The idea for this episode actually came from a question someone posed on a writer’s board. How do you write short descriptions that still give the full picture of the setting? This question of course was directed at writing literature. But the answer, the storytelling principle, carries into other media as well. Describing where your story takes place is more than just listing its characteristics. It’s about making the audience feel like they’re really there.
How can it be the same for each media?
Whenever someone asks about how to shorten their descriptions, how to give a full picture of a place in just a few words, they’re clearly talking about literature. Not only does literature rely more on words than other media, but also do other media have other ways of describing a place. In film, for example, a director by framing a single shot just right can give an impression of the setting that would take paragraphs to describe in prose. In a video game, the virtual world is the setting, and exploring it is often part of the gameplay.
Even so, a deeply complex world is boring if there’s no reason for the gamer to explore it. In 1995, Spectrum Holobyte published a game called Star Trek: The Next Generation: A Final Unity. This is a classic-style, puzzle-solving adventure in which the Enterprise-D’s crew must embark on several connected missions, ultimately completing a boss mission that ties all the others together. The story was good, not great, but engaging nonetheless, and I enjoyed playing it. This game was marketed as having a complex, completely explorable world. In other words, a full universe was available to you, and you could decide where in the universe you would explore. Indeed, you did not have to accept the predefined missions, and you could go anywhere in the universe. But aside from fighting off Romulans (if you happened into Romulan space), exploring the universe was basically flying long distances through empty space in order to reach a destination and find… nothing. In other words, the game had a full, detailed world, but there was no motivation for the player to explore it, and as a result it all fell flat.
I’ve recently watched The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, so I’ll mention that in talking about film. One of the four girls, Lena, goes to Greece for the summer. It’s interesting that multiple reviewers complained that Greece is not really that white, not really that clean, and that as a result the setting was unrealistic. But according to the DVD (and other sources), these scenes were filmed on-location in Santorini. But that’s beside the point. The visuals in Greece were indeed beautiful, but they were important because of Lena’s relationship with Carlos and their grandparents’ age-old feud. These facts go together to create conflict. At least they do in that setting. In the U.S., the conflict would have been nonexistent. (In Gilmore Girls, Rory’s grandfather and Logan’s don’t particularly like each other right now, yet that doesn’t keep them from dating.)
(I do have Ann Brashare’s novels on my Amazon.com wish list. I promise. But I just haven’t gotten to them yet.)
In game and film, what gives a setting power, what draws the audience in and makes them feel a part of the setting, is that it is involved in the story. The same thing holds true in literature. Writers seem to be addicted to their beloved descriptions, though, resulting in the dreaded info dump, also called a core dump, exposition hell, death to all readers. (Thanks to Holly Lisle for that last one.) This was a subject of a recent blog posting over at the Kick-ass Mystic Ninjas, which inspired a post by me. (See the links below.) We writers have to get over our addiction. Generally, if you’re writing descriptions in your novels or short stories, stop it. Go cold turkey. Instead, integrate the setting into the story. Then just tell the story, and let the descriptions take care of themselves. This is a variation on moralizing without getting preachy. (See the links below.) In this case, we’re describing without getting expository.
Setting as part of the story
When other story elements interact with parts of the setting, the setting becomes a part of the story. The story relies on these parts of the setting. In fact, just telling the story naturally will involve the setting. The setting will come alive, because some conflict of the story relies on it.
Here’s a passage from Stanislaw Lem’s story “The Conditioned Reflex,” one the the Tales of Pirx the Pilot. At this point in the story, three astronauts are traveling by foot on the Moon.
Pnin guided them through this forest of petrified eruptions leisurely but infallibly. Now and then he would put his space boot on a slab; if it wobbled, he would stop and brood, then either proceed on a straight course or maneuver around it, untuiting by means of signs recognizable only to him whether or not it could sustain a man’s weight—sound, the warning signal of mountain climbers, being wholly absent here. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, one of the stone witches they had passed earlier broke loose and started down the slope, slowly and somnolently at first, then bouncing and ricocheting to touch off a stampede of stone, a furious rush of rock and rubble that was gradually enveloped by milky-white swirls of dust. It was a spectacle bordering on a hallucinatory vision—collisions without noise, a mute avalanche without tremors or vibrations, thanks to the inflated boots. When they veered sharply around the next hairpin bend farther up, Pirx beheld the trail left by the avalanche—a cloud of serenely undulating waves. Instinctively, with unease, his eyes scanned the horizon in search of the ship; it was safely parked in the same place as before, a kilometer or two away, its shiny hull and three hypenlike legs clearly visible. A weird lunar spider resting on the site of an old avalanche, on what only a short while ago had seemed so precipitous but now lay flat as a tabletop.
What do we learn about the setting? It’s dangerous and precarious. It’s also silent, there being no atmosphere. And they’re in space suits that insulate them even from vibration. There’s also reduced gravity, and dust clouds once formed take a long time to clear, there being no wind. We furthermore know that Pnin is the expert here.
All of these things we learn by being observing the implications of these characteristics of the setting. In other words, Lem showed us how the setting affected the characters. He didn’t tell us what the setting was, give us a laundry list of descriptive clauses.
Setting as conflict
Actually, Lem sometimes does give us long, descriptive passages. This can work if the setting itself poses a conflict, and Lem does use setting in this way. But rather than quoting again from Lem, let me instead give an example Holly Lisle provides from one of her novels Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood:
The corpse’s left eye squinted at me from mere centimeters away. Decomposition lent her face an increasingly inscrutable expression; the first time I’d regained consciousness, when I found myself tied to her, she looked like she had died in terror. After a while, she started leering at me, as if she had reached the place where I was going and took perverse pleasure from the thought that I would join her there soon. Now, having had her moment of amusement at my expense, she meditated; beneath thousands of dainty auburn braids, her face hung slack, bloated and discolored, the skin loosening. Threads of drool hung spiderwebbish from her gaping mouth. Her eyes, dry and sunken and filmed over beneath swollen lids, still stared directly at
The very idea of being trapped in an enclosed space tied to a corpse provides a conflict all its own. Just keep describing that setting, building it up, stretching it out in order to build the tension.
As an example, I’ll rework a particularly bad passage from a story of mine, a story called “Proletariat,” which was never published and with good reason.
My room was large and thoughtfully furnished. Just inside stood a small conference table with several chairs. Next to the door was mounted a large dry-erase board, the opposite wall being filled with picture windows that displayed in the distance a forest of deciduous trees. Further in, bookshelves obscured the same wall and the adjoining one. Against the windows, facing diagonally, was a desk on which sat computer and telephone. From there I could easily gaze out the window or at the remaining wall, on which hung a watercolor, rich in blues and golds, of a girl cuddling a fluffy, white kitten.
I wrote this years ago, but not enough years for me to feel okay about it. Reading it now, after each sentence all I can think of to say is, “So what? Who cares about that?” Especially in a short story (like this was), read each sentence and ask, “So what?” If you don’t get an immediate, obvious answer, get rid of that sentence.
In this case, I could have gotten rid of this who paragraph without seriously damaging the story, such as it is. Then again, that story has other problems besides an overabundance of boring descriptions. Descriptions are like commercial advertisements; if you’ve established enough momentum, you might be able to convince your readers to bear through a short one with you. But it is an imposition to the reader, and you have to respect that.
Let’s disassemble and reassemble this paragraph and see if we can’t make something of it. First a bit of back-story. The main character is moralistic and over-worked, an entrepreneur who sleeps at the office. He just got a phone message that excites him and that he is anxious to return. Now, what are the elements of his office?
- a large room
- a conference table
- a large dry-erase board
- a window looking out into the forest
- a desk with a computer and phone
- lots of bookshelves
- a watercolor portrait of a girl and kitten
Lots of stuff here. And still, it’s missing a couch (on which he sleeps when he’s not going home to his nonexistant apartment).
What are the implications of the setting? How do we show instead of tell? Or alternatively do they imply anything about the character and the conflicts he faces?
- He sleeps on a sofa in the corner. There’s a book (from a small corner of one of the bookshelves, allocated to fiction, “fun”) on a small table next to the sofa. The book is marked where he finished reading the night before.
- He sometimes feels lost and alone in such a large office, except when there are others working with him. And even then, he feels like he’s pressuring his employees to work long hours as he does.
- The view through the window makes him pause as he sits at his desk. He’s having doubts about his way of life.
- The portrait is of his neice. He wonders if he’d rather give up his business and start a family.
Let’s put these into a new paragraph that defines the character and the conflict he’s facing, rather than describing his office.
I walked around the conference table on the way to my desk. The official reason for keeping a small conference table in my office was so that I could have business meetings in a convenient location. My employees hated me for it, I could tell. These surroundings pressured them. I stopped and reminisced at the notes on the dry-erase board covering the near wall. Having people near broke up the loneliness, like having guests over for dinner. I turned to look at the couch in the opposite corner. A novel lay on a small table next to it, bookmarked from the night before. I’d recently begun spending a few minutes each night engaging in fun reading and had even allocated to fiction a small corner of the expanse of bookshelves. My eye floated up to the portrait hanging above the sofa, a watercolor, rich in blues and golds, of my young neice cuddling a fluffy, white kitten. My sister’s family had given it to me two years ago for the holidays, and little Samantha was already nothing like the little girl in the picture. I had long given up the idea of having a family, however. It simply was not a priority. I turned and sat at my desk. My hand rested on the phone, but I simply gazed out the large picture window at a forest of reds and yellows and oranges, the autumn colors. For just a moment, a deep melancholy washed over me. Then I lifted the receiver and dialed.
A little better, no?