Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 21 comments
I've hit the point in a manuscript where the protagonist and her companions enter a whole new world that's supposed to reveal a lot to them about the nemesis. In my literary/contemporary story, it's an ugly, rarely updated home of a packrat grandparent; but for another writer it might be a new planet or a hidden fairy world. The issue is the same--if you approach it with a lot of straight description, your readers are likely to get bored.

Your particular setting may be incredibly important to establishing your story world, but that alone won't make it interesting. What makes a setting interesting is how your characters interact with it.

Instead of simply telling us the dimensions of a cave and the color of the rock, have a character run her hands along the rock and describe that sensation. Have the sidekick comment on the smell or jump back from a sound.

People your scenes and have the setting effect them in some way. Try to mix up the kinds of interaction with the setting--physical contact, movement through it, curiosity about it, exploitation of it  (a comfy chair rested upon, available food consumed), spoken comments about it, as well as attitudes, memories or associations stirred by it.

Stay attuned to your characters as you move them from place to place in your story, and you'll begin to find ways to keep their perceptions and actions in the mix when it comes to description.

When reading, do you persevere through long, static descriptions, or tend to skim them? What authors have you seen use this interact-with-setting technique well?

21 comments:

  1. I just read a book by a famous name author and she killed me with her descriptions! "The table was laden with..." and went on to describe each and every single dish, not to mention the silverware, china, candlesticks, and flowers. I was like, C'mon already, what did the heroine do when she found out the hero was sitting next to her foe?

    I have to say, I'm absolutely the opposite when it comes to description. My critters tell me I need to add more, not less.

    Great post!

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  2. Glad it was helpful. Where you need to add description, trickle it in among action scenes and dialogue and it won't feel overwhelming to readers.

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  3. I skim long descriptions. Good advice. Thanks for posting.

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    1. Reading Lord of the Rings aloud to my daughter made me realize how much I dislike constant description. That's probably why I don't read fantasy much anymore.

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  4. Thanks so much for the connect, Laurel, I have published one adult novel, so we have something in common.

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    1. I have a 9-yo daughter who likes reading, and I enjoy discovering new historical fiction for kids. I write mostly for teens so far.

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  5. I also like to mix in the emotional status of the characters and their perceptions of other characters in contrast to the setting. Do the characters' emotions mirror the setting, or are they in opposition? If there's opposition, make sure you use that tension. If there's a mirror, make sure it's a moment for introspection, but don't do that too often (like I do). It annoys the reader. LOL

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    1. Character emotion and perception in comparison and contrast with setting is one of many ways to interact (I think I used different terms, but I'm on the same page that it can be a good technique). Like you say, it's not overdoing one technique that will yield the pacing and tone readers enjoy most.

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  6. What a great post, and one I really need. I just finished reading Ella Enchanted (again), and I think Ms. Levine is a master at this. I categorically skip big passages of description, but in Ella, despite the amazing world building she does, I was savoring every word. I think I will be coming back to this post when I hit revision time. :)

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    1. She's a good author to study! Levine has her character engage both physically and emotionally. We care about setting because it matters to Ella.

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  7. This is really good advice, Laurel! And I typically do persevere through long static descriptions if they're in the story because I've, unfortunately, never been able to skim. *Sigh* But that doesn't mean I enjoy them! :o)

    I haven't read these books in a while, but I'm thinking that the Artemis Fowl series does a good job of the interaction-with-character thing well.

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    1. I know just what you mean. I've been reading Tolkien aloud and he's terrible at this--too many of his descriptions are very static--but if you skim, more than half the story would be missed. Now I'm hyper-aware of the issue!

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  8. Hi Laurel, Great post. This was helpful advice. Thanks.

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  9. I recently took a writing course that give the same advice. The instructor had us make a list of all the sensory descriptions going on in our scenes, write sentences with them, and fit them into the scene. It works really well because the setting is dynamic instead of stagnant. I can't imagine, now, writing setting into a scene any other way.

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    1. Sounds like a great class! As I'd mentioned above, it was in reading Tolkien aloud that I've become hyper aware of how hard a slog it is to read through static description.

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  10. What a great idea. I find that I skip long descriptions so I'm happy when authors employ this technique.

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    1. It is a good way to ground the scene without bringing the story to a screeching halt while we admire the scenery.

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  11. I liked the way you zeroed in on the problem and gave a great solution. Did you ever think of putting some of these writing posts into book or ebook form?

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    1. I surely have toyed with the idea. I have a bunch gathered just on the topic of characterization.

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  12. I skim long descriptions, and I try to follow the tip you mentioned - making descriptions interactive. I do sometimes end up with a paragraph here or there that is mainly description, but I think description comes best in small doses throughout the story.

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