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Celebrianne

Sketching in a Setting

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I think I'm in the poorly side. I don't read detailed descriptions, so I don't write them.

 

I'm reminded of the little girl who was asked if she liked movies or radio stories better. She replied, "Radio, because the pictures are better."

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1 hour ago, carolinamtne said:

I think I'm in the poorly side. I don't read detailed descriptions, so I don't write them.

 

I'm reminded of the little girl who was asked if she liked movies or radio stories better. She replied, "Radio, because the pictures are better."

If you give enough detail for me (the reader) to orient myself, you aren't at all on the poorly side. And, yes, many of us don't care for lots of detail--especially if it goes on and on.

I love the girl's quote, it's so true! And for me, I can tone down the unpleasant stuff (like in Lord of the Rings) to a level I can bear while taking my time with the beautiful things. 🙂

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I've been told that my writing is very descriptive.  I never really thought that, because there aren't enough words to describe the picture in my mind.  But I always hit the important points - things that are outside of the norm.  In one scene (that I posted in the Critique section), I have the cold mist rising from the waterfall and the roar of the water.  It takes very little to form such a complete picture for someone, mainly because their brain is filling in all of the gaps.

 

I feel that hitting at least a couple of senses in each scene setting really does the trick.  It puts there reader there with the main character.

 

 

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This is something I used to struggle with but think that I'm getting better at. I used to try to paint an exact copy of the imagined movie in my head.

 

But, that just doesn't work in writing. People WANT to make up the pictures in their own head. Especially in today's entertainment ecosystem, readers are the ones that have fertile imaginations that help them fill in the parts you don't describe.

 

So, I've worked at describing less to let the reader imagine more. My just finished book (which is my first non-fantasy book) might even be a little too sparse on certain descriptions. But, the trick is, it only takes one or two details to anchor something for people. You don't need a complete picture, just a couple of firm, well-placed lines. And, they don't have to be physical descriptions either. They can be psychological ones, or psychological ones that spill over into the physical. The word "fastidious" comes to mind.

 

The fastidious old man took two prim steps to the counter.

The rumpled old man shuffled up to the counter.

The disheveled old man stumbled up to the counter.

The proud old man marched up to the counter.

 

Those all give you very different characterizations. You could do the same thing with a house or a car or a street or a castle to pull off your setting in just a few words.

 

A dilapidated castle slouched atop the hill.

A regal castle crowned the hilltop.

A crumbling castle was perched atop the hill.

A mighty castle towered over the hilltop.

 

This is kind of fun. I could waste a lot of time trying different combinations...

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2 hours ago, Thomas Davidsmeier said:

The proud old man marched up to the counter.

I like what you're doing here. And you've hit it that a light touch works better than too much building a setting. The only thing on this particular descriptor along with "regal" and "mighty" is you are flirting so close to the edge of telling not showing I would suggest a specific description that gives the same impression instead. 

Show me how the white-haired man holds himself ramrod straight with his eyes narrowed at the clerk behind the counter. In the real world we usually can't be sure it's 'pride' rather than some other attitude (like fastidious) until they start to speak.

Show me what makes the castle different from others. Is it many turreted with red banners whipping in the wind? Is it a massive block of dull black stone with only narrow slits for eyes? Show me.

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14 hours ago, Jeff Potts said:

I feel that hitting at least a couple of senses in each scene setting really does the trick. 

Fabulous! I struggle to use more senses than just the eyes, but only adding in one at a time sounds practical enough to actually do. 

And it sounds like you are natural at doing verbal setting well. I'd be right there with that cold mist and roar. It's Niagara, right? 😉

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10 minutes ago, Celebrianne said:

I like what you're doing here. And you've hit it that a light touch works better than too much building a setting. The only thing on this particular descriptor along with "regal" and "mighty" is you are flirting so close to the edge of telling not showing I would suggest a specific description that gives the same impression instead. 

Show me how the white-haired man holds himself ramrod straight with his eyes narrowed at the clerk behind the counter. In the real world we usually can't be sure it's 'pride' rather than some other attitude (like fastidious) until they start to speak.

Show me what makes the castle different from others. Is it many turreted with red banners whipping in the wind? Is it a massive block of dull black stone with only narrow slits for eyes? Show me.

 

We're storytellers not story-show-ers!

 

Nah, I'm just teasing. I like your examples. It's all about pace, though. Sometimes telling is necessary and preferable to showing, though I agree it isn't as often as most people do it.

 

For example in the case of dialogue, you can either give a summary about what two people talked about, or you can record the conversation exactly as they said with their every eye bat and blush and sigh. It all depends on style and speed and importance of the particulars.

 

"They talked long into the night sharing stories about themselves they never thought they would tell another living soul." vs an actual record of the stories and how they told them.

 

If the particular stories are important, you don't want to summarize. If the idea you want to show is that the two people are sharing things and becoming closer, you'd do better to editorialize it.

 

Your mileage may vary.

 

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I think that part of the problem is that when people describe stuff, they try to put it in a single sentence.  Depending on the context, that's a sure way to turn off a reader.  Often times, it's better th drag it out over a paragraph.

 

Let's take the old man going over to the counter.

 

"The old man approached the counter.  As thin as a rail, his skin hung from him like loose rags, pale and spotted.  Hunched over, he moved with a shuffling gait, time having robbed him of the robustness of his youth.  Eyes all but hidden beneath bags above and below, he looked all but defeated by the long years that have passed before him."

 

Or, if he's a cardboard cutout, fourth-tier character he simply becomes, "shuffling, stooped and wrinkled."

 

Or I just like to use lots of words.  :)

 

 

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You know, this topic is really one of the things I hold dear.  Whether you go all in for descriptiveness, or you put a few things out there, and let the reader's imagination fill in the holes.

 

I was watching Daniel Green, who is a young Fantasy and Science Fiction reviewer on YouTube.  He did a two-part series on the "problems with Young Adult" fiction.  One of the things he dinged YA books on was the absence of prose.  His biggest criticism was the fact that the books had been stripped-down, and dumbed-down to the point where they are just made for fast, easy consumption.

 

Which was music to my ears.  IF I can get published, I might end up being part of of the wave that bucks that trend.

 

If...  

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19 hours ago, Celebrianne said:

And for me, I can tone down the unpleasant stuff (like in Lord of the Rings) to a level I can bear while taking my time with the beautiful things

I wondered if you were a Lord of the Rings fan! I recognized your username. 😉

 

3 hours ago, Jeff Potts said:

I was watching Daniel Green, who is a young Fantasy and Science Fiction reviewer on YouTube.  He did a two-part series on the "problems with Young Adult" fiction.  One of the things he dinged YA books on was the absence of prose.  His biggest criticism was the fact that the books had been stripped-down, and dumbed-down to the point where they are just made for fast, easy consumption.

I watched the same video. I can't say I'm surprised as to what is the hallmark of that genre, but I don't think I really understand why.

 

I think there's a general idea that too much description bogs down a story and character exploration (hence this trend in YA). I don't think it has to. It's just a matter of putting it in your prose at the right moments and being strategic about it. 

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I wrap as much of the scenery in action and characterization as I can. If there is a pitcher of ice water on the nightstand, it’s because the girl is in bed with a fever. If there is a loom with a half complete tapestry in the corner, the important thing is that it might never be finished, because the illness is usually fatal. Weave the details into the action and meaning of the scene. If some details are neither symbolic, nor foreshadowing, nor emblematic of the problem the protagonist faces, nor emotional tone and atmosphere, then slip them in alongside those important details. The telling details are the force that allows you to paint the rest of the picture. Every prose description must devote most of its phrases to moving the story forward.

Edited by paulchernoch
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23 hours ago, paulchernoch said:

I wrap as much of the scenery in action and characterization as I can. If there is a pitcher of ice water on the nightstand, it’s because the girl is in bed with a fever. If there is a loom with a half complete tapestry in the corner, the important thing is that it might never be finished, because the illness is usually fatal. Weave the details into the action and meaning of the scene. If some details are neither symbolic, nor foreshadowing, nor emblematic of the problem the protagonist faces, nor emotional tone and atmosphere, then slip them in alongside those important details. The telling details are the force that allows you to paint the rest of the picture. Every prose description must devote most of its phrases to moving the story forward.

Everyone is pointing out important things about setting, and you've nailed it well, Paul. I know it can drive us crazy to read details (even names) that don't enhance the story. If you mention something, I'm going to always assume you took the trouble of writing it for a reason...

Which, by the way, comes in to play as I read the Bible. God himself includes odd details that he's required copyists to bother with for millennia. Why? Usually I find out something fascinating when I start digging into a passage with that perspective.

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Interesting thread.

 

Descriptive writing is probably the aspect I find challenging.  Finding the right words and keeping the balance between giving the reader enough description to stimulate their imagination so they can 'see' the location/environment and ensuring I don't over do it so there is no space for them to put their own stamp on it.

In practice  I tend to under write descriptions of places but I am getting better with mentioning senses, smells and weather. Work in progress  I think.

 

Edited by Shamrock
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When I write I often am trying to record a written version of the movie I see in my mind, so I often find that I need to be very descriptive in order to try and get people to be able to see what I see in my head, it's a good thing I can type very fast is all I can say. This is of course seems ironic considering my visual disability and me trying to paint a picture of what I am seeing in my head through words.

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13 hours ago, Amosathar said:

When I write I often am trying to record a written version of the movie I see in my mind, so I often find that I need to be very descriptive in order to try and get people to be able to see what I see in my head, it's a good thing I can type very fast is all I can say. This is of course seems ironic considering my visual disability and me trying to paint a picture of what I am seeing in my head through words.

I can certainly empathize with your desire to invite others into your experience, @Amosathar, and if you are introducing me to a place I've never been, I'll want to be well oriented to what you are picturing. But as I point out in the article, this is a kind of detailed writing as a rule went out of fashion ages ago. Perhaps your writing could benefit from Coco Chanel's advice to over-accessorizing woman: Describe as you like, but before you send it out into the world take something back out.

Uncomfortable as it may be to let your words take on a life apart from you, the magic of the written form happens when we leave some ingredients for the reader to add. 

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16 hours ago, Amosathar said:

When I write I often am trying to record a written version of the movie I see in my mind, so I often find that I need to be very descriptive in order to try and get people to be able to see what I see in my head, it's a good thing I can type very fast is all I can say. This is of course seems ironic considering my visual disability and me trying to paint a picture of what I am seeing in my head through words.

 

I wouldn't call that a disability.

 

And rewording stuff is part of the various polish passes.  The movie turns off, and the analytical part turns on.

 

Pump out the text, and rework it later.

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