1. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    Need help describing a scene

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by agentkirb, Sep 13, 2013.

    I just got back from a writing group today and one of the many things they mentioned that I could do to improve my story is be more descriptive with scenes when introducing a new setting.

    If I could get help regarding different approaches to take to do this, I would really appreciate this. The one thing I've done so far is try to come up with a bullet point list of every aspect of the scene. Then maybe I can work from there.

    -Crime scene
    -where: Buffalo Bayou intersecting with highway 6
    -body dumped
    -fingers and head cut off
    -no blood (means murder happened somewhere else)
    -body placed right at the bank of the bayou
    -describe bayou in some way?
    -the way it interacts with the roads
    -probably murdered last night and dumped
    -body dressed nice
    -loafers
    -dress shirt/pants
    -wrinkled/askew
    -probably had an expensive suit that got removed
    -tan skin where he wore a watch
    -uncomfortability/uneasy feeling
    -done this for years and still never get used to it
    -the dead/decaying smell
    -pale, lifeless body
    -air of uneasiness as she approached the body

    The first attempt:
    "It was exactly how he described it. The fingers and head were cut off post-mortem. She could tell when the limbs were removed because of the way the wound looked. After six years of seeing dead bodies, she knew the difference between a wound that was created before death verses one made afterwards and so did Green. But when she moved in closer, she could see the tool marks that were made in the bone when the killer tried to cut through the spine."

    As you can see, I don't describe much here. And this is the closest I get to describing the scene. So I know I can do better.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If you go into deeper description, make sure you have a reason to do so. O rather, for the POV narrator to do so.

    For example, you omitted description of the manner of dress of the victim. But the investigator may have made note that the clothing indicated someone of means, definitely out of place in the area the body was dumped. The missing suit jacket would raise questions, such as whether the killer removed it or the victim keft it somewhere, and why it might have been taken. The mutilations were an obvious attempt to delay identification of the body...

    An investigator would focus on all the details of the scene, focusing more on capturing every detail than on trying to explain them, yet a certain amount of specualtion as to what the details mean is only natural.

    Personal reactions can be split between narration and dialogue with others at the scene or afterwards, so don't push too hard to include them in the narrative first impressions.

    Don't use my reasoning directly. What I'm truing to suggest is a way of approaching the scene description. Always keep your character's personality, purpose, and experience in mind when approaching description. For example, if the drop site is a location familiar to the character, on;y describe aspects that are different from normal (e.g. The water level was low for this time of year).
     
  3. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    I suppose I could just pick what facts I want to talk about and just form those into sentences in a way that makes sense.

    It's really hard for me to do the flowery description type stuff. I've had multiple people point to sentences and say I need to show rather than tell. But I'm not as good with metaphor/simile/etc.

    I'm a programmer by trade, and Math was my favorite subject rather than English. I made the jump to fiction writing after doing a lot of technical articles. So as a result, I'm really good (for a novice) at weaving plot points and themes together, but when it comes to getting a reader to see the scene just from words... that's not a strong suit of mine.

    I think I can get better at those sorts of things if I come up with different rules and procedures to get it done... and then eventually it will all become instinct. The bullet points I put in the OP are an example of that... it's just me writing down things in a list that I'll try and later describe in a story-like fashion.
     
  4. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You don't have to get flowery. Flowery sounds negative, like infodumps.
    What helps me -- albeit my descriptions might still be crap -- is to decide which are the important details or attributes in the scene and then I describe them in the way the protag would notice them. If s/he's of the humorous kind, I might use a humorous metaphor/simile. If s/he's some kind of a bored-out-of-her-mind nihilist, the description might be very negative. I tend to keep them short, just a few sentences. I co-write with my hubby and the feedback we've received is that we could still describe more, so I've tried to expand my descriptions lately. What's helped me is to simply read novels so that I pay special attention to the descriptions and see what type of style I like best, then go for something like that in my own writing.
     
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  5. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    Get yourself a copy of Sherlock Holmes by A.C. Doyle and read it, then analyze the way the protagonist investigates a crime scene. Anything by Agatha Christie works just as well.

    You'll notice the stark focus on minute details, something that may seem irrelevant at first glance but sticks out like a sore thumb; may even be the key to solving the case, too. For example, since he dresses nice, his clothes might be custom made: Your character might notice that and then subsequently check the local tailors; the loafers may be of a special brand, only sold in X store, now there's a good lead. You can describe that as well.

    If your character is uneasy when approaching the scene, you could use some of the five senses to describe how they feel:
    For instance, you can incorporate how it smells (smell of decay, as you said);
    What makes an impression on his eyes of the immediate area? (Ex.) How's the lighting in the area? Dim, maybe a flickering light?
    What does he hear? Sirens (police/ambulance), a couple bickering in one of the apartment blocks, something unusual?
    How does the environment feel? Is it humid, maybe it had rained the night before?

    You can even use their intuition, stemming from their uneasiness: It could be that something with the way the body is positioned is not right, or something trivial, but possibly key, could be missing (the watch?). Perhaps your character might find out this person was killed in a different manner than it first appears to be.

    Generally, the apparent triviality of an aspect of a crime scene is directly proportional to its importance to the case. Don't make the description of the scene apparent to the reader, make it a puzzle. Have the character notice different elements of it that are seemingly unconnected, so you can later on assemble the puzzle in an intriguing fashion.
     
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  6. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    My first thought was to suggest taking a look at some of Patricia Cornwell's work, if you want to hone in on the procedural, and forensic aspects. That might help.
     
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  7. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You don't have to be flowery - read some Henning Mankell - he's a master at being very very simple and yet still conveying everything you need to know. His writing is extremely minimalistic, to the point where often he'd only write "He smiled" or "She had a sandwich," and nothing more. But I often felt he'd conveyed just the right atmosphere and given you just enough room to imagine things. I've grown out of his style - I now prefer more description and detail - but for a long time I was a great admirer of his work and his writing influenced me greatly.

    My advice would be - post something up in the workshop so we can see where you've gone wrong with your description.

    On top of what Cog said, which is only detail things that your character would actually notice, I'd also say, keep in mind you're trying to conjure a certain mood. Show things that would increase that mood.

    For example:

    "Dust danced in the shaft of light falling through the otherwise dark room. The air smelled of mould, even the windows had been rusted shut, the glass within their frames long replaced by old, scratched wooden boards. Ash-grey walls ran bare on three sides, with the exception of one. The one on my left. That one was marked by a long, brown stain. It slipped down the wall and onto the threadbare carpet. My throat tightened. I've seen splatters like that too many times in my life to doubt what I saw. I scanned the room for anything out of place, but there was nothing except for the upturned chair buried beneath a mound of debris, its legs stabbing out like a body not ready to die. A single bowl, tipped over, lay beside a broken mattress. Kneeling, I studied the dent on the makeshift bed, noting strands of human hair like the faintest of cracks in the dim light. The light. I looked up and finally made myself see.

    There in the ceiling was a gaping hole. The plaster and wood had collapsed when Emily had tried to hang herself.

    My eyes flickered towards the stain. Emily couldn't even choose how she died."

    (sorry I just ended up having fun writing. Anyway, this is unedited but an example of description anyway.)

    I included everything I did for a reason - I mean, it's not absolutely calculated of course as writing is more about intuition than anything else. I mention the light first to set the mood. I mention the air and windows to indicate what kind of room you're in - it's an abandoned place, an unpleasant place.

    The stain is the first thing of true significance (but that's because I'm not really going for shock but rather for melancholy) - the stain is odd, and it lets you assume a number of things, esp with its colour. A brown stain in an otherwise empty room - most would think immediately of old blood. The other details begin to tell you the rest of the story - there's a chair and debris, who knows what happened, but there's also a bed, clearly a bed meant for a prisoner. The bowl indicates someone was here, actually lived here, the fact that it's on its side means there wasn't a lot of care put into the person's surroundings - either the person didn't care or else they weren't cared for.

    Then I finally spell it out with the gaping hole in the ceiling - the other major puzzle piece. Note the description, at least my description, is not always matter of fact - "faintest of cracks in the dim light" and "a body not ready to die" are highly emotional and not truly factual at all. They're both poetic devices aimed at reinforcing the atmosphere I've already created. I've also deliberately used mostly very gentle verbs - marked, tipped, buried is fairly passive, danced, rusted, falling, my emphasis on "long replaced" and not simply "replaced" - these words drag the narrative out, reinforcing the atmosphere I want, which is almost that of being in a trance, a sort of half-awake numbing observation that's not quite numb enough, where the emotions are close to the surface but suppressed almost as if in a dream. Even the word "stain" is very stationary. Nothing is really moving in this scene, except for my narrator. It's a moment captured in time and that's what I was going for - that sense of loss and grief that consumed slowly.

    I end not with description or really a fact but a disturbing statement and the POV of the narrator, in order to finish with an emotion in the reader and not just a picture, because emotions last much longer. The reader's emotions can paint pictures for you long after they've forgotten what you've actually described, and if the emotions are the ones you want them to have, then whatever picture they've painted for themselves will serve your purposes and story wonderfully.

    Anyway I'm not saying it's perfect - it's not edited, like I said, and by the end I was just having fun writing, but this is how I might do description, for example.

    If you were going for tension or shock, you'd have to use very different verbs.

    "There was nothing in the room. Nothing except for a broken mattress and an empty bowl. I covered my nose at the stench: foul and strangely metallic. My heart went cold as I turned my eyes upon the splatter smeared across the wall, like a scream that I'd heard too late. The windows were boarded up, the only source of light came from the hole in the ceiling. Emily had tried to hang herself, and the plaster had caved under her weight. The chair was still there, kicked onto its side and buried beneath the debris.

    Even the fates refused to help her. I clasped my mouth, swallowing the gasp rising in my throat as I stumbled backwards, my eyes on the stain.
    "​

    Do you see how the description is utterly different, and yet it is certainly the same room? I've not changed any detail - still the boarded up windows, still the stain, still the bowl and broken mattress and the chair and debris. But this time I omitted some things that were included in the first one, because those details do not matter in light of the fact that I'm going for speed.

    Notice my character's reactions are also different - the shock and tension comes from him - his covering his nose, his stumbling, his fixation. Whereas in the slower one, he was also fixated, but he was studying, perusing slowly. Here in the second one, he's caught by detail after detail. Notice, because I want to create tension, I start with painting the story - empty room, broken mattress, foul stench - you already get the picture, don't you? Whereas previously, dust dancing in the light and boarded up windows - that could've led anywhere. The mood of the two passages are entirely different. The slower passage, my sentences were leisurely, whereas in the faster one it is relatively tight but actually, it's the faster one that is without fragments (or many fragments, at least), whereas it's the slower one that has a "fragmented" sort of structure to the sentences.

    The simile I chose for the faster one is different too - "a scream I'd heard too late" is a lot more haunting like "a body not ready to die". "Scream" has urgency wrapped in the essence of the word itself, the "too late" encompasses the regret. Whereas "a body not ready to die" is almost an oxymoron, because it's a "body" - it is already dead, and what is already dead is too late to save, thus, no urgency but it is more solemn.

    Compare: "A single bowl, tipped over, lay beside a broken mattress" with
    "Nothing but a broken mattress and an empty bowl."

    While the second is the true "broken" sentence, whereas the first is a true full sentence, it is the full sentence that feels fragmented thanks to all the commas. The second sentence is smooth and fast and to the point. Pacing is different.

    I also finish differently - I do not finish with the character pondering something, but I finish with the one image that's gonna scar my character: Emily's blood. That puts a whole different kind of emotion through the reader - now it's graphic, which heightens the tension. Whereas philosophising is something you do when you have time. Remember, whatever you finish with, that's gonna stay in the reader's mind - make it count.

    Anyway having said all this, I ought to get back to my own book. Hope this is helpful in some way!
     
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2013
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  8. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    I'm working on just the description of the scene and I might post it in the workshop.
     
  9. PaulGresham
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    PaulGresham Member

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    I wonder if it's easier to write description when you're writing in the first person.
    I've written an entire novel with hardly any description, I've left that until last because I don't enjoy it.
    I'm using the basic senses of sound, sight and smell as a basis, or starting point, although of course it probably isn't a good idea to describe smell in every scene.
     

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