Monday, February 1, 2016

Prose Blip – Descriptions of Places

Two weeks ago, I talked about describing people, and today I’d like to move the spotlight and highlight… well, everything else.

Now, descriptions of people are usually easy, compared to places. It’s easy to picture faces (this is actually due to our brain’s large capacity for facial recognition -- your random psychology fact of the day), but not always easy to describe a building or a mountain or a field of grass.

There are, however, a few simple ways to go about it.

Create a Floorplan

When you’re describing a building (and characters walking through it), create a floorplan. I borrow that little phrase from a friend of mine who liked to comment on novels she critiqued with “I can’t see where all these rooms are, do you have a floorplan?”
Basically, the places your characters live and work need to make sense. If the rooms are all sort of floating in blackness with random halls connecting them, then it doesn’t make sense.
A peasant’s hut should have two rooms at most, a palace should have dozens.

Now, this floorplan is for you. Very few novels include the floorplan of every (or any) buildings detailed within. However, a good author knows what they’re dealing with. So a simple sketch of “this room is here, that room there, this hall connects them like this” is plenty. So long as you can detail how to get from this room to that room (eg, “turn left, down the hall, second door on the right”), then you’ve got yourself a floorplan.
This floorplan will help you know such things as: 

-how long it takes to walk from one room to the next
-how many turns a character must make to get to [insert specific room]
-how big the structure has to be
-and so forth

Not all buildings can have a floor plan. It’s not feasible for you to outline miles and miles of corridors in the Emperor’s Palace of Palatial Size. That would be ridiculous. If, however, there are a few important rooms, jot down how to get there from the main entrance and the back entrance.
Now you know what your building’s interior is mapped out like.

Lists are Your Friend

Usually I stand firm on the belief that the only useful lists are grocery lists, but I’m going to amend that belief to include "descriptor" lists.

When you create a place (a building, a meadow, a forest, a tower, anything), take a moment to bullet-point the basic aspects. 

Let’s take a tower in the forest, for example. Its descriptor list might look like:
a) tall and narrow, circular
b) made of sandstone, with a conical roof of wood
c) covered in ivy and other cliché creeping plants
d) surrounded by trees, mainly oaks and firs
e) inhabited by large feral rats and a boy named Happy

Boom. Done.
Take a minute for each important place and give the vague details. What is the building made of? What kind of trees and animals live in the forest? How many servants staff the mansion? What outbuildings surround the keep? Are there specific gardens or plants near this place? Significant landmarks, like ponds or rivers or old trees or caves or rock spires?

You don’t have to list excessive amounts of details. Find a balance. If your story demands little detail, give little detail. If your story demands much detail, give much detail. Every story is different, along with every style. Some styles require so much description it can become a distraction to the reader, and vice versa. The important thing is to find the balance between too much and too little description. Both are bad.

Find the Vivid, Find the Important

I wanted to finish with these two things. As with describing people, be diverse, but also be vivid. Use the strongest words, the most concise and clear you can find. Never, ever settle for vagueness (unless you’re talking about a castle made of fog that is supposed to be vaguely shaped).

In addition, find the important details. If your character enters a room, make sure they note all the things that need to be in the scene later: people, chairs, fireplaces, papers, dogs, magic lanterns that glow hot pink when in the presence of an evil wizard, and so forth. Objects that need to be in the scene should be described before they are needed.

And that’s it: floorplan, descriptor list, vivid imagery, important objects.

Descriptions of places are just as important as the descriptions of people. Without descriptions of places, your characters wander through a fog of gray. Without descriptions of people, you have gray-outlined character wandering through a fog of gray.
Gray on gray is boring.

Don’t be boring.

What do you think? Have any tips on describing places and things? Leave a comment and share!

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  1. Great blip! I never really thought about creating a floor plan before.

  2. It's harder to use a floor plan when the setting is a ship... but really great/helpful blip. :)

    1. Actually, a floorplan for a ship might be rather interesting; because some ships (obviously it depends on the size and so forth) have enough decks that such a plan might be /ideal/.
      For instance, some ships would have a forecastle (where the mates sleep), cabins in the back and lower deck, with a galley (for the cook), cargo holds, bunking areas, and so forth.

      But yes, that would be a harder floor plan to create. ;)

    2. Hmm, yeah, I suppose you do have a point. My problem is, I'm not really sure where everything is on a ship, such as the forecastle, the galley, cabins, and everything else you mentioned. =P It just takes a lot of research to figure it all out.

    3. It DOES take a lot of research, but it's kinda fun, isn't it? =P
      I actually wrote a story involving a ship, once (well, quite a few ships), and so have done a bit of research on them. If you like, I've got a few links I saved from that story (this is why you /never/ get rid of resources, right?):
      Best of luck with your story!

    4. Yeah, it can be fun.
      Ooh, cool, thank you! =D