1. Sean2112bd
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    Sean2112bd Member

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    How to describe a setting.

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Sean2112bd, Jan 14, 2011.

    I suck at describing settings. I can do action sequences, describe characters, create decent dilogue, but for the life of me I cannot do setting. Actually, let me rephrase that, I have a hard time creating a vivid setting. The best I can come up with is something like "the barren desert" or "the green wet swamp". Is there a way where I can sort of personify the setting to make it almost like a character itself rather than adding a string of adjectives? I want to create something enthralling, not plain. Any tips or examples would be greatly appreciated.
     
  2. Naiyn
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    Naiyn Contributing Member

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    This is my biggest weakness as well. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say I started this thread myself. :D

    One thing I do to help me out, is I see the particular world through the VPC's eyes. What emotions does the setting-- combined with plot-- invoke and why? Mix this emotion with a small detail of the landscape here or an object there, and you can at least get the ball rolling. Basically, use your strengths to help out with your weakness.

    This won't get you the big picture and the great vivid imigery your probably looking for, but it is a small start, and if you do it over and over, again and again, the imagery just might start to come more easily.

    Good luck, and I hope this helps.
     
  3. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Don't go on a huge infodump description of the setting, unless it's at a scene where your MC is discoving someplace totally alien to them.

    I'd advise that you describe setting the same way as you should describe characters: a line here, a line there, subtly, woven in in passing, so readers can put it all together as they read.

    Long setting descriptions bore me for the most part, especially if it's at the beginning. Sure there's always exceptions where the setting is more important (scifi, dystopian, etc) but no one wants to read 5 pages of "The neighborhood houses were painted blue with white trimming, and the trees were starting to go into bloom..."
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"
     
  5. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    My rules based on what I like to read.

    Don't treat your reader like they are idiots - they know wheels are round, only tell them if they are square. Most people have an image of the sea in their head, the sky is coloured by the weather - doesn't need to be azure blue or pale grey. Give the readers the details they wouldn't know - like what it smells like, what the temperature is, what can you hear etc

    That way you don't need to flower the descriptions - or use words that will stop a reader in their tracks and they need to go and look something up etc. I don't mind unusual words as long as they don't break up the reading of a scene that should be pulling me in. Sometimes you can use them because the context makes it so startlingly obvious what it means I don't need to go in search of a dictionary.
     
  6. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    /agree

    Look for those sentences that seem to capture the mood, the essence of the place, and use them when you find them. You'll slowly get better at it. Don't waste your (or the reader's) time with description for description's sake.
     
  7. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cut the adjectives. Ever heard of a desert that wasn't barren? or a swamp that wasn't wet? It would be better to describe the character's feelings as they journey through the desert or swamp.

    If there is anything out of the ordinary in the swamp or desert (was it snowing?) then that is what to describe - the unusual.
     
  8. Jonalexher
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    Jonalexher Contributing Member

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    I wholeheartedly agree with Mallory, Elgaisma, Islander, and Trilby.
    Make sure you read those posts!
     
  9. Sean2112bd
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    Sean2112bd Member

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    Thanks guys, I was trying to think of a setting hook so hopefully I come up with something.
     
  10. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Picture yourself inside the setting for a moment. What stands out and what gets your attention first? It may not be the number of square miles the swamp extend over or the names of the types of trees there, but the cold water entering your boots as you sink deeper under your own weight. Suddenly you have something for a character to react to, rather than something to observe. Wet, cold feet. Character remains in focus.
     
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  11. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    I went to an art gallery and took some pictures of my favorite paintings. Maybe you should get a hold of your favorite pictures and look at them. Brainstorm as you do so, and think of words and phrases that describe what you see in the picture. There are lots of different ways to practice and improve.
     
  12. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I can think of several different way to handle description.

    There's a series of SF novels that I enjoy which is set in a gothic quasi-religious future. The various novelists attempt to describe the icons and architecture because if they didn't the reader might picture the starships looking like Star Wars or worse yet some bright and shiny environment.

    I tend to like vague impressionistic descriptions because it allows me to imagine the environment. I recently moved to Colorado and I don't know all the plants and trees, and I sort of don't care. I know the one is a birch and the rest are some kind of pine. When I step outside I think about how it makes me feel. Frequently, the trees and air are so still that it feels like time has stopped. That's an impression rather than a description of every tree and plant.

    I writing a story now set on an alternate Earth where everything is just a little better due to the laws of physics being different. The city is based on Prague which I'm been to and loved. I mentioned that, and describe the city as being decorated in the Art Deco and Art Nouveau style. I describe a building or two as having said designs and then I leave it at that. The reader can imagine the rest and maybe even look those art styles up. This seems natural to me because when people describe traveling to a new location they will tell you some highlights, how it made them feel, etc but won't describe every single detail.
     
  13. Terry D
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    Terry D Active Member

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    When you mentally picture your setting don't just think about how it looks. Use all your senses. How does it smell? Sound? Taste?
     
  14. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Make sure you do what works for you mentally picturing it doesn't work for me it never comes out the way I picture it.

    A lot of writing is trial and error.
     
  15. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    +1 (I wish I had written that)
     
  16. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Was going to say, a string of adjectives isn't a physical feeling of anything. :p Vividness comes from the idea that you could reach into the story and interact with it, so go with the details that are affecting the main character personally. Smell is often a good way to start, maybe even before you get to the actual setting, since it travels further. I do tend to write a fair few scenes with something unpleasant on the other side of a closed door, though, so that just happens to be what I choose to lead with. If your character is riding along taking in vistas, then the traditional (and usually over-poetic) sight might be it, but in cities I usually go with claustrophobia or some other affliction caused by traffic/crowds etc. as the leading emotion.
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    READ how the best writers do it!

    then try out different ways on your own, based on what you learned...
     
  18. D.T.Roberts
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    D.T.Roberts Senior Member

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    People gain knowledge of their surroundings through their senses. You can give vivid setting discriptions without every saying how hot it is. Show us it's hot by making the character sweat. Show us the cold by making him shiver. Use the senses, all five of them, or six, if thats the kind of story you're writing. What does it smell like? 'The character choked down a wave of nausea from the stench of the rotting corps.' If you are discribing silence', 'The only sound he heard was the pulsations in his ears with every heartbeat.' yada yada yada.
    The reader not only has to visualize the setting, he needs to EXPERIENCE it.
    That is Not to say that you can't give physical discriptions. A reader can't feel how tall a tree is, unless he's falling from it. These are things that need discription, but only to the degree to get the point across. The human mind can fill in many details on it's own.
     
  19. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Having a socio-economic situation growing up that allows for copious opportunities to practice and probably private lessons at some point?

    I think that's the punchline...
     
  20. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    A lot of good responses. I went through the same questions about writing setting at one point, as I think all writers do. Learned all the 'use five sense' 'through the character's eyes' sorts of things, and my settings got better, but were still just settings. Giving details the character could interact with was better, but still something was lacking.

    I finally had a breakthrough when I realized the setting couldn't be separate. It had to still be telling the same story, furthering the meaning I wanted to tell, bringing hidden truths to light and it all had to be done through the context of my main, pov character.

    The best, most visceral descriptions ever are still empty if they aren't relevant and meaningful to the character experiencing them. And the most banal setting ever can be powerful and moving depending on how they processed and what it all means to the character.

    The howl of a wolf is only a moment of tension if your character is out in the woods and vulnerable. If it's just there for some 'flavor' and doesn't have an affect on the character, then it's pointless and empty.

    I usually ask questions like: what would the character be experiencing through their sense? What are they afraid of? What do they hope to find in this setting? What do they expect to see, and what surprises them? What aspects of the setting tap into the characters history? What reminds the character of what they want, what they lost, etc?

    I've learned these are the sorts of questions that lead to effective setting. Sure, you need to learn how to write details, but if the details aren't relevant and meaningful to the character, and thus the story, then it's still be ineffectual use of setting.

    The depth of setting and details shouldn't always be apparent to the reader, of course, as that would get silly. But if you ask me 'why did you pick that detail' I can usually give you at least a few paragraphs why it's important to the character, even if the character doesn't realize it, how it represents their needs, how it taps into their hopes and fears, how it's symbolic, how it helps build toward the meaning of the story, etc.

    The clever writers packs tons of subtext into every detail, and doesn't just have a wolf howling because it's something they heard in a movie or because it seemed scary or something.

    It gets easier with practice and with really knowing your characters and the story you're trying to tell (not just the plot, but the story) and becomes second nature. But yes, every single detail, no matter how small, gets this level of attention because every single detail is an opportunity for the writer to control their message.
     
  21. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    It helps to me if there's always something in a setting I've known personally... Even if it's a tiny thing or something I don't know particularly well, but is the ONLY thing I've experienced out of everything in the wide setting. As I write a lot of fantasy landscapes, this is really important to me.

    I used to write about mountains a fair bit without ever really knowing what that meant, seeing as the closest I'd ever been was the peak district. :p I'd flown over the Alps once when I was 10 on my way to Italy, but they'd just looked a bit lumpy from so high up. Then when I was 15 I went to America and actually hung out in the Rockies, and climbed some smaller mountains in Mexico and New Mexico, and really figured out HOW they work with a landscape, just from seeing them, driving through them, etc.

    Once I got back to my fantasy mountains I knew how THEY worked as well, and so even though I was focussing on some very different things in my description - the castles and wizards and so on :p - I felt like the setting itself tied itself together a lot better.

    Another example, without involving expensive travel to go check out the Sahara or something, would be when I was writing about this little village I made up in England. Every village has a war memorial, usually placed somewhere prominent, and so I described that along the way, and because I knew what they were all about, it sort of made the context work a lot better, because I could feel, "This is a real village... I might just have mentioned there IS a war memorial, but now everyone's thinking about memorials, and there's a sense there have been people here in the past, and they're being remembered" and from that I felt it was the grounding sense, so even though I was just flailing wildly with where the rest of the village square was ("Ah, need a church for later in the story, better mention one") I could be like, "Looking out over the memorial's little square from its position on the hill was a church..." and I could use the fact that there was a little space around it to set everything else up even when it was as simple as "a line of shops" for one side where there was nothing plot-important to mention.

    So... Yeah. See what I mean about it grounding the description? Find that one key thing in a description that you feel totally safe describing in detail, and latch onto it. You might cut back some of the description later, but if you use it to get where you need to, it'll make the rest feel a lot more solid.
     
  22. D.T.Roberts
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    D.T.Roberts Senior Member

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    Doctor tao has mastered the discription of setting. Check out his post The Voice behind the Shadows - Chapter 3 in the novel section. This is excellent setting discription.
     
  23. Cornflower
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    Cornflower Member

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    I have the same problem too. its hard for me to describe what a Medieval world would look like since my best example for anything medieval would be looking at Disney's Sleeping Beauty.
     
  24. Haribo Icecream
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    Haribo Icecream Member

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    I'm crap at describing setting too! Well it's more that I just take it for granted that it's there...
     
  25. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i wouldn't say sleeping beauty takes place in the middle ages... the style of the castle, coaches, costuming in the disney version says late 'renaissance' or even later to me, not medieval times...

    especially since la fontaine lived and wrote in the latter 2/3 of the 17th century and that's the time period he seems to have had in mind for his original story...
     

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