Cried But Did The Thing Anyway is a frequently-autobiographical series of blog posts that I publish every week or so, where art reflects life reflects coffee reflects insomnia reflects obsession reflects existential dread reflects art. I also tend to mention Gerard Way a lot, because he is my muse (in fact, here’s an essay about one of the songs from his latest album, Hesitant Alien).
This week I want to talk about writing descriptions. Specifically, descriptions of places.
I know, I know. I said I was going to write about character-driven writing. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that no one says it better than the inimitable Chuck Wendig:
“Plot does not poop out characters. Characters poop out plot.” (Read more of his post on Organic Story Architecture here. Seriously. It’s very good. Go read it, and then come back to this post.)
So, descriptions. The bit you tend to skip when you’re reading, because oh my GODS, who has the time to read two pages of lyrical waxage about the beauty of the Grand Canyon, when you’re more interested in knowing whether the dude abseiling it got to the bottom in one piece?
…Actually, I think I just summarized most of my personal problems with setting descriptions in fiction in that one paragraph. Well done, me. Now, let’s take it in parts.
Disclaimer: everything that follows is my personal opinion, and is to be taken with a shaker of salt. I strongly believe that there are no such things as writing DOs and DON’Ts (that big scary professional writers like to arrange in lists), and that you really can get away with anything if you do it with enough confidence, as recommended by Neil Gaiman (a big professional writer who writes horror but isn’t scary).
Description Issue N1: Attention Span.
Most of the books we consider the classics were written for an audience that bears very little resemblance to a 21st century human living in a reasonably developed part of the world. So there is nothing surprising about the fact that a person living in the era where world-changing information can be communicated in 140 characters is likely to skip descriptive walls of text 20-30 times that size. You can roll your eyes at that fact and bemoan the lack of attention span of the contemporary human – or you can accept the fact that engaging a modern-day reader is a high-stake game, so you’d do well to up yours. (As in, your game. Your writing game. UP IT.)
Description Issue N2: Imagination.
This is another time- and information-relevant factor. A reader in the 19th century Europe might have no idea what a jungle looks like, and could have seen it in a drawing, at best. A reader in the 21st century has seen hundreds of photographs, and hours upon hours of movie and/or video game footage depicting jungles, rain forests, monsoon forests, tropical forests – you name it. Lengthy descriptions are no longer required to, well, describe the setting, because a few chosen key words will summon the right imagery just as well.
Description Issue N3: Priorities.
Unless you’re writing a travel guide, chances are that your reader cares more about WHAT happens in the story rather than WHERE it happens. They’ll be more interested in what your protagonist does than in the color of their boots. No backdrop, no costume, no prop will be as important as the story and the people in it.
Does this mean that we as writers don’t need to describe anything at all? Does this mean we can get away with saying ‘she found herself in a desert’ or ‘Frodo and Sam got lost in a swamp’?
Of course not. (Especially that second one. You’ll get sued for plagiarism.) And then there’s the issue of unearthly and magical landscapes to consider, too – because how can our readers imagine something they haven’t seen? But don’t rub your hands in glee, fantasy/sci-fi lot. The reader will be as likely to skim your detailed account of the chilling beauty of the time vortex as to glance over three paragraphs’ worth of New York’s urban landscape.
So, how do you make the buggers soak in the atmosphere?
Once again, the clues are in the question itself. It’s all about the atmosphere, and the soaking in. Let me elaborate.
Repeat disclaimer: the ideas below are ones that work for me, so if you personally enjoy reading and writing page after page of Lovecraftian descriptions – don’t let me stop you. Just be warned that in this day and age, the only one who can still get away with Lovecraftian descriptions is Neil Gaiman – see his short story I, Cthulhu, Or What’s A Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing In A Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47° 9’ S, Longitude 126° 43’ W)?
Description Idea N1: Atmosphere – You’ve Got Five Senses. Use ‘Em.
When making business presentations, people are encouraged to engage as many senses as possible – which is why a slide show containing nothing but text is not a visual aid, but a visual anesthetic, guaranteed to lull the audience into a meeting-induced coma. Surely you want to treat your readers better than this?
Don’t just tell them what things looked and sounded like. If the reader is following your characters into a swamp, make them smell the marsh gas and the sickly sweetness of rot, let them feel the squelch of mud under their shoes, make them want to spit when a midge gets caught in someone’s mouth. If your story is about a brave astronaut on the volcanic surface of the Io, bring the readers along and let them feel the deathly heat even through the space suit (and make them worry if the suit, despite the tech’s assurances, is strong enough). Turn the lack of smell and taste into a thing, too – let your astronaut point out that they expect to smell smoke and brimstone every time they take a breath of the clean air from the oxygen tanks in their suit.
Put yourself in the scene and describe what you’re experiencing. That way, your readers will experience it, too.
Description Idea N2: …But Not All Five At Once.
Unless your situation calls for an ‘all senses screaming at once, pure-white oblivion at the heart of a star’ type of description (and, for the love of everything, do not use passages like that to describe orgasms), there is only so much information we can take in at once. Sure, we’ve got five senses – but some always take the front stage, and we are likely to comment on them first.
Here’s a simple exercise. Through a twist of plot and your dastardly writer mind, your narrator, still dressed in summer clothes, finds themselves in a frozen waste. What is the first thing they are likely to comment on:
A) The majesty of the aurora borealis;
B) The endless whiteness of the wind-swept plains;
C) The sharp smell of snow;
D) The fact that IT’S FREAKING COLD;
E) The nearby yeti that’s about to make a healthy lunch of Protagonist Sashimi.
If you answered A, B, or C, you may need to think again. If your answer is D, I can see your point, but remember that the body is clever enough to prioritize danger of immediate death (i.e. by yeti) above danger of slow(er) death (i.e. by hypothermia).
Once your protagonist has escaped the monster (or, as the case may be, has been put on ice to save for later), they may comment on the cold and, hey, maybe even throw in a few descriptions of the place they’re in. If you follow your characters around and watch them experience the world, you can describe any setting in great detail without a single wall of text.
This leads nicely into my next point:
Description Idea N3: Ask Your Protagonist.
In the very likely case that you’re telling your story from a third-person limited or first-person POV, your narrating voice needs to stay in character. What does your protagonist like? What do they pay attention to first? Are they more likely to marvel at nature, technology, books, music, fancy cars, architecture, other people? Are they enjoying the setting they are in? An extrovert will find a room full of people a great playground, while an introvert might describe the same room as a gauntlet or even anxiety-attack-fuel. Someone will treat a snow day as an opportunity to build a fort, while for another it’s a case of ‘10 more inches of the damn white @@!!”** fell today‘.
Needless to say, these little tips and tricks barely scratch the surface of describing settings in fiction. But if I could boil everything I said above down to one piece of advice, it would be this:
Remember that as a writer, you’re letting your readers view the world through your characters’ eyes. Don’t describe things as YOU would describe them – describe them as your narrator would.
(Unless, you know, you’re writing omniscient or journalistic. Then describe them as YOU would. Without boring the pants off everyone.)
Tune in next week, for Writing Descriptions – Part 2: People!