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Thread: descriptions and setting

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW
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    descriptions and setting

    How important are descriptions and settings? I am a bit of a minimalist when it comes to writing short stories. If my story takes place in a bar, I rather not go into too many details about the bar. I see it as a bit of a distraction from the story. I also don't go into too many details about what my characters look like. Again, if it doesn't really matter to the story, I don't put it in. I read a lot of literary journals and don't see the writers in them putting too much weight into description and setting very often. I'm not talking about none, just not too much.

    However, I took a writing class where I was told over and over again to describe my characters and settings in more detail. So, how do you know how much is enough and how much is too much? I thought I knew where the line was, but my classmates disagree.

  2. #2
    resident curmudgeon
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    I don't think there is a good answer to this, other than to say read your favorite writers, and do as they do.

  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW Rufus Leeking's Avatar
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    I don't describe much that isn't necessary. A very influential writer for me is Charles Bukowski. He describes very little, less than i do for sure.

    In a class I was reading others stories that described every room for pages, and then none of it mattered at all (they were not good otherwise too).

    But the students and the teacher told me I had to describe more. At one point I said that I was influenced by Bukowski and he described very little. The instructor told me I was wrong, and that he described setting and people in vivid detail. So I started adding description to my stories.

    Not long after the class I reread the novel Post Office. In an early scene he tells us that his supervisor wore a bright red shirt. I swear that was the only thing described in the entire novel. Of course who knows if he could get published today. I am not successful to where my opinion should matter, but I sort of agree with Mr. Ritchie (not his post above, but others that he has done) that if the people who are giving you the advice knew what they were talking about they wouldn't be associated with the class in the first place.
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  4. #4
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    I will go a bit further and say that setting is extremely important. Setting often makes a story. Description is also important, but how much or how little to use is always the question.

    I have a "rule" that I've found many published writers tend to follow. I describe whatever the POV character would notice, and ignore whatever the POV character would not notice.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I have a "rule" that I've found many published writers tend to follow. I describe whatever the POV character would notice, and ignore whatever the POV character would not notice.
    I whole-heartedly agree. And the points that someone is most likely to notice are a) the most unique aspects, and b) the most important aspects to them personally.

    So, running with the bar example, you're right to ignore all the aspects that make the bar a typical bar. But you'll want to point out what's not typical about it, what makes it its own place, and what makes it important to the characters in it--after all, you chose it as your setting for a reason. That must mean there's something special about the location. (And if there's not, then perhaps you've picked the wrong setting.)

    It's good to remember that the entire thing is the story--not just the plot. A good story is well rounded, and comes to life through details. How many details, and how a balance of all story materials can be struck, is up to each writer and their particular tastes.
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  6. #6
    Soldier, Storyteller Linda Adams's Avatar
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    Don't forget to have the character interact with the setting. I do see stories in critique where the person gives a very brief and generic description, and then forgets the setting is there.

    And be specific. Don't say, "A dog lunged at the fence, barking"; say "A Golden Retriever lunged at the fence, barking." It adds description without adding a lot.
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  7. #7
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I have a "rule" that I've found many published writers tend to follow. I describe whatever the POV character would notice, and ignore whatever the POV character would not notice.
    Brilliantly put. Every fiction writer needs to understand this, in a subliminal way emanating from the bone marrow. It's exactly what induces a reader to identify with the POV character. Anything described that sits outside this framework is window-dressing, and needs to be jettisoned.

    Nowhere have I seen this principle violated more often than in action scenes. Therefore, I here violate one of my main principles, and post a short example of an action scene from my own writing. It involves a soldier in Vietnam who has been induced to disarm a halllucinating compatriot randomly firing a rifle in the middle of the night from a barracks bunker. He persuades the man to put down the weapon and leads him out into the darkness, and is taken down by military police, along with the offender:

    With maximum care, Saint emerged from the low door and stood up. “All clear, Smitty,” he said quietly, “no dogs.” He took a step forward, and Smitty stepped out of the bunker.
    Light became dark, up became down, and things moved fast and randomly, accompanied by a symphony of thumps and clanking metal and meaningless loud guttural voices. Next thing Saint knew, he was on the ground, fighting for breath, held down by many hands and at least one booted foot in the middle of his back.
    Don’t you move a eyelash,” a firm voice ordered. Saint felt a cold piece of metal jammed against his temple, his eyes so wide no eyelash could have moved if it had wanted to.

    You don't need to choreograph in detail everybody's movements. The POV character won't see these, and neither does the reader need to.

    caw
    Last edited by blacbird; 12-20-2012 at 07:11 AM.
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  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW Rufus Leeking's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    Brilliantly put. Every fiction writer needs to understand this, in a subliminal way emanating from the bone marrow. It's exactly what induces a reader to identify with the POV character. Anything described that sits outside this framework is window-dressing, and needs to be jettisoned.

    Nowhere have I seen this principle violated more often than in action scenes. Therefore, I here violate one of my main principles, and post a short example of an action scene from my own writing. It involves a soldier in Vietnam who has been induced to disarm a halllucinating compatriot randomly firing a rifle in the middle of the night from a barracks bunker. He persuades the man to put down the weapon and leads him out into the darkness, and is taken down by military police, along with the offender:

    With maximum care, Saint emerged from the low door and stood up. “All clear, Smitty,” he said quietly, “no dogs.” He took a step forward, and Smitty stepped out of the bunker.
    Light became dark, up became down, and things moved fast and randomly, accompanied by a symphony of thumps and clanking metal and meaningless loud guttural voices. Next thing Saint knew, he was on the ground, fighting for breath, held down by many hands and at least one booted foot in the middle of his back.
    Don’t you move a eyelash,” a firm voice ordered. Saint felt a cold piece of metal jammed against his temple, his eyes so wide no eyelash could have moved if it had wanted to.

    You don't need to choreograph in detail everybody's movements. The POV character won't see these, and neither does the reader need to.

    caw
    what if it's omniscient?

    What I think the OP meant was description of the locale, and maybe the people. Like in a class, the above (am I'm not critiquing because I feel everything I'm about to mention is meaningless) might gather comments like, "When he stood he must have seen the room he was in. And the people that grabbed him, he must have seen something of them. I can't see the scene in my mind without description."
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  9. #9
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rufus Leeking View Post
    what if it's omniscient?
    You just pinned the tail on the donkey of why I generally don't like omniscient POV. Too distancing for my tastes, and it's by far the easiest POV choice to screw up by lack of craft discipline.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post

    With maximum care, Saint emerged from the low door and stood up. “All clear, Smitty,” he said quietly, “no dogs.” He took a step forward, and Smitty stepped out of the bunker.
    Light became dark, up became down, and things moved fast and randomly, accompanied by a symphony of thumps and clanking metal and meaningless loud guttural voices. Next thing Saint knew, he was on the ground, fighting for breath, held down by many hands and at least one booted foot in the middle of his back.
    Don’t you move a eyelash,” a firm voice ordered. Saint felt a cold piece of metal jammed against his temple, his eyes so wide no eyelash could have moved if it had wanted to.



    caw
    I really like that. Tell me again why you aren't selling?

  11. #11
    crazy mean SuperModerator Old Hack's Avatar
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    Jerzy Kozinsky (have I spelled his name right?) once told me that he didn't bother describing what brownstones looked like, as everyone in New York knew what they looked like and everyone interested in reading about New York would be prepared to find out what they looked like, or could pretty much work it out for themselves. Instead, he'd describe the specific details about those brownstones which were important to his story, and which separated his brownstones from all the other ones in New York.

    He had a point. And he was very kind to me. I miss him.

  12. #12
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I really like that. Tell me again why you aren't selling?
    I really appreciate that comment, especially from you, and that's not sarcasm.

    As for the question, the correct answer is partly Damned if I know, and partly I'm terrible at understanding markets and querying.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

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