Tags:
  1. NeveroddoreveN

    NeveroddoreveN New Member

    Joined:
    Apr 19, 2020
    Messages:
    17
    Likes Received:
    21

    How to describe your setting

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by NeveroddoreveN, Sep 15, 2020.

    This thread will be about breaking free from the habit of bland or repetitive description of a character’s environment. I know its commonplace for a writer to use the same template when telling the reader about the surroundings that the character is experiencing (or whatever is in the immediate area). A classic example that many high fantasy writers have tumbled into is when the character in question interacts with a new setting, and many writers are drawn to describing everything around that character. "The air is crisp, with a slight breeze and a neutral ambiance."

    It is rather satirical how easy a writer can fall into this trap. The other day I was talking with a friend of mine who is also a writer - we were talking about setting and word choice – I had mentioned how one lets the reader know of what the character in question would be seeing, hearing, etc. My friend was steadfast in not using a typical trope like this. Honestly, I have been susceptible to it and, as per the conversation, will now be treading carefully.

    Long story short, I wanted to start this thread and see how everyone handles setting description, initially that first description of what a character experiences after coming into a place where an explanation of the setting would normally be useful. How do you handle situations when a character enters/exits a building, a room, or some sort of new setting or atmosphere? Feel free to talk about both word choice and personally preference of how you manage this in general.
     
    jannert likes this.
  2. Beloved of Assur

    Beloved of Assur Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 26, 2013
    Messages:
    155
    Likes Received:
    72
    Location:
    The Sacred City of Ashur
    I will confess that I am not a very good descriptior but one thing I've found useful is to mix description of setting with characterization. Like a warrior might draw different parallels from a carpenter, who would notice things in a different order from a courtier and so on. And that different people would place different importance on different things. An artistic person might, or so I think, take in the details of the color and designs of a carpet while a more practical person might just note it was a decorated carpet. Same like how a merry person might see the bright and positive while a pesimistic person might see the dangers and bad parts first.

    So what I try, with varying degrees of success, is to first decide what the situation looks like, then what kind of person is looking at it, and then write out a description according to that person's reactions and degree of interest in various things that the person sees based on personality, knowledge, any previous relation with an item or person and state of mind.
     
    jannert likes this.
  3. Lazaares

    Lazaares Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 16, 2020
    Messages:
    229
    Likes Received:
    302
    Location:
    Europe
    I cut 90% of descriptions from one of my manuscript and it improved greatly. I only ever describe what's necessary / pertinent to the story.

    Nyarlathotep save us from the five-senses-roll-call. It's one of the three Grand Misguiding Advices floating around; "Show don't tell", "Nothing is original", and "Use all five senses for descriptions". Who on earth ever went like "mmmm yess the air does taste like German romantic revival in here".

    I digress.

    I tend to shoot for descriptions where I mention details that are important. Disregard weather when characters attend an indoors banquet; highlight it when they wake up in the morning of a big battle. Don't describe tapestries or rugs unless they are banners of a peculiar noble family. In general, I rely heavily on "established descriptions" that I have my readers learn once (or expect them to know) and use it for reference later on. When I write "Green lounge" it refers to a cozy hunting salon with leather chairs, lots of smoking and an exclusivity for men. The same goes for Blue, Red and Brown salons and "eating rooms", Eg, Banquet halls, Dining rooms, Breakfast rooms, Ballrooms, Drawing rooms, Feast halls and Great Halls. "Know your audience" and the decision to not write a commercial novel has eased this issue greatly.

    Similarly, once various architectural and fashion styles are settled, I stop describing them in explicit detail and begin using the style itself as description. I skip over every "Ermine-trimmed dress with a tight-cut waist, a fur stole draping down the shoulders, a pair of long, hanging sleeves and a middle-cut layered bustle skirt" in favour of "dress fashioned in conservative midlands style".

    The only exception to all the above is when I use Sekundenstil, a German/Naturalist literary device which is an almost-time-stopped description of surroundings and action when a character is put in extraordinary circumstances, more pertaining the character's perception and mood than a general description of the environment.
     
  4. JuliaBrune

    JuliaBrune New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 13, 2020
    Messages:
    18
    Likes Received:
    16
    Location:
    Lyon, France
    Oh this is something I'm thinking about *a lot* for my fall project (YA fantasy) because the descriptions of a particular place will adapt as the character matures, serving as a test that she learned each of her lessons but it's still very early on so no example yet :)


    I think working with extremely short forms (these are constrained to an exact character count of 267) has already helped me progress with that sort of things. For example I wrote this :

    I am standing in a vast see of grass. In this unkept field, the blades brush up my thighs. My eyes are runny, hay fever maybe. It's almost two and the light is crushing. The only shadow is cast by a graceful mountain of steel, alien, buzzing low, flying slowly away.
    Here the whole story is just a description, and that description needs to convey a whole story. What I try to do here is contrast the harshness of the mundane things - the grass that tickle the legs and eyes, the heat, the lack of cover - with the serenity of the fantastical. I try to create as much of this contrast as efficiently as possible using vocabulary (unkept, crushing, light VS graceful, slowly, shadow) and rhythm (early sentences are cut down the middle VS the last one progressively deploys).
    Originally I wanted to introduce the sound of the alien thingy first and only reveal where it came from at the end but that didn't work as well. In this configuration I feel like introducing the buzzing as it's almost already gone and the thing is still visible adds a sense of scale that I didn't have room to include otherwise (and that would have ruined the otherworldly feeling of the encounter by grounding it too much in reality).

    I hope that helps !

     
  5. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    17,273
    Likes Received:
    19,010
    Location:
    Scotland
    My take on this is ALWAYS to describe things from the POV character's perspective. What do they notice? What matters to them at that moment? And why? That kind of focus is what brings any setting to life.

    A history student entering a lofty old mansion might be absorbed by certain architectural features, or amazed that the original furniture is still in place, 300 years later. Another person, who works in the building as a guide, notices that the stair carpet is worn and will probably need replacing soon. Another is a tourist, who is hunting desperately for the visitors' toilet. They will all have incredibly different 'impressions' of what they're seeing.

    If you must give an encyclopedic description from an omniscient narrator, I'd say make it VERY very short, and ensure that only a couple of things about the setting get described. At least at the outset. Focus on whatever makes this particular setting unique. However, I do always feel more engaged with a story if the description (and the person's opinion of the place) is given to me via the POV character.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2020
    Stormburn and SethLoki like this.
  6. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 8, 2017
    Messages:
    6,490
    Likes Received:
    12,781
    Location:
    Rhode Island
    Depends on what's noteworthy about the room. There's nothing interesting about a kitchen with a stove, sink, and refrigerator. But if there's floral wallpaper and an avocado stove hood, that would be revealing: either a 1970s setting, or an old lady's house, or a suggestion of domestic affectation, etc.

    Nothing interesting about a living room with couches and a TV, but a living room with armchairs, bookcases, and NO TV might be: a studious character, a minimalist attitude, perhaps a rejection of materialism, etc.

    The same goes for out door settings. A forest with trees and birds, not interesting. A forest with purple mushrooms and pools of steaming methane, interesting.

    And then you get the cliche thing. A babbling brook, not interesting. A dry creek bed full of dead birds, interesting.

    It's all about what the imagery provokes. And whether or not it begs a further question. Why doesn't Grandma spruce up her wallpaper? Where's Billy's TV? Why are all the birds dead?

    It sounds trivial, but those little questions stimulate imagination and get the reader looking for information. Or confirmation of their thoughts of why such and such is so and so. And once you get the reader following their own prejudices and preconceived notions, you can toy with them all day. Get them looking one way, smack em upside the head from the other.

    Sounds corny but it works!
     
    Stormburn likes this.
  7. LostArtist

    LostArtist Member

    Joined:
    Aug 8, 2020
    Messages:
    48
    Likes Received:
    47
    I would say, when introducing a setting, note the five senses
    • Sight
    • Sound
    • Touch
    • Smell
    • Taste (If relevant)
    Haha brilliant!

    These things must be established in some way when making a setting.

    This is something I am working on at the moment in my novel project. the opening is in one town and we follow four different people with four different points of view of the town. One of whom is a warrior, who doesn't pay attention to the way people dress but can sense trouble sudden movements, trained to look for danger. Whereas another character is a poet, a scene from his point of view is emotional, sensitive, and notices beauty and detail. both see the world differently and I am trying to reflect how much each character cares about each sense.

    This is an extract from a story I am working on. It's a fantasy about a witch (Milly) and this where she walks into her local town. the scenes before my MC was in a hurry so I have been holding back on descriptives up to this point. Before I was only describing things as they became relevant.

    The road was flattened rocks and gravel, like a cheap imitation of a cobbled path. The evergreen trees framed the road into town. Tall tree trunks sharpened to a point, constructed the walls around the border of the town, that were posted in the ground so close to each other that light could not go through the space between them. Although there was still sunlight the street lanterns had all been lit, bathing the town in a warm amber light which comfortably complemented the soft sandy colours of the plaster, used on the thatched houses which the town consisted of. Official buildings were made of a rich terracotta brick, with red tiled rooftops. Whereas the lords' buildings were a brilliant marble stone, with tall towers sat at each corner overlooking the town.
    Milly thought it was such a wonderful looking town, she especially liked the flowers that grew in every window box. The sweet fragrance circulated through the streets masking the unavoidable musk of horse manure. The townsfolk manically scuttled about trying to get their shopping done, between finishing work and the shops closing after dark. The men wore long black coats, white neck scarfs and bowler hats. The women wore light brown or white dresses with white petticoats and head-scarfs. Poorer citizens wore rags and very old coats with the colours long-since faded. The town guards were covered head to toe in shiny silver plate armour, each piece elegantly decorated with floral patterns. Milly realised she was getting a good close up look at the guards' armour, as one of them had made a beeline for her as soon as she stepped foot into the town.


    It is in the first draft stage do I haven't done a lot of editing, so I am aware it may be a bit long. I think that the trap is over-indulging, I may be guilty of that, but this is how I set my scene. The overuse of description Is our MC perspective, this town is relatively new to her, but it helps set the time period (or supposed period) of the world.

    Prosses and breakdown

    ---'The road was flattened rocks and gravel, like a cheap imitation of a cobbled path,'---

    I wanted to make it feel like the town didn't get a great deal of visitors and didn't want to spend money on an expensive road.
    ---the tall evergreen trees framed the road into town.---
    Give this town an isolated vibe, like it is alone in the forest.
    ---Tall tree trunks sharpened to a point, constructed the walls around the border of the town,---
    suggesting danger all around them and they have used the environment to defend themselves.
    --- that were posted in the ground so close to each other that light could not go through the space between them.---
    Giving a monolith imposing tone.

    Moving on into the town with the MC I address time of day and the first sense Sight. Light first to be mentioned, then how the light reacts with the surroundings.
    --- Although there was still sunlight, the street lanterns had all been lit, bathing the town in a warm amber light---
    After this, I go for the tactile feeling of the environment. What is seen, and how what is seen is presumed to feel like.
    --- which comfortably complemented the soft sandy colours of the plaster, used on the thatched houses which the town consisted of. ---
    with that sneak in descriptions of the buildings on the street, with a brief line for each. From looking up to down.
    ---Official buildings were made of a rich terracotta brick, with red tiled rooftops. Whereas the lords' buildings were a brilliant marble stone, with tall towers sat at each corner overlooking the town.---
    Hinting at a class divide. Use of natural materials (none-local stone) and more of a feel for what era this story is set in.

    Returning attention to the MC, their perspective of the town and what would their opinion be if you were to ask them what they thought.
    ---Milly thought it was such a wonderful looking town, she especially liked the flowers that grew in every window box. ---
    Our MC is an optimist. despite a few signs like a spiky fence and stone buildings, she appreciates that it looks nice. Okay so introducing flowers so what does the town smell like?
    ---The sweet fragrance circulated through the streets masking the unavoidable musk of horse manure.---
    Musk is a smell you can kind of taste at the back of your throat. so I don't know if that is a point for the taste sense. yet with the smell, we know that the mode of transport is still horses, again hinting to the time period.

    After painting a town, the next step is populating it. what time of day? how populated?
    ---The townsfolk manically scuttled about trying to get their shopping done, between finishing work and the shops closing after dark.---
    'Scuttled' has an onomatopoeic quality, feet walking along the ground.

    A description of the typical fashion for men, women, and poor
    --- The men wore long black coats, white neck scarfs and bowler hats. The women wore light brown or white dresses with white petticoats and head-scarfs. Poorer citizens wore rags and very old coats with the colours long-since faded.---
    Maybe over-used the word 'Scarf' but anyway. Giving a puritan palate of black and white, hinting to the era again, also some kind of repressive, inoffensive, plain feel

    --- The town guards were covered head to toe in shiny silver plate armour, each piece elegantly decorated with floral patterns.---
    This is a bit too much description, but this is intensional. Previously giving a line to describe something, smell, building, clothes, etc. Yet the guards get a line and a bit, nearly two. but by now the scene is set and I am still waffling on. There is a false sense of security
    ---Milly realised she was getting a good close up look at the guard's armour, as one of them had made a beeline for her as soon as she stepped foot into the town.---
    Snapping our MC out from taking in the setting into an action/confrontation.

    That is my prosses. I think that there doesn't need to be an overwhelming amount of detail, but if everything is addressed in some way, then a reader will decide what they like more; time period, clothing, technology, transport, trade, architecture, social systems. All these things people like to varying degrees and each is something to consider when setting a scene or worldbuilding.

    Note: I am a noob at the writing game I wouldn't want anyone to take my advice. I just wanted to contribute my prosses to the conversation. and if anyone likes something about that or have their own pointers that would be cool,*** (see Moderator note below) But just wanted to add my opinion and an example of how I would set a scene.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 16, 2020
    Beloved of Assur and Stormburn like this.
  8. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    17,273
    Likes Received:
    19,010
    Location:
    Scotland
    ***Mod hat on here: Just a quick word. :) @LostArtist has just done a good job explaining how he works on his descriptions, and he has broken his process down quite well by giving examples from his own work—which fits the subject of this thread very well. However, his work needs to go into the Workshop to get feedback, and it should not be critiqued here.
     
    LostArtist likes this.
  9. Lazaares

    Lazaares Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 16, 2020
    Messages:
    229
    Likes Received:
    302
    Location:
    Europe
    There is one important meta-piece of context missing from your description; which is the importance of the settlement/town to the narrative and the characters. Surely a long description of the like is suitable if the characters spend some time in town or the town itself is integral to the setting. I would, however, shorten it drastically if it was just a traverse-through scene or a one-time feature for a side plot.

    The other difference I see is more related to my initial comment where I feel I may have skipped over a realization myself; that I condense a lot of my description into dialogue as I am a far more stage-inclined writer than a descriptive one. Which, for example, means I would likely pass most of the above clues in a conversation with the city watchman debating whether to let in the travelers or have them arrested. The manner of speaking, the guardsman's attitude, hostility, etc.

    Last but not least ... the five senses call. Hmpf. I just can't make peace with it. Ever since I first read this advice in a tumblr post the five-sense-rolldown has turned into something so immersion-breaking the realization that I'm being given one has me break the suspension of disbelief and disconnect from the material at hand, just growling about the rolldown.

    May be a bit of an overstatement & exaggerated reaction...

    Perhaps it's the attitude I have for descriptions. I don't describe what I think I wouldn't notice. Smells ... breeze of air ... unless I sniff a pile of dung or am blown off my feet I just can't imagine my character or a narrator remarking it. They usually have zero bearing on the narrative, characters or the story and merely serve as a tick-box when writing a description.
     
    LostArtist likes this.
  10. LostArtist

    LostArtist Member

    Joined:
    Aug 8, 2020
    Messages:
    48
    Likes Received:
    47
    Funny I have a background in film and some people have noted I write more like I am writing a screenplay when I am setting a scene.

    I suppose with the 'five sense point' We don't make note of these things in real life unless it is potent. So your point of adding it into dialogue is quite a good one, more inventive then having narrator say "Yo! new place. You see this, you smell this, you feel that, it tastes like this...Go on! LICK IT! get a good taste of it! right now you hear this. Okay and... Go!"
    Consider anyone's immersion broken.
    Like I said, a background in film, you can't address things like smell, or internal emotion without dialogue, use of sound, and mis en scene (Film term literally meaning 'Everything in the frame'.) So in that respect, I rely a lot on the visual element, and also I can get excited about the medium offering opportunities to explore things like smells, thoughts, and touch, without relying on the skill and teamwork of editors, set directors, actors, cinematographers, costume departments and so on.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2020
    jannert likes this.
  11. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    17,273
    Likes Received:
    19,010
    Location:
    Scotland
    I'm taking your quote out of context, but you've kind of reinforced the point I was making about using your POV character to describe a scene. Your POV character is unlikely to make a note of 'these things' either, unless they matter.

    Why not stay in that character's head and let us know only what matters to him/her? You're telling a story through that person's eyes, not making a detailed map of the territory. :) If you do need a map, by all means make one, and put it in at the front of the book. But if a detail doesn't matter to your character, or they don't even notice it, I wouldn't bother loading it onto the reader either. Extraneous information simply creates distance between your reader and your character's frame of mind, which you probably don't want.

    This isn't a hard and fast 'rule' of course—but if you lean in the direction of less is more, and make each detail count rather than going whole hog the other way, I think you'll find your stories become livelier and more accessible to the reader.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2020
    Lazaares and LostArtist like this.
  12. Kallisto

    Kallisto Ruler of the world... somewhere... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 23, 2015
    Messages:
    650
    Likes Received:
    638
    Settings is something I really struggled with when I first started writing. Descriptions in general, actually. And that could just be part of me trying to find a voice in my writing and getting the life experience necessary to become a good writer.

    When I wrote my latest novel, I decided to ditch many of the tropes commonly used in fantasy writing. I decided to ditch the fish out of water "chosen one" trope. The main character is not a person getting introduced to a world she's not familiar with because she's discovered to have some kind of power that makes her special. (ie a peasant being introduced to the royal courts because he has magic or something...) She's knows the people already in it. This familiarity of the main character with her world and the other people in it made a particularly interesting challenge in developing characters. It's surprisingly hard to develop characters your main character already knows.

    This is where settings came in. Because I couldn't show a character's relationship develop over time, and I couldn't very well just tell instead of show, and I definitely couldn't do long tedious dialogue either, I had to use settings. There are an awful lot of scenes where the main character walks into a person's personal space, be it a room, house, or study space. I had to figure links between the types of things a person might have or be wearing and let that speak to the person's character.

    And since the main character is a princess, it actually works really well because she would be brought up to judge people on their physical appearance and possessions. It also made the setting feel very claustrophobic as opposed to very grand, which played pretty well into the tone, if I dare say so myself.
     
  13. cosmic lights

    cosmic lights Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 30, 2018
    Messages:
    724
    Likes Received:
    740
    Location:
    Norwich, UK
    I tend to describe my settings through the character's eyes. So, if my character is a horse lover, she might notice the horses in the field. If my character is a photographer/painter he might talk about how the light reflects off the lake where the horses are standing or angels or something. Someone who loves old trains as their hobby might only really notice the vintage train station nearby. I like doing this because it's then a sentence that's doing more than one thing. It's giving us a sense of place and of a character. I do this a lot in real life. I tend to notice animals, musical instruments and water (lakes, pools, streams) since I love those things. My Mum would notice flowers, vintage things and children because that's what she loves. I don't take in detail of everything around me, just the things that interest me and catch my eye. Does any of what I've said make any sense because it doesn't to me. Someone must get the point I'm failing to make and will hopefully out it more elegantly for you.

    I sometimes use the 5 senses.
     
  14. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    17,273
    Likes Received:
    19,010
    Location:
    Scotland
    Yes yes yes yes yes. THIS. ^ :)
     
    LostArtist likes this.
  15. KiraAnn

    KiraAnn Active Member

    Joined:
    May 6, 2019
    Messages:
    142
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    Texas
    My take on it is that if one expounds upon the setting for more than a short paragraph, then that’s info dumping and as a reader I skip over that stuff.
     

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice