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Tips for Writing Descriptions #2

Lately I've taken to tracking my progress on an Excel spreadsheet. I list all of the chapters on separate rows and have columns for a brief chapter synopsis, the current status ("Not Started," "In Progress," or "Complete), and Notes. I use Notes to remind myself what still needs to be done to the In Progress chapters.

Almost every cell in the Note column begins, "Add description of..."

I hate writing descriptions. I hate writing them because I hate reading them, and I can't bring myself to write anything I don't want to read. When I reach a strictly descriptive passage in a novel, no matter how beautifully written, my eyes glaze over and I skim past it. I do the same when I'm writing. When I bump into a spot where I must describe the setting, my fingers stop typing. I leave a note for myself and skip to the interesting parts. Later I have to come back and invent a way to describe the setting without boring myself to tears.

In March 2014 I wrote a blog post titled "Tips for Writing Descriptions." Under the Static vs. Interactive header, I said this.

Long descriptive passages that paint static backdrops can stop the narrative flow dead. They're like those annoying parts in Disney attractions, e.g., the Haunted Mansion, where the ride stops moving and you're supposed to sit still and look at the scene. Readers get to them, see a block of adjectives and "things," and are tempted to skip ahead to when the ride starts moving again.

I've since picked up some tricks for avoiding these "sit still and look" type of passages. From the works of other authors, I've gleaned some devious ways of describing settings without being boring.

Describe People, Not Things

Here's a tedious way of describing a college campus, courtesy of yours truly.

Red and white tulips grew around the base of the gate. A wide brick path passed through it to the campus beyond. To the right, the path diverged into a shaded wood. To the left stood impressive 19th-century lecture halls made of Indiana limestone, with clocks embedded in tall spires and Latin mottos carved over the arching doorways. A gentle breeze rifled through the grass of the impeccable lawns. A bronze statue of a beloved former president sat on a bench in a round clearing, his balding head glinting in the summer sun.

Egads, that was painful to write. If you read the first sentence and skipped down to here, that's precisely my point.

Now here's a more interesting way of describing a college campus, from the first chapter of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935).

Students sauntering in pairs. Students dashing to lectures, their gowns hitched hurriedly over light summer frocks, the wind jerking their flat caps into the absurd likeness of so many jesters' cockscombs. Bicycles stacked in the porter's lodge, their carriers piled with books and gowns twisted about their handlebars. A grizzled woman don crossing the turf with vague eyes, her thoughts riveted upon aspects of sixteenth-century philosophy...The college cat, preoccupied and remote, stalking with tail erect in the direction of the buttery.

By focusing on characters, not inanimate objects, the setting comes alive. But readers still glean information about this place and will flesh it out in their imaginations. We're at an old-fashioned British university, it's summer, there's a big stone gate at the entrance ("porter's lodge") and a lovely green lawn ("turf") and a bustling student cafeteria ("buttery").

Think about what people notice and remember about places. They notice people. They notice unique features. They notice things that elicit emotions or thoughts that are out of the ordinary.

What would a real-life person say if you asked her to describe a recent visit to Disneyland? She'd say the kids wanted to ride Space Mountain three times, and the guy dressed up as Goofy on Main Street was so funny, and there were these amazing acrobats in the parade at the end of the day.

But what do writers do when they sit down to describe Disneyland? An old-fashioned train takes visitors around the perimeter of the park. Main Street is lined by quaint gift shops selling colorful lollipops and Minnie Mouse ears and *snore*....

For some reason, when we set out to describe settings in print, we start focusing on boring things nobody notices or cares about. Who notices breezes rifling through the grass? Only a writer staring at minutiae, trying to come up with something observant to say.

Describe Actions and Reactions, Not Settings

The thing that impressed me most when I read the first The Hunger Games book wasn't the characters or the plot—both of which were pretty much as expected—but the setting descriptions. Specifically, the fact that they didn't seem to exist.

Suzanne Collins never stops the flow of the story to describe things. Every paragraph reveals backstory, develops character, or furthers the plot. Still, she manages to convey a visually rich world through descriptions integrated into the narrative.

In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.

This paragraph is typical of Collins' technique. She sneaks brief descriptions into the middle of paragraphs that are primarily about action and/or character. A setting might be nestled in a memory, or an interaction between characters, or a nugget of history about the dystopian world. It's never merely a setting for its own sake.

Here's another version of a college campus description, this one from Debbie Macomber's Three Brides, No Groom. She laces the setting into the emotionally charged memories of the heroine.

Gretchen Wise walked slowly toward the old cement fountain and smiled as the memories swirled around her the way water rushed around a rock in a swift stream.

She could almost hear the echo of laughter from those long-ago years. How happy she'd been back then: young, carefree, excited and so very much in love—with the wrong man. Fifteen years earlier she'd barely been able to appreciate her own graduation, not with her head full of wedding plans and Roger.

Sitting on the old concrete rim now, Gretchen swung her gaze to the nearby law school. The two-story redbrick building with the wide flight of stairs leading up to the double doors remained much the same....She had spent many an idle afternoon sitting in this very spot, anticipating Roger's arrival, never guessing where he'd actually been.

Make the Setting Active

For the most part, settings belong in the background. Central focus belongs on the characters. Writing a story about a protagonist but waxing at length on his surroundings is like filming a video of a person but focusing on the tree behind him.

If you must move your attention away from the subject and focus on the tree, it had better be a darned interesting tree that's doing something.

In The Hunger Games, the setting of the arena behaves like an adversarial character. If the setting is trying to kill people, that's a pretty good reason to focus on it.

The world has transformed to flame and smoke. Burning branches crack from trees and fall in showers of sparks at my feet....I run, choking, my bag banging against my back, my face cut with branches that materialize from the gray haze without warning, because I know I am supposed to run.

Similarly, in Stephen King's short story "1408," a haunted hotel room drives the main character insane and tries to eat him. Oddly, I found the story boring when the protagonist was talking to other human characters, but it picked up quickly when he shut himself up alone in the room.

***

Depending on genre, readers will have different levels of tolerance for static description. Suzanne Collins' teenage thrill-seeking readers have no patience for it at all, so she needs to sneak her descriptions into the action. Debbi Macomer's clean-romance-seeking readers don't mind a few paragraphs dedicated to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

But no matter the genre, it's always a good idea to stop and evaluate whether a page-long description of a setting is really necessary. Can it be worked into a more interesting scene? Can the POV character interact with her surroundings, instead of merely staring at it? How does the setting affect the character emotionally? What unique aspects would she notice about it, given her background and her state of mind?

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