, something they've all but forgotten unfortunately.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
I try to distinguish set from scenery.

Set is anything the characters interact with. Scenery is everything in the background. I love both.

I dislike films, but I am sometimes influenced by plays, operas, etc. There you will find a similar distinction. Artwork may be displayed behind the actors; but they may interact with with equally ornate objects. Fitzgerald was pretty good at "invoking" things.
 

Chris Stevenson

Senior Member
I have to admit that I kind of go overboard on scenery most of the time. I really like to put my stamp on a location or environment. I'll use all five sense and go so far as to describe geology, flora, fauna, building design and age, and whatnot. I've been told (reviews) I'm very visual in everything I write, so I guess that's a good thing. It's kind of a shame in a way because I do this at the expense of my characterization. I know I've gone too far when I give a car more personality than one of my people.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top