Thursday, November 09, 2006


This came up a bit at one of the crit groups I'm part of--how do you handle scenery, and where's the line between a well realized scene and over-description? A couple other things play into my thinking on this. First, I'm reading a book for a review site I do occasional reviews for. It's a good book overall. The characters are mostly well-drawn, their interactions believeable, but it might as well take place on a blank stage, perhaps with a couple token trees or a token desk littered with papers. There have been a few scenes that were better visualized, but most of the book has been this way. And on the other end of the spectrum, in the forums at Trabuco Road Magazine, the editor keeps talking about wanting a strong sense of place in the stories, and that many of the stories he's receiving don't have that.

So, I'm not saying that everything must be minutely described, but I'd be much more in the Trabuco Road camp than the camp of this book I'm reading. I commonly get comments from those who critique my work about the setting seeming to be a character itself, about the well-imagined scenes. Rarely have I ever had someone tell me the description was too much (and the only person I can think who made such a comment...well, I know we have very different tastes in what we read). I guess for me the key is to make note of a few defining objects that the character notes. I'm almost always deeply into a 3rd person POV, so the character isn't going to measure the distance from a tree trunk to a fallen leaf (as one writer complained about overly descriptive writers), but s/he might notice the shadows where a limb twists off the main trunk and the dark stain on the ground where the grass looks poisoned. Another character might see the same place but notice the way the leaves shiver in the sunlight, reflecting light all around and the rich red of the soil at her feet. While another notices the moss and lichen and shelves of fungus eating into the tree trunk, the vines twisting up to the highest branches as if to pull them down.

This way, you get a few defining objects to both create the scene in readers' minds and also say something about the characters themselves (even if it only operates on a subconscious level for the readers). I'm not saying those are perfect examples, by the way, just what jumped to mind.

Of course, this is all coming from the person who decided to challenge himself and write a novel narrated by a blind man (in a society founded by the deaf). Given what I've said about liking well realized settings, you can see how difficult that must have been for me. But it taught me well not to ignore the other senses as ways of creating a scene (and saying something about a character).

Anyway, go out and write some fiercely imagined stories--lushly described but without the description slowing the story down. That's the challenge.


Jpatrick said...

The topic of exposition seems to be a rather divisive issue. From the print editors, you will often be encouraged to write actively and eliminate adverbs. This is what I call the "show don't tell" dogma. It does result in shorter work. I'll say that.

Some like to look down their nose and call it the approach "minimalist", but in good hands, the style can invoke a reader's imagination.

I do feel it's good to avoid long passages of exposition and description. If you must exposit, chop it up and drop it in and don't do a "scene dump".

Daniel Ausema said...

Certainly it's a balance--scene dumps, like infodumps seldom work. Still, for me I like to feel the solidity of the setting--but it can be done in so many ways that are not necessarily slowing the story down annoyingly.

I think, as I use the show-don't-tell advice when I'm revising my work it doesn't quite play out how you describe--sometimes it even lengthens a section. But I can see that playing into this idea as well.

Thanks for stopping by!