Do you pay attention to descriptions in books? I don’t. Well, not always. Then again, frequently I do. It depends on who I am at the moment, and what we’re talking about. So what are we talking about?
Right about now I should be doing the dreaded, “Before We Begin, Let’s Define Our Terms. What is Description? What is Setting? What color is my hat?”
However, I refuse to do these things on the grounds that it’s boring. I would have to do stuff like look in the mirror to see what hat I’m wearing. (Author or Reader?) I would have to look up words. Scan through paper or online dictionaries. Root around inside how-to-write books like,
“The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy” by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond,
“How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Orso Scott Card.
Or, Google for meta-descriptions of description-writing at websites like:
Jeff Gerke’s “Where The Map Ends” (http://www.wherethemapends.com/writerstools/writers_tools_pages/tip_of_the_week.htm):
• Description, Part 1—Introduction
• Description, Part 2—The Establishing Shot
• Description, Part 3—The Full Sensory Sweep
• Description, Part 4—Comparisons
By gum, I’m not gonna do that!
Having disposed of the official definitions created by people who know of which they write, when -I- think about the building blocks of settings, I think in terms of descriptions of:
1. miscellaneous characters (Sometimes—but not always—this kind of description is really an aspect of characterization. When it is largely characterization, it doesn’t belong here so we can drop it. (Clang!)
2. a room or any kind of interior space (One type of setting)
3. an exterior space, usually part of nature. (Another type of setting)
4. “space, the final frontier” –but only if you’re a Trekkie. (Clang!)
5. objects decorating either indoor or outdoor space. Play and film set designers cleverly call this “set decoration”.
When I have my Reader Hat on, I pay far more attention to the details of internal settings like living rooms, deep wells, classrooms and belfries, than I do exterior settings. I’m particularly entranced by objects that fall under the category of set decoration.
Descriptions of the outside world usually have my eyes glazing over when I’m reading them. That practice gets me into a heap of trouble later on when it becomes important to remember that the mountain chain blocking the protagonists from their goal runs north-to-south, not west-to-east, and the characters are currently on the –west- side of the mountains. (Oh! That’s why they have to creep through the Mines of Moria! Gotcha!)
When reading another author’s physical descriptions of characters as part of setting, my Reader Hat must slip down over my eyes. For example, several chapters after beginning one of Andre Norton’s juveniles years ago, I realized that a woman I thought was middle-aged was actually in her teens. Andre may possibly have messed up but more likely, I had let my attention slip for a second and decided out of nowhere that the character had grey hair.
When I have my Author Hat on, I spend great gobs of time describing most everything. Within the limits of a given scene, if my Author hat is screwed on –really- tight, I’ll even make an effort at hitting as many of the Five Senses as possible. For instance, I –love- creating new species of trees and wild animals—the colors and textures, and even the scents and sounds. (Yes, trees make sounds and animals have scents.)
Once, I spent an inordinate amount of time on a rug. I mean, describing a rug! This random bit of piling detail on detail probably had readers thinking the rug was going to be significant in the future. Well, sorry. Not so much. (I understand when readers get put out about this kind of writing.)
Over all, I’m more likely to provide detailed descriptions of furniture, people, animals and trees than I am to mention any wall-floor-ceiling or the broad geographic layout of the land. This may come from being myopic.
Recently, I’ve been serving as a beta reader for a UK author named Malcolm Cowen. After a short interlude near the young protagonist’s home, Malcolm describes a scene in which “Mary” stands on a road with a steep drop to her left and an even steeper natural stone wall to her right. He eventually takes us up that fiercesomely slanted height. Mary finds herself in the middle of a mountainous landscape that seems to scroll on forever as our character travels through it, climbing slopes, riding down into valleys to find hidden pools beyond the bushes, turning sharply past rocky walls to find totally unexpected vistas—waterfalls, forests, villages—before her.
I was and am deeply enthralled by Malcolm’s descriptions. Why? Because waiting expectantly for the next bit of scenery to come into view around a curve or over a rise in Malcolm’s manuscript reminded me of weekend rides in the car when I was a kid—long before the Interstate. You never knew what would be around the next curve in the road, thanks frequently to the foliage blocking the view. It was always such an adventure, even when we had travelled that way many times before. The adventure of discovering settings through a door, up a staircase, and around the far side of a great tree are something we owe our readers.
I think it’s time for me to start wearing Author’s Glasses, so I’ll remember to describe the –distant- countryside.
What setting descriptions do you most enjoy reading—or do you skip right past them?
On what kind of descriptions do you focus as an author? What do you tend to ignore, in order to get on with the story or for other reasons?
Thanks for reading!
Sherry Thompson, author of the YA fantasy “Narentan Tumults” novels from Gryphonwood:
Seabird (Paperback) http://amzn.to/90QXDA
Earthbow Vol.1 (Paperback) http://amzn.to/cvK2hD
Earthbow Vol.2 (Paperback -- due out at any time)
Earthbow V.1&2 combined in electronic format http://amzn.to/aimTRk