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Describing Settings

Discussion in 'Original Fiction Discussion' started by Agent Zero, Nov 4, 2019.

  1. Agent Zero

    Agent Zero Groundskeeper DLP Supporter

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    I've noticed that I'm really terrible at actually imagining a setting in my head, whether it be a house, mansion or even a park. I think I do pretty well with describing characters but physical places just escape me.

    As a result, most of settings are based off other existing fiction. When I needed a grand office, I described Mr Burns' office from The Simpsons minus the Polar Bear in the Corner. When I needed to describe the outside of a Mansion, I used the main house from the game Scooby Doo Night of 100 Frights. When I needed another mansion, I described the manor in Draynor Village.

    In my original draft, I even had a room that was a carbon copy of the inside of the TARDIS.

    It's not really a question of describing a setting, it's more actually visualising it in my head.

    Was just wondering if anyone else had the same issue? Or a similar issue such as with characters where their appearance is based off of someone else?
     
  2. Blorcyn

    Blorcyn Order Member DLP Supporter DLP Silver Supporter

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    Did you ever see the thread that span off about describing characters, after the Taure/Sesc back and forth, I feel it was mainly about description more generally and although it’s not characters you talked about it’s definitely got some corollaries.

    If it’s about the process of imagination itself, I’d have to say it’s the opposite for me. I do copy locations, but also imagine new ones, and the real desire if I was being completely self-indulgent would be to describe them for a page.

    For example, recently I wanted to write a worm fight between capes in a ruined city, and myself, I could see the time of day, the light, the buildings where the ruins had fallen, where the brackish water was pooled, all their costumes and body-language. But I can’t write it and have it be engaging, it’d kill any pace.

    I find the fun of writing compared to reading is that, for me. Every now and then I’ll get a really resonant, vivid image from a book (like Diagon Alley in HP PoA [which was the first one I read]). However, in general, the most vivid worlds are the ones I imagine rather than the ones I read and there’s just no way to get it across because it’s written, not a film.
     
  3. Agent Zero

    Agent Zero Groundskeeper DLP Supporter

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    I think you and I might be the exact opposite. Everything I've ever read in a book, I picture as something I've already seen. With Harry Potter, it was easy because I'd already watched the first three movies before starting on the books. But Shell Cottage I imagined as one of my friend's houses, Grimmauld Place I imagined as a shop in Luton that I once went into, Slughorn was pictured as a cashier that usually served me in Tescos.
     
  4. Silirt

    Silirt Unspeakable DLP Supporter

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    I usually just take what the character would actually be able to see and describe the most important thing going on within that. For me describing scenes in detail is kind of like an establishing shot; it serves the same purpose unless there's some symbolism about the world around the characters, like a tree losing its leaves to represent a character dying. In an establishing shot in a third-person limited story, our perspective character is taking no particular haste in observing the world, so there's room to go on a little longer than you might when describing a fight scene. In some 1v1 fights, there are non-contrived pauses, like both characters catching their breath, and sometimes I'll use a pause to describe something seemingly unimportant going on in the background. This basically can't happen in fights with greater than two combatants; if you pause you die, so I really only describe what the perspective character could possibly see or hear, which will not be everything. I can really only hope the reader will understand the other characters were not just sitting around when the narration did not focus on them, though sometimes I'll circumvent this problem by having the perspective assume what happened after the fact.
    In terms of imagining scenery, I'm not that good at it, and when I do succeed in describing something well without burning too many words, it takes real time and effort. I'm currently writing a book with characters on a large space ship, and the first corridor the perspective character visits is painted all white to save energy spent on lighting. The description is one that saves more time than it takes; it tells the reader that not only can it be assumed that all the corridors are white, but the ship was constructed with a deliberately utilitarian design philosophy (and that saves me from having to describe decorations, because they're the exception rather than the rule, insert evil laugh). The point, in my belief, of describing scenery is not to describe everything, but to guide the reader's imagination in filling in the blanks.
     
  5. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    My approach to locations is to describe a few details which give it the character/flavour you desire. A reader's imagination will take care of the rest like dimension colour etc.
     
  6. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    Google picture search. The thing is that even though I can visualise things just fine, there are likely little things that I'll miss because I just don't think of them, but that are essential because they give that extra flair to the location. Hence, searching for real-world pictures -- manors, landscape, furniture, whatever, I google basically anything, and then describe the pictures I find in detail, usually combining multiple of them in my head in whichever way suits the story.
     
  7. Eilyfe

    Eilyfe Minister of Magic

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    Setting is an interesting issue. A dangerous one, too, because you can lose yourself in small irrelevant details quite easily once you get rolling.

    A few pointers that help me conceptualize a setting are the following questions:
    • How does the setting influence/characterize the society, the person, the institution depicted?
    • What emotion do I want to evoke through the setting?
    • How can a setting be described with senses beyond the visual?

    If a subsidiary aim of the story is to portray the class differences and inequities in a desert society between poor sods and rich maharajas, then an obvious detail is to include the unbearable dryness and sandiness of the mud hut in contrast to the gardens and flowing water of the palace. You could include more details of course (as @Sesc said, google pictures can help here), but water/non-water does the job.

    In this example, depending on the viewpoint of your character, the descriptive vocabulary changes. If your character is disgusted by this disparity of wealth, he'll certainly view the wasteful fountain differently than a person who's fascinated by it, and sees it as an oasis of tranquility. A lot of setting isn't so much the details themselves but rather the reactions to them, which has the added benefit of further fleshing out your character as well.

    Lastly, details that go beyond the visual. It's totally fine to give a visual description at first, situating a reader in the setting. However, depending on the emotional aspect and what you want to portray, other senses can give the setting a nice spin. In the desert example, let's say during a conversation between character and rich palace owner in the shadowed garden, your protagonist might be distracted by the purling water, he might think about the poor condition of his own home, he might get increasingly angry at the wastefulness, he might find it peaceful, or anything in between. The same applies to the smell of flowers or the softness of a sitting cushion. Is it a good thing or a bad thing, if so, why?

    I found that with these three questions you can flesh out a setting quite nicely with just a few key details. After you've set the general tone, the reader will well be able to imagine most of everything else themselves. After the garden, they have no reason to believe the rest of the maharaja's home is any less opulent. (Unless you specifically mention it, for example to characterize the maharaja as someone who keeps his garden pristine because it was started by his deceased wife, whereas he doesn't care about the rest of his home.)
     
  8. AlbusPHolmes

    AlbusPHolmes The Alchemist

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    Cries in aphantasia...

    On a more serious note, I can't visualise anything at all, but yeah Google Images can be really helpful. Otherwise I just make up a setting based on facts I know about the setting, and more importantly give it some sort of relevance beyond cool visuals by trying to tie it into the narrator's pov. I'll pull a few excerpts from some of my favorite authors here and sort of explain why I think those descriptions work very well, once I've gotten some shut-eye.
     
  9. Agent Zero

    Agent Zero Groundskeeper DLP Supporter

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    Yeah, the Google Images thing is pretty much what's been my go to. I have however recently come across a subreddit called r/ImaginaryArchitecture and they have some pretty good and detailed designs. Unfortunately most of them are fantasy based but there are a few that I've been using here and there.