Friday, September 13, 2013

Writing Setting and Other Description—Getting Past the “Who Cares?” Aspect

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I dislike writing setting and description, but I used to absolutely despise it.  I’ve got plenty of now-published manuscripts in my Word archives with helpful editorial direction on them: “Elizabeth, could you share with us what this car looks like?  I can’t really picture it.”
Each time, of course, I added the description in for my editor.  There are readers who really enjoy description, I know.  I’ve just never been one of them. 
There was also the side of me that mutters, “Who cares?” when asked about the car’s description.  Really, did it matter?  It wasn’t a clue to the mystery.  The character didn’t care much about cars. Why include it?
But as I went on, I started making my peace with it.  All right, so the character doesn’t care about cars.  Maybe that’s something I should be showing with my description.  Maybe the car shouldn’t be the latest model.  Maybe the car desperately needs a trip through an automatic carwash.  Or maybe the car simply functions as a mobile billboard for the character’s beliefs and causes—in the form of bumper stickers.  How could I take a humdrum assignment (adding description) and make it something I could get interested in?
So  that was one thing that helped—have the description help show a bit about the character.
Another tip that I picked up along my blog reading way was that verbs were much more fun than adjectives when describing something.  A blog post by David Jacobsen on the Book Talk blog, “Writing Tip: Describing With Verbs”, does a nice job explaining the process. He changed Kari was a beautiful toddler. She had long, black, curly hair and shining, green eyes. to: As Kari toddled across the room, her black hair curled and bounced around her shoulders, and her green eyes shone. 
Although his examples are dealing with describing a character, you can use it with settings, too.  Something like this: The mountains rolled off as far as she could see, rising gently to the sky until they faded into the horizon.   The closer hills were draped with trees, like moss on stones.
Discover how the character feels about the setting.  Literary agent and writer resource Donald Maass recommends that we consider how our character feels about the setting, suggesting that we brainstorm emotions tied to particular events, incorporating those details in our setting.  Again, this exercise helps us, and our reader, understand the character a bit better…and helps make our task a little more interesting.
Make the setting enjoyable for you to write.  For one of my recently-written books, I chose a setting with secret passageways, trapdoors, and a spooky attic.  Beats writing about lunch in a restaurant.  If there’s a place you especially enjoy, think about writing a similar location into your book.
Have you got any tips for writing description and describing setting?  Is it something you enjoy as a reader or writer? 
Image: MorgueFile: calebunseth