Monday, August 22, 2011

Finding the Balance

I'm a note taker.  Workshops, panels, classes, blogs - I try to gather all the bits of useful information I can.  And hopefully, I compile all the bits and pieces into something I can use to become a better writer.

Sounds good, right?

Then I find myself with something like this:

Item 1: Think of your setting like another character, paint a picture, let your reader see, hear, smell, touch, etc. the setting. Take the reader there.

Item 2: Don't bog the story down with too much description.  Every bit of description must move the story forward.


Both of these came from workshops I've attended. And both make sense.  One of the things I love about Nevada Barr's Anna Pidgeon series is the way Barr brings to life the National Parks which are the settings for this series.  But have I read stories where I started skimming over long stretches of description?  Yup.  I bet you have, too.

The key is finding the balance.  The icy drafts, flickering candles, and musty smell in the old mansion are mood setters; the silver and china on the dining room table, not so much. of the silver pieces bears a striking resemblance to the one that was stolen from Great Aunt Matilda at the time of her murder.  Now you're using setting to slip in a clue.  

Bottom line - use setting description to draw your readers into the story, to set the mood, to let them feel they are moving through the story with your characters, and to move the story forward.  But beware of description for description's sake.  No matter how lovely your portrait of the fluffy clouds or beautiful tapestries, if it doesn't serve the story, out it goes. 

As readers and/or writers which do you prefer, more detailed setting descriptions or a simple stage where you can use your imagination to fill in the empty spaces?

Groaner of the Day: Sir Edgbert, Knight of the Realm, was hurrying home on a cold, wet night when suddenly his horse fell down and died. All Sir Edgbert could do was collect his belongings and tramp onwards.

After staggering for a spell, he realizes he will never reach his castle on foot so he heads for the nearest building which, as luck would have it, is a small farm. He strides up to the door, bangs on it and shouts "A horse! I must have a horse!".

The door opens to reveal a young girl. She looks at Sir Edgbert and says, "Your pardon, good knight, but my father and brothers are returning from the village on the other side of the forest and will not be back before noon tomorrow. They are riding all our horses."

"But I must return home immediately," Sir Edgbert tells her.  "Have you any idea where I may secure alternative transportation?"

The young girl says, "I know of no other horses hereabouts, but sometimes my brothers ride our Great Dane when the need arises. Would that help?"

Sir Edgbert is desperate and says, "If I must, I must. Show me the animal."

The young girl leads the way around to the back of the farmhouse to a stable. She dissapears inside and returns leading an enormous dog which is truly large enough for riding. Unfortunately, the dog is also very old. Its coat is patchy, its legs bowed, and it seems to be having trouble breathing.

Sir Edgbert stares at the animal then turns to the girl and says, "Surely, you wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this?"


Sarita said...

The groaner made me smile. Thank you.

Dru said...

If a book is too too descriptive, I start to peruse until I get to some dialogue. Less blogged down with details is better for me.

I'm not getting the groaner - am I missing something?

Maria Zannini said...

It depends on what's being described. If it's something everybody knows how to do, like say, washing dishes, I don't want a blow by blow no matter how lyrically the author writes.

I do like my description sparse, but I'll make an exception if the author is telling me about something unique in his world.

LD Masterson said...

Sarita - You're welcome

LD Masterson said...

Dru - It's a take-off on an old line, "You wouldn't send a dog out of a night like this."

I'm afraid I don't know the original source.

LD Masterson said...

Maria - I should have mentioned that new worlds obviously need a lot more setting description. Thanks.

Stacy McKitrick said...

I understand putting description to give the reader a feel of where the character is, but it's something I have to add in my editing (I struggle with it, that's for sure). I have a pretty good imagination and like to picture my own places. Too much description and I start over-analyzing - and that takes me out of the story. So I'm fine with the bare minimum!

Clarissa Draper said...


I like your idea about description. Make it like a character.

Jemi Fraser said...

I couldn't figure out where that groaner was heading - love it! :)

Great minds and all that - I chatted (very similarly) about setting today over at From the Write Angle :)

LD Masterson said...

Stacy - Thanks for the input. I know other people who like to "paint their own picture".

LD Masterson said...

Clarissa - I can't claim that as my idea, I heard it in a couple different workshops. But it works for me.

Glad you liked the groaner.

LD Masterson said...

Jemi - I saw your guest blog this morning. I was short on time so I bookmarked it to go back to. I'm interested to see what you said.

Mason Canyon said...

Afraid I'm not much help because I enjoy books both ways. Cute groaner.

Thoughts in Progress
Freelance Editing By Mason

GigglesandGuns said...

I like to picture things on my own. I lose interest if there's too much description and I get he feeling the writer got lost and is filling in until the figure out a route.

The groaner was, well, a groaner ;o)

LD Masterson said...

Mary - Good point. Thanks for chiming in.

Yeah, some are groanier than others.

LD Masterson said...

Mason - Hey, that's good to know, too. Thanks.

Angela Brown said...

The groaner was, again, very cool.

I liked how you put both pieces of advice right together to give you that "Hmmm..." moment.

LD Masterson said...

Angela - You'd be surprised how often I'm gathering my notes and find two pieces of advice that are both good yet opposite.

Gregg said...

Ha Ha, bit of humor there! :) I too, take a lot of notes and then have stacks of paper, envelopes, bulletins, notepads, and etc, to copy over, file, or deal with.

LD Masterson said...

Gregg - Oh, you've seen my desk.