1. Kehlida

    Kehlida Member

    Jan 12, 2021
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    Currently Reading::
    The Shining / Carrie by Stephen King

    Tips for Describing Scenery

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Kehlida, Nov 14, 2021.

    Quick inquiry! I started trying to write a story again and I find I am still having trouble in the same way I did previously. I think my dialogue and characters are on point aside from a few planned revisions, but I become stuck when it comes to laying out my scenes and keeping things moving. I write the same lines over and over, never content with how I word actions or setting descriptions. I've tried forcing myself to avoid revising as I go, but it's not enough for me right now. Any tips that could help?
  2. evild4ve

    evild4ve Contributor Contributor

    Oct 17, 2021
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    Something that came up recently for me was that scenery is old and means different things to different people at different times of day. Over the passage of time, it accumulates features that aren't relevant to the characters - or which might be entirely inexplicable. An example in many British towns might be mooring bollards in the middle of a pedestrianised high street, which have been left there from a former canal. There are things like cctv poles there in the day that take on new significance when the pubs empty out. I think convincing descriptions always have something the reader feels the writer wouldn't have noticed unless they had been there.

    If it's for the project you mentioned recently with the laboratory, I visited a modern one recently that had huge angled ditches in a square all the way round it. It was a big building, but its trenches were wider than it was wide and deeper than it was tall. Everything was recently-constructed with sharp corners and short turf on the slopes. No weeds. No trees or flowers - so not a garden. Was it to make the architectural appearance more pleasant (which it certainly did)? A planning requirement for % green space? An error in the scale diagrams? Of course not: it was in case someone truck-bombed them to try and steal the viruses.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2021
  3. Idiosyncratic

    Idiosyncratic Active Member

    Nov 30, 2014
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    Currently Reading::
    Six of Crows
    One approach scene description is to start with how I want the scene to feel. This is typically either a reflection of how the character feels, or an atmosphere I want to create. Then, I choose a few specific details and chose nouns and verbs that evoke that feeling. The biting stench of disinfectant, blank white walls, cold blue lights, someone sobbing in the next room. Sunlight peeking through the canopy, a light breeze carrying the smell of freshly turned earth, someone's initials carved into a tree with a heart around them. If I'm really stuck I might just straight-up write down how I want the scene to feel and go back and fix it in revisions. If I have one section with description I'm really happy with, I'll use that as proof to myself that I can write description and it's okay to wait until revisions to fix everything else.

    I can also choose details that emphasize a theme or what a character is thinking. For example, a character who is dealing with a dysfunctional family might focus on a young couple laughing as their small child splashes through puddles, comparing it to his or her own situation. Or, I decide what element of character/setting I want to convey to the reader, and then focus on details that convey that specific thing. Basically, I try to give every description dual purposes: Describe what is happening/where the character is, and one other thing, and that second purpose really helps narrow down how to write the description itself.
  4. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

    Dec 24, 2019
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    Way, way out there
    This ties in with what @Idiosyncratic just said—"Tell me your mother just died without telling me your mother just died". In other words, practice ways of getting across an emotional tone in descriptions. Or, alternatively, tell me it's the greatest day of your life without telling me it's the greatest day of your life.
    Kehlida likes this.
  5. Travalgar

    Travalgar Active Member

    Sep 1, 2021
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    I think about sceneries a lot. I like traveling and backpacking, so most frequently my experience was what I drew from.

    When someone enters a new environment (a room, a city block, a camping ground, a stretch of prairie, a server room, the base of a mountain, etc.), I often think about what would the person sense initially. Sense, not see! Sound and smell and feelings on their skin matter as much as sight. These empirical sensations should be the base of all scene descriptions. Try to describe how a place looks, sounds, smells, and feels (as in touching) like. Mix and match between senses for a unique result. But of course, giving more portions to how it looks like is usually expected, since it's only natural that most of our human readers would use their sense of sight the most.

    Some of you are proponents on emotions as one of the important building blocks of a scenery. While I agree that adding emotional tones could enhance a scene, I don't believe that you should exclusively rely on them. Emotions are like seasonings to a steak, a vegetable stir fry, or a fruit salad; it can only improve on what's already there.
    Chromewriter, Joe_Hall and Kehlida like this.
  6. Mogador

    Mogador Senior Member

    Mar 7, 2021
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    This is more or less a repeat of what @Travalgar just said:

    A hack way (which I use), is to mostly only describe things that the protagonist would notice, that intrudes upon the protagonist whilst they're in the scene, even if subconsciously. It helps narrow it down.

    Do I describe the harsh bright sunlight this time? Only if it makes it hard for the protagonist to see things, causes them to squint.

    Do I describe @evild4ve's bollards? If the protagonist has to weave through them to get from A to B then I do.

    Do I describe the intimidating 50-storey buildings looming up all around? If one of them is the destination, or being navigated by, or something the protagonist feels oppressed by, then yes.

    Otherwise skip it.

    EDIT: An advantage of this approach for you, given you're happy with your characterisations, is that you're really describing the character rather than the scenery, just using the scenery as a means to reveal things about the character. Sneaking the scenery in, if you like. "Absurd ancient bollards, ought to be torn up," says something different about the protagonist than, "Victorian mooring posts, making him feel, just for a minute, like he was floating down a canal, before the car horns bought him back to terra firma". Two birds, one stone.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2021
    Kehlida likes this.
  7. Joe_Hall

    Joe_Hall I drink Scotch and I write things

    Apr 20, 2021
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    I like what @Travalgar said. As an exercise, whenever I have a minute I like to describe, to myself, my surroundings. That can be nature, doctors offices, work. Try to get all your senses involved. If you do this a lot you will find your ability to describe scenery fall into place.
    Kehlida likes this.
  8. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

    Apr 20, 2016
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    Imagery and metaphors are your friend.

    Also, the use of emotions that certain sights evoke can be very useful. Don’t tell me about how dark and deep the forest is, tell me about the angst and desolation that your character feels peering into the deep dark endless sea of trees. Or the romantic and carefree feelings evoked from a field of flowers.
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  9. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

    Apr 18, 2017
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    Currently Reading::
    "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath
    Everything here is good advice! What can I add?

    Description doesn't exist outside of the story. It's mixed into it. So I agree you need to be writing it as you go. That can be a problem if you need historical accuracy and research is involved. In those cases I just do my best guess and write down shorthand, usually with some emotional notes attached. I like tagging things with brackets < >, and then I do a search to make sure I've come back for everything I skimmed past.

    Don't waste time spelling out what the reader already knows. Obvious details go unsaid. It's the specific details that you want to focus on. What makes the setting/person/object unique? It's okay if the reader sees something you don't. I would say it's preferable, because they've related the story to themselves. Just add enough to specify. We tend to remember flaws, so those are a great way to set an object apart.

    I always write with rhythms in mind. Tells are quick. Shows are slow. Imagery is quite strange. It can happen quickly on the page but slowly in the reader's mind. Tells/shows are direct. They point at the object. Imagery and emotional comparisons are indirect. They happen on another stage within the reader. It's somewhat of the difference between the inner and outer senses. (Outer senses are the famous five plus a few others: balance, hunger, etc. The inner senses deal more with remembrance, fantasy, imagination, etc.)

    As an example, if I were writing about someone's kitchen, rhythmically I'd build on an emotional image. Let's say: "My mother's kitchen is a graveyard." This is a metaphor and gives a slow start. The words are fast on the page but slow in the reader's mind. Most people will read that and wonder what they just saw. They might even re-read it. Then I would switch to outer senses for speed. I'd detail the equipment she's broken, the gadgets still in boxes. Nothing wordy. Simple and direct because I need speed. I'd then think about fading away with memory of disastrous past Thanksgivings. (That slows the rhythm.) Then I'd bounce out fast (maybe a list of failed dishes) and end with "Her kitchen is where recipes go to die." (Personification is also slow in the reader's mind. It's a quick ending but it still leaves you thinking.)

    Of course, all of that is emotional. It builds a feeling linking the MC to his mother and so it's pulling double duty (description + character development). If you can make description do two jobs at once then it's almost always worth being there. That's what I'll add to this thread. Try to build rhythms in your descriptions. Try to make them pull extra weight.
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2021
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  10. AntPoems

    AntPoems Contributor Contributor

    Jun 13, 2021
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    Philadelphia, PA
    There’s lots of good advice in this thread, but I’d like to toss in an example that goes in the complete opposite direction. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast”:
    This section breaks pretty much every “rule” of good descriptive writing. It doesn’t keep the scene moving; it stops everything to focus on a minute detail that’s irrelevant to the plot. It’s told from an omniscient POV, so we don’t get a sense of what’s important to a particular character. And it doesn’t include all of the senses, just the visual. So why do I love it?

    Because it tells a story. These two little paragraphs bring castle Gormenghast to life. They show us its ancient history through the lens of one tiny architectural detail, and from there our minds can flow outward and imagine all the little stories that make up such a gargantuan castle, all the lives that went into creating it over hundreds of years, the thousands of people who live on in what they’ve left behind. Peake achieves grand enormity by focusing on the very small.

    It’s worth noting that these are the opening paragraphs to a chapter, so they set a new scene rather than interrupt action in progress; they almost certainly wouldn’t work in the middle of the chapter. But this slow approach to description is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox, and very effective when used in the right place.
  11. Chromewriter

    Chromewriter Contributor Contributor

    Jul 23, 2021
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    I like that you went against the grain with this post! I think @Seven Crowns showed what you can do with tempo and speed to make the scene be a part of the story in a natural manner, but you showed how describing the setting could become the story itself.

    While Gormenghast is a particular type of story where the setting is integral to the plot, the technique can be used in other stories just to have a sub-plot. It's like when an MC comes across a piece of historical importance like a cave drawing and he usually has someone narrate it for him.

    don't get me wrong, it can be a cliche to do it that way, but it does make the world feel more alive if done naturally. Specially important for fantasy genre in particular where world building can be the biggest draw. So I appreciated that you went for this perspective also.


    Me personally, I think it's just about focus. Focus on details that are memorable and ignore the ones that are not. Emotional attachment and strange characteristics makes for more memorable details as a very simple example. But sometimes the significance of a setting can increase by the plot as well and even more fundamentally, through entropy or time.

    Example: if you have a character live with his parents as a child in a home, the details he remembered would have a different flavour when he goes back and they have died. The family picture a source of happiness would have become a source of sadness. He would have mini stories like this everywhere he went through the house. The details should naturally become important without any effort if you look at it like that.
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  12. Que

    Que Active Member

    May 6, 2016
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    So Cal
    Currently Reading::
    Billy Summers by Stephen King
    The setting is not merely an historical, geographical, or descriptive backdrop for each of your scenes. It's the plot’s context that shapes the characters’ opinions, desires, and prejudices and sets the limits of what can happen. Make each scene relevant to the plot in a way that it helps move the plot forward.
    Scenes are the building blocks of a story, and summary is the mortar. Scene writing shows readers what's happening with sensory description, figurative language, and details. Summary writing tells readers what happened to compress time, convey background information, create graceful transitions, reveal a character's inner thoughts and feelings, tell readers what was said instead of using dialog.

    Static descriptions don’t advance the plot unless they’re relevant to a character's thoughts and feelings. Compare "Emily fiddled with the ring in her ear." with "Emily fiddling with the ring in her ear made Jack smile. He knew she was searching for something clever to say."

    Another example of a dynamic description is... "The building was constructed of gray, lifeless bricks. The eyebrows on the dormer windows made the building look as if it were frowning, glaring at him with dark, angry eyes. It reminded George of his father, and why he joined the Marine Corps to escape his cold, relentless criticism."

    And regarding your comment that, "I've tried forcing myself to avoid revising as I go." Yes, trying to edit as you compose can cause writer's block -- stop the flow of spontaneous, creative writing. But sometimes it's wise to stop momentarily just long enough to note something you thought of doing as you're free writing.
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