A Sense Of Place

So, today I decided we’d go back to Writers’ University TM and I was perusing the topics y’all suggested, when Cedar asked me a question which I can dispatch easily enough in a single blog post, which must be written quickly, because I have to go to the doctor (this time hopefully, really, for the all clear, although I refuse to get my hopes up.)

She asked “How much description is too much?”  Ah, oh.  That’s sort of like asking, “How high is high?” or “What color is rain” or another of those things that have no certain answer.

But there are answers.  Or at least there are guidelines that let you determine how much description is too much for what you’re doing right at this moment.

Let’s start with the fact that when I first had professional instruction in the craft — The Oregon Professional Writers Workshop with Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith — Kris told me I had “blind cat syndrome.”

This colorful description comes from the fact that at some point she had a near-blind cat, who — when moving from place to place — would only react to things when almost atop of them.

At the time I thought she was being mean, but I tried to put more description in, to make her happy.  Now, in retrospect, I look back at those stories and realize she was absolutely right.  I had absolutely no clue how to convey my character moving through the a landscape/area and so what I did was mention things only when she needed them.  The effect was bizarre, like your character is in a featureless land which extrudes things at need.  It’s enough to pop you out of the story.  You have this “She went into the kitchen, turned the stove on” (so far so good, I mean, kitchens have stoves) “she picked up the clay bowl and started beating eggs.”  Bowl?  Eggs?  Clay bowl?  What are those?  Where did they come from?  What in heck is she doing?  Now imagine instead of a mundane situation you’re in a future house and she’s doing things that you don’t expect.  Impossible to follow?  Not exactly, but not immersive.

But because that’s where I was stuck, I couldn’t see the problem.  So, in a normal process of learning, I over-corrected.  Fortunately my next novel was historical and Shakespeare, so you can actually excuse it, and some people don’t see anything wrong with it, but if it were contemporary and about some woman in a kitchen, it would read like this:

She went into the kitchen, where the white-enamel stove glowed softly.  She had cleaned it lovingly just a day before.  The kitchen, a small room with a wall of exposed brick and teak cabinets was in fact spotless, even gleaming, because this nameless character lived and died by her furniture polish.  There was also a table, well built and sturdy in the manner of upscale tables of the late twentieth century.  She’d bought it from a craftsman at a local fair.  There was also a refrigerator, polished stainless steel with glass shelves, filled with all the provisions she’d need for a week.

The first cabinet to the left as you came in the kitchen, contained a set of clay bowls fashioned from local clay by a third generation vegan potter. She withdrew one, and admired the sheen of morning sun on its glaze. Then she opened the fridge, and glanced at the perfect eggs bought from a ……  Now, put prettier words in, and you have Shakespeare novels.  Fortunately, as I said, being historical, they kind of passed under the radar, but if you do that to a modern book, you’re going to make your readers fall asleep.

So, description.  When you can’t yet “see” what you’re doing it (and seeing it is a matter of trusting the process (no, really) and writing a lot) how do you do it without destroying the story, or at least keeping the reader solidly out of it?

You know, when I read amateur stuff, for contests, mostly, nothing pops me out earlier than bad description.  So, it’s really important to get right.  Which is hard when all I can tell you is “it varies.  With the story.”

So, I’ll give you some rules of thumb on description, not just how much is too much, but the never do this.

First the never, ever, ever do this:

1- Beware empty descriptions.

There are some adjectives that tell the reader plain nothing.  Like “verdant”.  “He climbed the verdant slope” — is that underwater, in the sun, grass or trees?  Tell us “he climbed the grassy slope.”  Or “she was very beautiful.”  Yeah, that’s nice, but your beautiful is not my beautiful.  And while you should leave some space for the reader to fill in (more on that later) you still need to give something to form an image in my mind.  If you don’t want to get specific, then just give us a simile “She was beautiful and remote like an ice sculpture sitting in the middle of a perfect banquet table, which I could not reach.”

2- Beware brand names

PARTICULARLY when they don’t exist.  Okay, this might be a particular madness of mine, but I tried to make my stuff realistic by saying things like

“The broom was a gryphon 55”.  You know everything you need to know about it, right?  No?  Then perhaps one should say “The broom was a gryphon 55 with a gleaming chrome carapace, cylindrical and about two feet long, with a gentle bulge at the end, over its anti-grave mechanism and its cyber-brain.  It was hard not to think of what it looked like.” (GAH.  Why am I in Luce’s head now?)

3- Beware withholding details later on that you then drop on the reader.

This applies to blind-cat-syndrome mentioned ahead, but also to stuff like describing your character as say “A slim young woman who moved gracefully” and then five pages in telling us she’s blond.  If the reader has been imagining her as dark haired, you’re going to give that poor reader whiplash.

The bewares of that vary with circumstances:

1- Cut your cloth to fit your garment.  What I mean by this of course is that if your character is in modern times, you don’t really need to describe things like diners, or kitchens, or streets to the nth degree.  You just need to give us a feel for the TYPE it is.  “It was a rural road, with weeds growing on the side, and fences keeping the cows from wandering across the gravel expanse barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other.”  Or “it was a highway, stretching into the sunset, flawless asphalt gleaming black under the reddish rays of the sun” or something.

BUT if you are describing say a Roman villa or a Shakespearean house, you have to describe it, and if you are in the character’s head, you have to describe it without letting on that this is not normal.  So, for instance, “It was a middling cottage, the thatch new, the windows fitted with painted shutters.  The bottom floor contained a kitchen and a great room.  Up the stairs you’d find the sleeping quarters.  Judging from the bottom floor, those would be neat and tidy, with fresh rushes on the floor.”

2- Beware the words you use.  I’m writing this in haste, on my way to the doctor, and my mind won’t do flowery or poetic, but make sure that the words fit the rest of the tone of the book.

3- If you describe something in extreme and loving detail, make sure it has a relevance to the plot.  I.e. either that bowl is cursed and when it breaks will unleash the undead on your poor character, or you’re describing the bowl to distract us from the fact that those eggs are dragon eggs.

4- beware the character can’t see the world except what you show him/her.  So what you take the trouble to describe will assume huge proportions in his/her head.  In one of my early books I described a man as having huge hands, but I used “Hands like shovels”  For some reason this meant nine out of ten people thought he was the villain.  (He wasn’t.)  It was almost the only description, and it didn’t sound friendly, so…

5- DO NOT bring the story to a stand still while you describe things.  Sometimes description is important.  I get it.  Sometimes a sense of place is essential to the story.  HOWEVER if you’re going to engage in really long descriptions, weave them around the character’s actions.

She turned from smoothing the silk sheets, and lay her hand on the windowsill.  Outside the wind was whipping the cedars to a frenzy.  Somewhere, from the estate came the sound of peacocks crying.  She could hear the maids outside the door, the clunk of the tweenie’s coal bucket as she laid the fire in the next room.  She ran her hand along the silvery walls, as though she were blind, until she reached the standing desk.  Pulling a sheet of paper towards her, she wrote “My dear Gervase,” but she couldn’t go on.  Tears blotched the creamy expanse of paper, with the crest of the Duke of Allingham at the top.”

The cheat:

I worked out a cheat, which ensures that I have enough to go give the reader a sense of where he is, before I focus on objects.  For instance, in the paragraph just above, I’d have started the first scene in the book by giving the reader some points.  A sentence of two, or at least a paragraph usually does it.

It was a well appointed room, light and spacious.  The south facing windows looked out on the lawns and woods of the estate.  An enormous bedstead, in dark carved wood, took up most of the room, leaving barely enough space for a standing desk, a clothes press, and a little table on which rested a couple of leather bound books.  The bed was turned down, the sheets showing the dull glimmer of silk.”

As long as you make sure you have the general layout, people can sort of see it, and no one is surprised there’s stationary on the desk, or a pen.  You can later fill in the wall color or the smell of wax from the floors.  (Unless one of those details is important, in which case it needs to be up front.)

That is the most minimalist description you can have.  Later on you can build layers on it, to increase the effect of the scene, to set the emotional mood, or to elucidate the character.

And in the end that’s what you need to know.

What is too much description?  It’s description that serves no purpose.  The reader doesn’t need to know the exact shade of blond in your character’s hair.  He just needs enough to imagine your character.  Yes, his image won’t match yours but it doesn’t need to, unless the image is essential to the story.

So if the imagine is essential to the story, describe the image to the last iota of shade and sensation (and I didn’t say above, but in your descriptions try to evoke all five senses.  That’s a lesson for another time, as I’m in a rush.)  If it’s not, give the reader enough to get on with, then get out of the way of the story.

And now — she says – I rush to the doctor as soon as I shower and change out of my fluffy pink robe and bunny slippers.  And if you believe that description, you have my character all wrong. 😉

29 Comments

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29 responses to “A Sense Of Place

  1. I’ve been reading Heinlein with an eye to how he used descriptions in his work. If you look at it he used very little indeed. One of his stories goes 6 or 7 pages before he briefly describes anything, and that was a bunk the protagonist got out of. It was all internal thoughts and conversation.

    In Starship Troopers he has a line or two of description of one character and then nothing more for 6 pages. Conversations however add a lot of descriptive fill to the work.

    So there are more than one way to write stories.

    • Yep. I use about the same in Darkships, but if you read Heinlein CAREFULLY he actually has a lot of inferred description/world building. It’s just very well buried. Hence the term “Heinleining” for conveying description without seeming to.

  2. Thanks, Sarah. I always feel like I’m either doing too little, or too much. Will work on achieving balance.

  3. Granted it is probably more relevant to short works than long works, but one of your “bewares” reminded me of Chekhov’s Gun:
    “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

    For some reason I always think of a phaser…

  4. Reziac

    Yeah, fluffy pink robe and bunny slippers…. made of live bunnies. 😀

    “Blind cat syndrome”, yep (I say, having lived many years with a cat who was both blind and oblivious and was continually startled by everything). Stuff that just *poofs* into existence at need despite having apparently been underfoot all along. I refer to such persons or objects as having just “fell from the sky”.

    And then there’s its cousin the gawking gargoyle, where the character cranes her neck to view something the author has suddenly decided to describe. (Nearly always a first-person female character. Well, I guess that explains all the long graceful necks.)

  5. B. Durbin

    I’d also add that it helps to have a complete scene in your mind, even if you don’t include more than the barest details. If you know the complete setup, you aren’t going to make it backwards.

    And for some reason, I’m reminded of the weird Doctor Who movie that was made back in the 90s. It was set in San Francisco but was filmed in Vancouver… and as someone who has been to SF innumerable times, the suspension of disbelief snapped pretty hard when they showed a house that was theoretically in Sausalito but was on the flat. (Sausalito *has* no flat.) Or the freeway that went through a suburban area—there isn’t one within thirty miles of the city. It’s either true urban or semi-wild chaparral. A sense of place assumes you *know* the place.

  6. Reziac

    Chekhov’s Gun:
    “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

    I wasn’t thinking of it til you brought it onstage, you insensitive clod… [grabs gun and shoots Chekhov with it]

  7. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Darn you Sarah! Now I’m thinking about how to describe an ogre-like being that my main character hasn’t met before but seen pictures of these beings and knows the being isn’t a danger. [Frown]

  8. Martin L. Shoemaker

    My blind cat problem is that I really only see things through the eyes of my POV character. Until they have a reason to notice, I don’t notice. I have one fantasy that starts with the POV character losing his glasses in a car wreck. Later a woman arrived to rescue him from the car; and until she leaned in to unbuckle him, I didn’t know what she looked like, because he couldn’t see her with his glasses off. As soon as she got that close, I saw her face, her hair color, and her clothing.

    • Yes, but it is acceptable t cheat a little, to give the reader an impression of where they are.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        I managed to give that impression pretty well (I think — no one has read it yet) because it started with an average guy driving down an average highway that I actually know pretty well. I drive it often, so I could describe sights and sounds and smells. And the accident was also based on real life, so I had memory to rely on for that as well.

        Everything after the accident was where the fantastic element came in, and I had to wing it. If I ever finish that piece, I’ll have to rethink the whole losing-his-glasses idea, because it puts a major chunk of the story out of focus; but it’s such a useful metaphor because later, when he finally recovers them, he literally sees the fantastic creatures around him for the first time in focus. It’s a turning point where he goes from caught up in the chaos to choosing his own course.

  9. Uncle Lar

    And then there is this additional complication.
    Once an author has created a universe, do they write their next installment with an eye to the loyal fan who already knows about brooms and burners and Darkships? Or do they pad the text with backstory so a first time reader isn’t totally lost? Of course the answer is to strike a happy medium.
    A new reader should be able to follow along without a constant feeling of puzzlement, but you can’t bore the long time fan to tears either.
    As example of where this was not done, I’d submit Butcher’s “Skin Game.”
    Great book, rightfully up for a Hugo this year, but 15th in the Dresden series with an incredible amount of backstory. I would never recommend a new reader take it up without reading all 14 prior books. But with Butcher’s fan base that isn’t all that much of a problem.
    Recently beta read a book where the author did manage to strike that balance quite skillfully. Filled in backstory with a light touch so as not to bore the fen, but enough to keep the new reader in the loop. And even though I was familiar with the earlier books in the series, I found myself wanting to go back and read them again. Sparking this in a new reader of your work means multiple sales, never a bad thing.

  10. It’s also worth noting that no matter how you do your descriptions, for someone it will be too much, for someone else it’ll be too little, and for someone else it will be just perfect.

    At least, that’s been my experiences so far. 🙂

    • Oh, yes, of course. People have different tastes in this. I was told that DST is too spare by a couple of readers, and by others that it’s “just right”. Meh.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      I’m usually way too light on description. It’s pretty rare for someone to tell me I have too much. The only time I can recall is one my First Reader chided me for describing the light glinting off the five-centimeter carbon crystal girders that connected the two halves of my space station.

      And to make your point: that was the story where I finally had enough description to satisfy David Farland and make it in to Writers of the Future. Tastes definitely vary.

  11. Uncle Lar

    Ah, but that robe is the pink of frothy fresh blood, and unless I’m mistaken those are Bunbun slippers from the John Ringo store. With fangs and switchblades. How else would they ever survive the cats?
    And we won’t even go into the true meanings of all those runes and ancient sigils sewn into that robe with silver wire.

  12. Boy, this discussion brings back memories of a would-be writers’ group I was in once, where we hashed things like this out… though Sarah manages to state the issues a lot more succinctly than we ever did. Must come with experience. I took the view that when you open a scene, describe what you or the reader would notice first if you were actually put there all of a sudden, summarized as “Mention the elephant in the room first thing.” Then somebody would counter with, “No, mention what the viewpoint character would notice first thing. That character might be so used to the elephant in the room that it’s just part of the ordinary everyday scenery and doesn’t stand out, but the official-looking letter from the IRS on the table does stand out because it’s a new addition to the surroundings and looks ominous.” And so it went…

  13. On “Beware he words you use” I quote my Grandmother chastising her students (She taught English): Eschew sesquopedalian obfuscation.

    Every time I’ve used it it’s made the point without translation.

    On other levels, description is the most difficult for me. I started out very loquacious, and am now too minimalistic. Finding the balance is the hard part.

  14. Another way of describing this effect for people who are more familiar with video games than felines is as the “pop in” effect. Most driving games can’t keep track of every part of the entire map accurately at the same time, so anything that’s too far away won’t display. The result is that as you drive toward the horizon buildings will pop into existence as they cross the display threshold.

    I think a decent minimum rule of thumb for scene setting description is to at least mention the stuff that will be plot relevant so that it doesn’t seem to pop in later on.

  15. Thanks. This was really useful. For oral storytelling, as well as written-down kind.