Beset by settings

Agnes, thank you for referring Maddi to my post about Ella Enchanted the movie. I just want to add one comment, which I make whenever I talk about the film at schools and conferences. The movie has brought many readers to the book, for which I’m exceedingly grateful – so, if any of you are producers or directors or future producers or directors, please keep in mind that I have lots of other books! Making a movie costs a great deal and you’ll need studio support, but I’ll be eager for you to succeed.

On to the post question: In September Julia wrote, I have some problems with settings. I don’t like to include big hunks of nothing but setting descriptions because they seem unnatural. But when I try to slip in details about the setting in little tidbits, (for example: She ran her fingers down the rough tree bark. She was sure they had been through here before. “Are we lost?”) there aren’t enough of them, and the reader is left feeling as though he too is lost in a hazy, half-invisible environment with a couple of rough-barked trees. Does anybody have any suggestions on making setting descriptions seem more natural, while still having enough details that the setting is clear and rich?

I agree about avoiding long chunks of nothing but setting, if you can. Crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard has offered the world his Ten Rules for Writing, which you can Google. Rule number nine is, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” And rule ten is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

You all know that I don’t approve of blanket rules. Sometimes we have to spend a lot of words on places and things, and sometimes we need to force readers to pay attention to what they might like to skim. But these rules are worth thinking about.

I’m thinking about them right now in Beloved Elodie. Our heroine has recently reached the brunkas’ Oase. (Never mind what a brunka is.) The Oase is the brunka sanctuary and museum, which is built into Ineberg Mountain. (If you speak German, get it?) Something that’s kept at the Oase has been stolen. If it isn’t recovered and the thief caught the consequences will be dire.

The first time a character encounters a new place is the best moment to show it to the reader, whose interest will be at its peak. I took advantage of this in a way I’m especially proud of when I wrote Dave at Night. This is the moment when Dave first sees the orphanage he’s going to live in:

    ….We turned the corner, and I saw the front of the asylum.  My eyes traveled up to where a pointy tower rose, like a witch’s hat, three stories above the entrance.  Below the tower was a clock, and on each side of the clock was a smaller pointy tower.  The whole building was only four stories high in the highest part, the middle section.  The rest was just three, but each story was very tall.  The building wasn’t made for people.  It was made for witches, with plenty of room for their hats.
Too bad I can’t do something similar for Elodie. When she goes into the great hall at the Oase, the chamber is dark compared to the outside daylight, and it’s smoky compared to anything but a chimney, and I’m writing in first person, so the reader can’t sense anything she can’t sense. What’s more, the reader’s interest in the setting, while high, is much less than his worry about her danger from the thief and his curiosity about the people in this new place. It’s a moment of high tension and I can’t be long-winded.

What I did was write a short paragraph about the little she can see and a sentence about what she hears and moved on. A few pages later, when her eyes adjust to the dimness I added another paragraph of description but only one, because the scene is still pretty tense.

Tension is what we all want most of the time. Any kind of tension, not necessarily action tension as in a battle scene. Can be interpersonal tension, like when Phillippa and Wes are arguing, or psychological tension as when Phillippa faces the examiners who can expel her from her interstellar exploration program. Or any other kind of tension. But tension makes it hard to insert description. Phillippa enters the exam room. We need to show the room to the reader but we don’t want the suspense to dissipate.

Details that heighten the worry are great. The room is torrid, and Phillippa doesn’t know how she’s going to keep the beads of sweat from running down her nose or how she’s going to concentrate while she’s melting. The examiners are on a dais, which makes her feel like a child, and she has to crank her neck to look at them. The huge windows behind the examiners turn them into black shadows that she can hardly make out because the sun is in her eyes.

But if we want to tell the reader that the room is rectangular and the ceilings are high, we simply may not be able to. We may have to leave those elements to his imagination. You can let him know that the desk is made of oak if a former examinee has carved a warning into the wood grain, maybe something like, “Watch their teeth.”

In my book, Elodie is about to be taken to her room at the Oase. I haven’t yet had a chance to make the great hall come to life, but I figure I can do something with the corridor on her way to her room, so I’m wondering what she can see or smell or feel that will knock her medieval socks off. Since the Oase is in a mountain and I love caves, I’m thinking rock formations. The point is, when you can, make a detail striking. Make it leave an impression on the reader’s mind.

In the forest example that Julia gives, the tension is in the question, “Are we lost?” That question will likely awaken setting curiosity in the reader, because being lost requires a place to be lost in – the writer’s opportunity. Now we can look around. What kind of trees are in our main character’s destination? What kind have we got here? What’s the sunlight doing? Can we tell east from west or have we lost all sense of direction? What noises are we hearing? Is anything howling? As for striking, what can distinguish this forest from the generality of woods? What can rouse the reader’s sense of wonder? The size of the leaves or their color? The enormity of the tree trunks? It doesn’t have to be anything big; the tameness of the squirrels will do, or the bright blue caterpillars.

Here are three rompts:

∙    Phillippa is playing Monopoly with two enemies who have been tormenting her at school. If she wins, the torment will stop, but if she loses, they’ve devised a particularly embarrassing penalty. Write the scene, and find a way to bring in a description of the setting, the bedroom of the meanest enemy.

∙    Write Phillippa’s interstellar examination from the point of view of one of her examiners. Work in a description of the setting.

∙    In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the imp is overheard by one of the queen’s messengers as the creature sings a ditty about his name. Describe the interior of Rumpelstiltskin’s cottage. Show him bustling about, in a good way or an evil way, preparing for the baby’s arrival.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for answering my question, Gail! I think that making my details more striking will be very helpful.

    Also, I love the prompt with Philippa and the enemies. I'll definitely have a good time writing that one.

  2. What a fantastic post! I always struggle with the detail question. Actually, I have one right now. I'm illustrating with Julia's character's situation (I'm sorry, this was the best example I could make up off the fly):

    "She was sure they were lost. The mossy green carpet intermixed with muddy patches of dirt felt the same on her bare feet as it had for the past hour. The trees were identical; same sand-paper bark, same bluish-green lichen, same knotty roots. The whole forest smelled dank and moldy. Yes, surely they had been going in circles. She would die here on the endless moss, surrounded by lichen and mildew."

    My question: is that too much detail? Or does the last sentence tie in the suspense enough that that sort of detail is okay?

  3. Hi Mrs Levine! This is a wonderful post and I really really really enjoy reading your blog.
    I have a question: what do you think about writing in questions in books? Like if if a story was in third person and at the end of a paragraph I write something like "could this be true?" or "well, what would you do?" or something to that extent, like a narrator almost. I do that a lot in my writing without thinking, and I'm not sure if its cheesy or if it sounds silly or not. If it does, is there a way to avoid this?

  4. unsocialized homeschooler- I feel like this is something that just has to do with taste. Honestly, I don't like reading books with those questions in it, but I think you should go for it if it pops into your writing naturally- it's part of who you are so embrace it for now!
    If there comes a point when you are reading a piece over and you don't like how it sounds, take it out. I think this goes for everything- when you're just playing around, don't worry about it being cheesy or good- just have fun. 🙂

  5. Oh and Mrs. Levine?
    I was wondering if you have any advice for writing on a deadline. I am writing a novel for my final history project and I want to be as ready as possible and have some strategies for writing with a big deadline. Thanks!

  6. This is just an opinion, but as much as I respect Mr. Leonard his rules might be better titled "10 Rules for Crime Novel Writing." I think fantasy writers can get away with and may even need to include more details about setting than writers in other genres because part of fantasy's appeal is immersing yourself in a different world. That said, there are some fantasy writers who go to excess, and that should be avoided.

  7. Hi Mrs. Levine! I've noticed that when ever I write anything for a story down,it seems to "die", meaning I can't think of any thing else for it. This has resulted in me having a "writing-phobia", so even though I have a realy good idea (and have been writing it in my head), I'm afraid of witing anything on it because I'm afraid it will "die" to. Can you help me with this??? Thanks a TON!!!!

  8. Inkling, I have trouble finishing stories too. My writer friends tell me "Give yourself permission to write garbage." In other words, when you run out of "good parts," write whatever comes to mind, even if it feels lame, lousy, or "dead." You can always revise later.

    I got 200 more words on a "dead" story tonight that way. Good luck!

  9. Gail,
    I live an hour from Brewster,where you live.
    So I really want to go to your summer writing workshop. I called the library,and the librarian said they only start making the "list" in May. Does this mean I should call back in May?

  10. Agnes– SO lucky! I wish that I was fortunate enough to be able to attend your workshop, Gail! I was thinking of leading a kid's writing group sort of think– weekly sessions, something like that. Any ideas?

  11. Hey! I have another question. LOL How do you world-build? I'm writing fantasy and am making up the world its set in. How do you keep everything straight, in particular? (Like remembering that King Whatchamajigger lived in 1982 and that he wasn't related to King Whatshisface who lived in 1717?) Thanks!

  12. Lark- I love that you say you're thinking of leading a kid's writing group, cause I want to to that too, this summer at my library :). You'd love looking at Don't Forget to Write by various authors- they have a high school addition and elementary school one- they are both SO cool!

  13. Kate – it might help if you just wrote it out. For one of my fairy tales, I wrote about two pages of description; what types of creatures inhabited the land, what made the actual surroundings different from earth, and so on. I've never actually needed to know the history, but my friend did for her fantasy, so she wrote a timeline (e.g. King Soandso comes to throne in 1489; King Whoisit comes to throne the day Soandso dies in 1567) That way you'll have it all in writing, so when you need to mention details, you can look at those documents.

  14. Lark–If you're starting a critique group, try reading my post on the subject. Click on the label on the right. If not, what kind of group are you starting?

    Kate–You might look at my posts on the subject. Click on "fantasy world introduced" on the right.

  15. I'm having some trouble getting "inspired." I have my plot worked out, I'm just having problems with the in-between stuff like character development and other small events. I'm not even sure if I can make it into a good quality piece of writing. I've been turning to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. It works, but I want to produce something that is my own idea. Lately my spelling has been really off, even though I'm a pretty good speller. Any ideas?

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