Daily Writing Challenge: How To Describe Your Setting

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A recurring theme on UhW is how much—or rather how little—you need to say in your short-story or novel, to both get the idea across and not to drive your reader away, shrieking.

You have probably read stories or books which go on and on in unnecessary detail when they should just “cut to the chase” and let the action deliver the goods.

An example I have made in these pages before is this: Your main character has an important and (choose one) scary, exciting, mysterious… meeting to attend.  Yet, rather than start at the meeting, we take the long route to get there.

We describe him getting up, stretching, showering, shaving, having breakfast, finding his keys, getting into his car, starting it up, driving out of the driveway, going down the street, getting on the freeway, dealing with traffic, getting close to his work, searching out a place to park…  well, you get the idea, I hope.  Unless the aforementioned is peppered—and heavily—with his running internal dialogue, his angst, his eagerness, etc., you have damaged your character and your story.  You have killed your pace.  Instead, you could just say, “…traffic was heavy, but he got to work on time…”  or something equally brief.

But that isn’t precisely why I called you here today. 

Sidewalk Cafe - Paris

I want to talk about the setting side of the same thing.   How much setting do we describe?  How little?  Do we go on and on about tendrils of ivy that creep up the cracked brick and stucco wall that surround the villa?  Do we spend a page and a half talking about humidity?  Or d we simply say, “it was hot in Mexico.  His shirt clung damply…”?

Of course the answer is, “it depends”.  It depends upon the “where” you are writing about, and, consider this… whether or not the setting, the locale, is actually a character in your story.  I want you to think about that one for a moment. 

For example, if your setting is the castle of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (AKA Dracula), the setting might have a very strong presence.  Likewise, if you are writing about a well-known place in San Francisco, or the streets of Paris, you will want to be accurate, and perhaps drift slightly poetic.  You will want to make your setting set mood as well as place.

On the other hand, if your setting is nondescript, a place that could be anywhere, the time and effort you put into making it real to your reader might be very different. 

If your characters are bound and gagged in a tack room on a ranch, you could describe the smell of hay, of old, oiled leather.  You could describe rusty metal and old wood.  But… would you want to go on and on about the room?

Maybe, but only if you are setting up the reader.  If describing a certain tool on the wall foreshadows how your hero escapes captivity, well and good, but otherwise, think, and think again.

Today’s challenge is to write two brief (please) descriptive scenes.  One for a well-known place where your intention is to tickle the memory of your reader, and one where you keep your description to a minimum while conveying the important points.

This isn’t as easy as it might sound, but it is an essential to your writing.

Note: The goal to these challenges is to take the craft of writing out of the picture when you write.  What?  Yes.  Hone your craft so it becomes a tool, not an obstacle to your work, and what you then concentrate on is the story, not the tools.

Your thoughts?

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13 responses to “Daily Writing Challenge: How To Describe Your Setting

  1. I will ‘try’ to be brief. I am aware of my ‘digressions’. Thank you, Richard. The following are back to back descriptions I dug up from my work, which I am wondering fulfill the two criteria you are asking for. This will give me a chance to think about it.

    It was dinner time. The squared regularity of the room was interrupted, for the walls adjacent to the tangle of hallways, cut across at an angle, to form the shape of a triangle. A large table was set across the room, running parallel to a row of shower stalls set up behind a four-foot wall, along the hypotenuse. Rows of six cells were built into the other two walls. Each cell contained two bunk beds, a toilet and basin, and a desk. These walls were perpendicular to one another, and formed a square, so that the irregularity of the interior layout would not be visible from outside the building. Sitting at the benches, a row of young girls were screaming profanities, and insults at one another, angrily contesting their allotment of meat and potatoes. Blue denim fell loosely around narrow hips, so that the upper buttocks were exposed, in bars of famished flesh, bare as the bones which were articulated beneath their surface.
    And the second – perhaps -the same place revealing the state of mind, or the intention?
    Penny couldn’t believe her eyes. The long table. The rows of cells along the wall. It was another one of her dreams come to reality. How could you describe the topography, the territory, the terrain? It was perhaps Non-Eucleadian geometry, this mapping of the mind. Has Lobachevski or Minkowski found the royal road? The table stretches to the far end of the room, and the lines are parallel, but beyond the horizon they curve out to meet the circumference of a circle. The Way of Taoism is through a hyperbolic space; and no matter what direction you take the geometry will remain the same. The Golden Mean of Aristotle is not in the proportion of the square, but in the symmetry of the sphere, and all of space and time is rotating around the particularity of a point, the particularity of a point of view, a point of order, a petty, petit, point of…..

    Hope this has not been too long. Thank you.

  2. Description that is done well can create a powerful sense of place and create confidence in the knowledge of the writer. I still remember a piece I read in Time Magazine during the war in Vietnam. It was about the Hanoi Hilton, the prison for U.S. airmen. The article described in detail the brick fence about the prison, the color of the bricks, the gate. It wasn’t until I finished reading the story that I realized the writer knew a lot about the fence about the prison but little about what went on inside it. Details can be telling.

    • I appreciate these comments, as I can relate them to my work, which is in fact extremely well researched, both physically and psychologically. If I could aspire to be any writer of worth, I would want to be known as the ‘female Dostoevsky”. Failing this, I would hope that someday my work will at least have some impact which will ‘make a difference’. I take any feedback, remote or direct, negative or positive, only as an encouragement to continue exploring what might be considered controversial subjects. Thank you for your comment.

    • Absolutely right, Art. Sometimes the best description is in what is left out.

  3. Not even sure whether they are descriptive enough, of the scene, then the mind? Oh well….

  4. Here’s what I did:
    I wanted a rich man, self-made, so I had him:
    lift the heavy crystal glass of Scotch from the mahogany side table; fasten his wife’s pearl necklace for her; ring for the butler to call his driver from the basement kitchens.

    • Thank you Cindy. You made clearer what is to be done here; first you described your intention, and then the result of that by action, (not description). Very succinct. Keep giving us good examples like this. Please.

  5. Just wondering: Could there be an opportunity at some time in the future for postings under the rubric of ‘Critics’ Corner’. or something? Like -way- in the future, perhaps. After all for me at least, it is Uphill, all the way…..

    • Interesting idea, Loreen. Please say more about how this would look.

      • Well, I just got the idea in my head at the present moment because of the feedback of Art Carney. I got to thinking how great the challenges are, (I note you changed the name, a boost to the self!, from Writing to Writers). But you oversee this so well, with your points, and things to live up to, that I thought you might be able to teach us all about how to critique a work as well. Sure we would make mistakes and go to far. We might even get upset like I did when I asked someone to critique my work. Thus, I’m not saying that it would be ‘easy’. It might even be too ‘radical’ to take on. But I know that you emphasize the technical, and thus the ‘objective’ (if anyone can be objective that’s the way to do it) in your critique of writing), and it might be helpful to writers, even if it is on how to critique your own work, to understand some of the principles involved. This, is one of the things, I am learning, by the way, from these posts. It is one thing to have (like the philosophers) a theory and way to do things in theory, but I am finding that to actually apply that ‘do as’ to my work, for instance, is not always a straightforward thing to do. It was a challenge today for instance to really see, in something I wrote, how your idea would apply.
        Hope I’m being helpful here…. Thank you Richard.

  6. Pingback: Top 10 Posts – Ninth Edition « Uphill Writing

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