Tags:
  1. Elvis
    Offline

    Elvis Member

    Joined:
    Apr 27, 2010
    Messages:
    30
    Likes Received:
    0

    Describing settings: how much is enough?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Elvis, Apr 27, 2010.

    One thing I hate is describing settings. I hate doing it. I hate reading it. I hate it.

    Even when someone else gives a beautiful, intricate description of a key setting, I usually either skim it or skip it entirely and subconsciously fill it in with a place that I know from real life. So first of all, does anyone else do this, or am I a complete weirdo?

    Secondly, if other people do this, how important can it really be to include all these descriptions. I suppose I have to give a brief description of major settings, and obviously I have to explain if something has to be very specific for plot reasons.

    But other than that, how much (or rather, how little) description of settings do I actually need to include?

    Do you, as a reader, expect and/or desire it? Would you miss it if it's gone?
     
  2. Halcyon
    Offline

    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 19, 2010
    Messages:
    510
    Likes Received:
    23
    Location:
    England
    Apparently, Elvis has not left the building! ;)
     
  3. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Only give what you need for the story. But how much that is varies from story to story and from writer to writer.

    Obviously a story like Larry Niven's Ringworld needs a lot of description, because the immense scale of the artifact is impossible to fully grasp without a lot of description. Even with extensive description, it is mind numbing. And the scale of the artifact is a very important element of the story.

    In general, however, I believe that less truly is more. If a new setting is fascinating and amazing your characters, share what they are experiencing. But if it's familiatr to them, resist the urge to gush about it to the reader, even if the setting is exotic from a reader's POV. Let slip the tantalyzing detail here and there, but don't make a big deal of it if your POV character wouldn't give it a second thought.

    Sometimes, the level of detail you want to present dictates your choice of POV character.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,969
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    I'm annoyed with descriptions if I notice that they're descriptions. If I get to the end of a page knowing every detail about a room, but I found out as a result of an engaging description of the main character's family and their personality, which just happened to lead to their personality in acquisitions, which just happened to lead to the furniture in the room, that's OK. But if I'm just flat-out being given a description of the room, I get grumpy.

    ChickenFreak
     
  5. Elvis
    Offline

    Elvis Member

    Joined:
    Apr 27, 2010
    Messages:
    30
    Likes Received:
    0
    Appreciate the responses, fellas. I feel pretty much the same way. Just wanted to know if it was something that would be a big deal if I left it out.

    I mean, honestly, if the main character lives in a typical two-story house, does it really matter if the half-bath is upstairs or downstairs unless someone is getting killed in the shower?

    The book I'm currently reading is giving, I feel, too much description of the sky. If the time of day is important, feel free to give a few words or even a sentence or two to the sky, I say. But when you're describing how the shade of blue in the east compares with the shade of blue in the west, it's torture.
     
  6. Rajikai
    Offline

    Rajikai Member

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2010
    Messages:
    27
    Likes Received:
    0
    Well, from my thoughts, writers have their own styles and interests (everyone is different), so I would have to say something like this to you, who hates description (Personally, I love it).

    Sometimes It is really useful, for example, Describing how clear the water is, to draw yourself to the point of noticing the reflection of someone behind you. (sometimes this is good, others, bad)

    But Description isn't really needed that much. It could be filled with any sorts of dialogues you wish for.

    But rambling nonsense is pointless, Why don't you just try to write a short story without any description (and see how you add them, without even knowing), then remove that, and add something to replace it.

    I personally think readers have a large enough imagination to create their own scenes but everyone is different. So if you don't like it, just use it when necessary, there are quite a few books without much description... I think...
     
  7. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,969
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    I'd want to know _something_ about the house. Is it a thirties bungalow furnished by his mother in 1965 and he keeps it impeccably tidy but hasn't redecorated since she died? The same, but he hasn't cleaned the bathroom since she died? A modern steel-and-glass sculptural creation and he hired a top-of-the-line design firm to decorate it last year when he got a new girlfriend? A 'seventies aluminum siding ranch that he furnished from thrift shops, and he's a semi-hoarder who fills all empty space with stacks of boxes?

    Would guests be impressed by the luxury, or would they brush the dirt off the kitchen chairs before they sit, and politely decline a cup of coffee?

    But all I need is that level of general mood; I agree that I don't care about the floor plan or the color of the upholstery or even how many bedrooms it has.

    ChickenFreak
     
  8. Elvis
    Offline

    Elvis Member

    Joined:
    Apr 27, 2010
    Messages:
    30
    Likes Received:
    0
    I like to sprinkle in facts that A) also give information about the characters associated with the setting and B) have to do with what the character is doing.

    It's not that I'm opposed to description. It's just that I like every piece of description to mean something. I hate paragraphs of description just for the sake of description.

    And until this thread, I was kind of under the impression that it was something I had to do simply because I was expected to do it.
     
  9. SilverWolf0101
    Offline

    SilverWolf0101 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jun 3, 2009
    Messages:
    333
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    New York State
    Personally, the only time I care to read description is when it is important to the story. Otherwise, it can often be taken out of control. I myself made the mistake of too much decription when I was younger, now however I tend to avoid it if possible. I won't skip it completely though, I'll give the simple details. In example, the time of day, is it cold or fair outside? Those type of things.

    However, there are occassional times where I have to spend a page describing what the character sees, but that's because it holds a point of relevence to the story.

    Basically my views on descripition are simple: If its relevent to the story and holds a major meaning to it's plot and has a purpose to forfill (i.e Elvis' post about a murder in a shower) then by all means give a long description about it. However, if it's just some simple thing that the character quickly passes by or see's every day then don't spend forever writing about it. After all, you wouldn't spend a full three pages describing your couch to your mother would you?
     
  10. madhoca
    Offline

    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 1, 2008
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    the shadow of the velvet fortress
    Remember that your reader does not necessarily have the same background and points of reference as you. I've never been to the US. I've been away from the UK except for short visits for 25yrs. What is typical to you may be unusual to me. What is mundane to me is no doubt wonderfully exotic to many of you. However, I enjoy reading American novels--just as long as I can understand the setting, at least roughly (sometimes it's difficult, I must say, and the same is obviously true for Americans reading work by non-Americans).

    I've discovered this in the few pieces I've posted here. For example, some people were unable to understand the phrase 'the gravel in the car park...' a) what's gravel? Why isn't it just concreted or paved over? Is this a really poor rural area? and b) What's a car park? So, I had two problems going on there: readers unable to visualise what is (to me) a totally everyday scene (large driveways and car parks, even in very luxury settings, are often surfaced with gravel in England and Europe), and readers incomprehension in the face of what to me was a completely self-explanatory British English word, i.e. car park.

    So, it's not just semantics, you sometimes need to give description so your reader doesn't make some cultural leap in the opposite way you were intending him to go. A certain amount of description is necessary anyway to capture the feeling of a place. The setting is like another character in your writing, even if it's only a secondary character. Even if the place is boring and normal (to you), you don't have to describe it in a boring way, make its horrible boringness a trait that is worth describing--or at least help me understand, in a few well-chosen words, that for the people in the story the place is really ordinary and dull, don't just assume I'll get it.
     
  11. Deevra
    Offline

    Deevra Member

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2010
    Messages:
    30
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Albuquerque, NM
    You only give as much detail as you feel you need to, think of your narrative as a flashlight in a dark room. There may be a bookcase in the corner of that room, however, if it doesn't ever mean anything to the story, you don't necessarily have to shine a light on it. If, however, a book on that shelf will prove to be important, don't wait until you need it to have it appear, make an idle comment about it early on.
    Keep in mind, however, that the streets of your world may have some different elements than everyone elses and descriptions that seem unnecessary and are left out could leave the reader definitely confused. You want the reader somewhat comfortable with the setting.
     
  12. Sieglinde
    Offline

    Sieglinde Member

    Joined:
    Feb 6, 2010
    Messages:
    55
    Likes Received:
    2
    1-2 paragraphs is enough. I could scream when Balzac, Hugo or Tolkien goes into those massive, 3-4 pages descriptions about totally unimportant things. And I like purple prose to a certain level.
     
  13. Rajikai
    Offline

    Rajikai Member

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2010
    Messages:
    27
    Likes Received:
    0

    I really agree with what both of you guys have to say, description doesn't really need to be applied, unless essential, but what most people often do forget about, is that their audience might not just be Americans, and as both of them said, without descriptions of certain things, people might get lost in the book (including if that piece of information is really essential). So I think a good thing to do, is do as Deevra explained, and really only describe all essential parts (if you don't want to write a lot description) in your story, and get people of different nationality (not people who look different), and see how they understand the story, and what parts they don't understand quite well. Personally, I wouldn't do that, That's why I have this place. I trust not everyone is from the United States, so yea, that's all I got to Say.

    Thank you those who listened to my random babbling...
     
  14. Deevra
    Offline

    Deevra Member

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2010
    Messages:
    30
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Albuquerque, NM
    It's not random, it reasoned and thought out. Getting opinions on writing is what a place like this is all about. And I say place in more than a figurative sense. Though only existing in the formless void of the internet, this forum is very much like a physical location we "huddle" in.
     
  15. sprirj
    Offline

    sprirj Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2009
    Messages:
    523
    Likes Received:
    158
    I'm not a fan of decribing settings either, but I have come up with a unique way to do this in my novel.

    I gave up on Bleak House by Charles Dickens 3 pages in as the entire first chapter is describing the settings. Eurgh!
     
  16. madhoca
    Offline

    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 1, 2008
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    the shadow of the velvet fortress
    Don't forget, Dickens was paid by the word ;)
     
  17. digitig
    Offline

    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,502
    Likes Received:
    79
    Location:
    Orpington, Bromley, United Kingdom, United Kingdom
    I think that's the right answer. Story-oriented writing is probably the most common form of fiction, and it's probably pretty much the only game in town for genre fiction, but in the world of literary fiction the story isn't the be-all and end-all. There are a lot of people who love detailed description, the feeling that they've really been taken to a place -- and, as is clear from this thread, a lot of people that hate it. Probably the best thing is to examine the stuff you like to read, and to see how description is used there. There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. Look at the "Worst book you ever read" pages on this forum, and see how often somebody says something like "but I loved that book!"
     
  18. RedRaven
    Offline

    RedRaven Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 20, 2010
    Messages:
    156
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    Around..
    I agree with you on some points.
    I'm not a fan of elaborate descriptions, but some books need it more than others, though.

    Still.. I like to be able to imagine what kind of carpet is lying on the floor, I don't need to know the colour, to visualise it, unless it's part of something greater.
    For example.. I read Barker's Damnation Game and just those over the top descriptions of horrific scenes were a big turn-off. IMO the reader has a more vivid mind than a writer could ever put down on paper and not lose his audience in the process

    I tend to use very little descriptive writing, but concentrate more on what my characters are feeling, saying, thinking.
    Write what you would like to read, don't write what you think others will love to read.
     

Share This Page