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.”
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. 😉