THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS–SETTING by CHERYL PIERSON


Are you a reader who loves descriptions and details of settings? Glittering ballrooms, the bone-chilling cold of a winter in the Rockies…or maybe the oppressive, killing heat of the desert? What about something idyllic, like a river or creek babbling through the woods? A beautiful rose garden, or even the ugly side of description—such as barren prison walls, or a Civil War battlefield?

 

 

 

 

It depends on the story, doesn’t it, and again, how much importance those descriptions have on the impact of the action, and the outcome of the story.

Let’s use a ball as our example.

If you’ve never been to an 1800’s ball—and none of us have—we need to know at least the barest details.

Five basic things we need to know are:
What is a ball?
Why is the ball being given?
Who will be invited?
When will the ball be given?
Where will it be held?

That’s enough for some stories. But the main question is—how important is the ball to the plot?

This is where layering comes in—and this one scene, and the details it contains—can be vital to what comes next, or even many scenes later.
So many things can happen at a ball!

Guests can meet for the first time, uninvited guests can show up, clothing can have significance, music can bring back memories, the food can even be poisoned!

Or, the ball can just be a ball, like the old saying attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…” –and if that’s the case, then tedious description and intricate detail is wasted because the ball is just a vehicle to get from one scene in the story to the next, and has no real underlying importance.

 


Describing the details of the clothing worn is sometimes distracting as it pulls us away from the action. We may be reading about a blue satin gown when we need to be concentrating on the man who lurks in the shadows. Too much description can bog down the reader and deaden the story rather than bring it to life.

Why? Because deep description of the things such as décor, clothing, and meals stop the action of the characters. The plot “takes a break” while our minds process all of the description of the scenery, the meals, the clothing. In this case, again, sometimes, “less is more” and we need to let the reader’s mind fill in much of that kind of detail.

Consider this: We know certain facts—a ball costs a lot of money to host. So we already understand that those who are invited are most likely people who move in the same upper crust social circles. Therefore, we know they, too, have money, so are appropriately dressed, arrive in style, and are schooled in proper societal customs. One excellent way to cut through the “red tape” of description (of things we already know) is to describe something that is out of place, or “not right” as this reminds us of what should be—and those details of descriptions we’re already aware of.

Perhaps an impostor at the ball commits a social faux pas without realizing it, alerting others to the fact she isn’t who she pretends to be. Maybe an unlikely hero comes to her aid quickly, offering an excuse, or correcting the mistake before others notice.


This scenario does several things for the story that simple description can’t achieve.

1. Points out the discrepancy in what should be and what is.
2. Allows our characters interaction, and possibly dialogue and observation, rather than the author filling the page with scenic description.
3. Allows the reader the opportunity to learn more about the characters and their personalities through this interaction, and can be a vehicle to reveal something of importance.
4. Can possibly further the action during such a scene rather than slowing it by miles of scenic description.

This is not to say that there isn’t a time and a place for detailed descriptions of settings! We can’t call ourselves authors and take the “easy” way out by saying, “It was a ball like any other” by way of description, unless—we put it in the right context.

How about this: 
Jake looked around at the opulent ballroom –the surroundings were familiar in a tiresome, cloying way. Or…maybe was jaded. It was a ball like any other—except for one thing. Something that made him catch his breath and inwardly let go a streak of curses he’d love to shout to the skies. She was here. The woman he’d thought he’d never see again…

Well, anything can happen now, can’t it? Maybe she’s wearing an inappropriate shade of red amidst a sea of violet and blue. There are so many ways to make setting come alive without endless description that many readers become bored with and skim over.

If you read my last installment of this blog series about main characters, the examples I used from Shane (Jack Schaefer) and St. Agnes’ Stand (Tom Eidson) are also prime examples of description of setting as well as character.

But here’s another good one I really think is wonderful from Conagher, by Louis L’Amour. In this story, Evie from “back East” has come out west to marry a man with two children. Evie tries to make the best of things, but she lives in fear at first. The land is so different, After she’s been there a while, she finds there is a beauty in her surroundings she had to grow to love, in time.


As L’Amour describes the heroine’s (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive. Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see. The underlying message is, “The land is what we make of it.”

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence. She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she’d first laid eyes on.

The land is beautiful, but unforgiving. Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn’t know what has happened to him. She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.

In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds. The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie. Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East. One of them says to Evie something to the effect of “I don’t know how you can stand it here.”
This is Evie’s response to her:

“I love it here,” she said suddenly. “I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it’s in the wind.

“Oh, it is very hard!” she went on. “I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances. The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes. But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines. Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there”–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–”until I can see the other side…if there is another side.”

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate. L’Amour gives us this description through Evie’s eyes and feelings, not in writing about it from his perspective as the author.

Think of your own writing projects, and books you’ve read. What importance do you give setting in description, plot, even characterization? Within 40 pages of ‘Conagher’, we understand that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie’s character. She can’t leave it, and it will never leave her.

Endless, detailed description can’t do what L’Amour does through Evie’s eyes in a very few sentences. Do you have a favorite description of a setting you’ve read about or written about?

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 37 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
Follow me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/cheryl.pierson.92
http://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules

24 Comments

  1. Happy Belated Mother’s Day Cheryl- great blog. I Gree some settings need intritcate detail while others not so much. It truly depends on the storyline and how much significance it makes to the plot.

    1. Hi Tonya! Thank you! We had a really nice Mother’s Day–very laid back. Hope yours was wonderful, too!

      I think that is so true–no need to rehash things that we know already…but then there are things that are so different and foreign to some readers (me included!) sometimes that details are necessary to make sense of it all!

      Thanks so much for coming by, Tonya!

  2. Avatar

    Good morning! I’m a detail freak, I love to be able to picture everything that is around the main characters, the characters themselves, etc. I want the story to be able to play out in my mind like a movie. For example, without a great description of the characters, I have to stop reading at different points in the story and dig up in my memory what they look like, etc, etc, etc. That disturbs my story way more than too much description. This may not be an issue with other readers though, I have cognitive issues because of my MS so my short-term memory is really bad. Have a great day and week. Loved your blog! After mentioning your last blog I can’t decide if I read it or not, good old memory…

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      Oh yeah, after reading this post I know exactly why I’ve yet to try to write a story. Back in my school days I was great at writing a story, speech or what have you if it was from research but an off the wall story I was good at at all or thats the way I remember it.

      1. Stephanie, if you have the desire to write, go for it! Do it for yourself–it doesn’t matter if you think others will like it or not at this point–I think that’s how about 99% of authors get started writing–they have the desire, and a story in mind, and just sit down and do it.

    2. Hi Stephanie! You know I feel that way about the characters sometimes–I DO want to know basically what they look like, but in my mind, I fill in the details. Setting sometimes needs a bit more description for me in certain instances. I started reading a book that takes place in Australia, a place I’ve always wanted to go visit. But this was historical romance and so I found it even more fascinating to try to imagine what life was like “back then” in the place the characters were coming to (from England) to try to make a new life for themselves–so different for THEM, too!

      My last blog is here too if you just type in Cheryl Pierson in the search bar. I should have linked them. :((((

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Good Morning Cheryl Hope you had a blessed Mother’s Day.
    I love books with good vivid details I love to be able to picture the scene in my head. If a book is really good in description it like watching a movie play out in my head as I read.

    1. Good morning, Glenda! Yes, I did have a wonderful Mother’s Day! Enjoyed it so much–very leisurely, for the most part, and that’s unheard of in my life these days! LOL Hope you had a wonderful day, too!

      I like that too, in certain instances. Louis L’Amour always gives just the right amount of description in his settings. When I grow up, I would love to write just like him! LOL

      Thanks for stopping by, Glenda!

  4. I love descriptions and depend on them to picture the settings.

    1. Hi Janine!

      Yes, in certain cases, I feel that same way. I think because I’m a “visual” learner, it’s hard for me sometimes to plow through a lot of tedious description, but I do need it and appreciate it in stories that take place somewhere that I might not have read about before or be familiar with at all. And each author does write description differently, and that can sure make all the difference in the world.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. My favorite is 2 teenagers 1 raising brothers the other raising a son. Love what brings them together.

    1. Kim that sounds like an AWESOME story. What’s the name of it and who is it by? I would love to read that! I love stories where people face a stacked deck in life, yet somehow manage to make it come out right. (Probably why I’m such a Bon Jovi music fan!) LOL

  6. Welcome Cheryl. This is a wonderful post. You are so right about describing backgrounds and extra stuff that doesn’t need to be described. I read a couple authors that really know how to make the story come alive by describing what is needed to make the story not only come alive but stay with me for a long while. I have loved Lois Lamore’s books since I was in high school.

    1. Hi Lori! Thank you, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I think using detail and just the right amount of description, especially in settings, is so important. You certainly don’t want to bore your reader but you do want to give enough description to let them feel as if they’re there and can see what you’re talking about!

      Thanks so much for coming by!

  7. I love descriptions in books. I can’t think of a favorite at the moment.

    1. Denise, I have a lot of favorites, and so many of them that I go blank when I try to remember specifics. One that does come to mind is To Kill a Mockingbird–love the details included in the setting of that book.

  8. Cheryl, details are so vital to a story and fill in to make a whole picture or plot. I often don’t put near enough to make a scene vibrant whole. I struggle with that.

    1. Linda, I do too, at times, because I always walk that fine line of not wanting to bore the reader and wanting to be sure there are “enough” details to make it interesting. But lots of times I find myself just wanting to “get on with” the telling of the story! LOL

  9. I love details but not TOO many if it takes up too much time and bogs down the story!

    1. I agree, Valri! Sometimes “less” is “more” in this case, I truly do believe! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  10. I have read Conagher and loved it. I have read all of his stories. He does give amazing descriptions. Except for his books, I cannot think of another one.

    1. Debra, he really does. And I read somewhere that he said every place in his books were real–if he included them in his books, he had been there, seen it, and could describe it. And maybe that’s the key, because his descriptions are wonderful!

  11. Cheryl, thank you for the great post! Details to make the story more enjoyable.

    1. Hi Caryl! Yes, it’s finding that perfect “happy medium” that we have to look for each time we start to write a book, or when READING a book, as well! Because if I feel like I’m having to slog through too much…I hate to say it, but I will skim and I feel terrible about that because that’s a rule of mine–that I should read every word because it wouldn’t be there if the author didn’t feel it was necessary. But I’ve learned that sometimes…well, it really ISN’T necessary! LOL Thanks for stopping by!

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