Tag: description

Details, details

some details are more important than others

some details are more important than others

We make worlds and people to live in them, but we cannot possibly pour all of that onto the page. Instead, we must evoke setting and character by the use of precise details and choice of words.

I am thinking here, of course, of fiction where the intention is to tell a story rather than to fully describe the place or the person. In this case, the description applied to the elements has a couple of basic goals:

  • to make the elements serve the story
  • to make the elements distinctive

Serving the Story

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Anton Chekov

Characters do surprising things, but readers feel cheated if those things are not seeded in the story: if a character has been hobbling about on a walker for the first hundred pages and then suddenly casts off their shackles of infirmity to chase after that criminal who just robbed the bank with no hint that she was someone else, or without some other kind of transformative event, then the reader may well cast the story aside.

Settings need the elements to be there to support the story. A nursery with a shotgun hidden under the baby’s bed only makes sense if you’ve seeded the idea that the nursery may not be all that you would usually expect – hints of the babysitter’s history as a drug runner, say, or the parents’ desire to be ready for the zombie apocalypse.


“We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.”

the Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation

I’ve just started reading Redshirts by John Scalzi and I have been very struck that there is almost no physical description of the characters, and yet they are all distinct because of how they talk and what they speak about.

The details we put in need to be enough to be sure who is doing what.

Names help, of course. Having major characters with differing initial letters or at least easily distinguished names on the page helps make it clear who is speaking. Making physical descriptions clearly different – or even subtly different, if you focus on the subtleties – helps clarify who is acting.

Similarly with settings. We can’t put in everything* so we have to describe what makes each location distinct from the others, whether it’s the insect-crusted ceiling of the cave or the Louis XV sideboard in the sitting room rather than the Louis XIV.

How do you decide what to put in and what to omit?

[*] and this was one of the basic problems with Bluehammer, that I tried to.

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The Map Is Not The Territory

the map

the map

When we write, we locate our characters and action in particular places (unless we’re doing a “white room” dialogue, and those are usually ill-advised) but how do we find description for these wildly different locations?

A lot can be drawn from memory, of course, and from photographs and other records. We can read other people’s writing about a place, but that can lead us into derivative writing where we parrot the descriptions of another rather than devising our own.

And then there are maps.

Maps are amazing things – they compactly describe the layout of a location in a way which allows us to block out a scene very quickly. What they don’t do is give us much in the way of location flavour, the details of what a place is really like to be in.

I have a tendency to think of every place as flat until I visit it, and even then there’s a bias towards imagining locations as planes with markers on them for buildings and other landmarks, but that is profoundly flawed.

Consider a wood, or a forest. If you see a block of woodland on a map, you can surmise that that land is filled with trees. You can guess then that lines of sight will be difficult to find (a point reinforced if you’ve ever played disc golf in Oregon). There will be paths through the trees, more or less beaten down depending on the amount and the kind of traffic. There will be dips and clumps of bushes further obscuring the ground (again, a point reinforced if you’ve ever played disc golf round this neck of the, ahem, woods).

A field is going to be different. There will not be a lot of variation in the ground – it will be fairly flat, because otherwise it’s difficult to farm. There might be ditches or hedges at the edge of a field, but not much in the way of ground-obscuring landscape or hiding places.

the territory

the territory

But think of a moor, and what do you imagine? Moors seem flat – they look like fields – but their topology is a lot closer to that of a forest floor: I grew up in a town with a moor overlooking it, and that moor was once a forest, until the wood was taken for fuel and construction. Moorland may be shown on a map as being a smooth piece of landscape, but it’s wrinkled and folded to the point where it’s fractal: the closer you look, the more detail you find. There are gullies and rises and hidden ghylls that make it hard to find things. There are sections of Ilkley Moor that I’ve visited but once, because I’ve never been able to find the right path again*. I’ve never been as lost in a woodland unknown to me as I have on a moor I grew up on.

So remember this when you look at a map for a location – no matter how flat it may seem on paper, land is crinkly and strange.

[*] this is something that makes Rivendell or Brigadoon believable to me – even on a normal moor there are hidden places.

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