Imploding Lifeless Descriptions

Although I am not a fan of long descriptive passages, or even short ones that add nothing to the story, I do think that setting is important. We readers need to know where we are, and why. We need enough description to get our imaginations flowing, though not so much that we feel the story is the author’s alone; we want to be a participant in the process.

Setting need not be static. It can be a character with its own personality, scars, weaknesses, strengths, emotions, and moods. Like the other characters in the story, we should get to know it little by little, not in big chunks of exposition. And, like the characters, it should change; or at least our perception of it should change.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the space given to description should be in relation to its importance. There is no point in writing a long description of a setting that will disappear from the book before the readers have fixed it in their minds. For one thing, it delays the action unnecessarily; for another, readers won’t forgive the false impression.

For my work in progress, I envisioned a fabulous pet store. It was a standalone building with its own parking lot. The building was in the shape of a U, with the main room across the front and two wings. Because it was once a doctor’s office, there were several little rooms in each wing. My character, Chip, created special habitats in the rooms, like a mini forest for the owl and a large terrarium for the reptiles. In the center of the U was a courtyard that the doctors once used for an outdoor eating area, but Chip had enclosed it with wire mesh, filled it with exotic plants and small trees, and used it as a retreat for the birds and small animals.

As I was designing the store, I encountered several problems: the birds were tropical, and would not have done well outside in Denver’s harsh climate. The terrariums for the reptiles would turn into charnel houses because the creatures would eat each other. But even with the problems, I was loath to implode my store; I spent a lot of time creating it and I thought it was a great idea.

Then I started writing it. To make it more than a lifeless description such as the one here, I had to give it several paragraphs and for what? Within a few short chapters the store would disappear (along with the entire neighborhood). It didn’t make sense to give so much space to something that was obviously unimportant when a plain old store would work just as well and with fewer descriptive words to delay the action. Besides, anything the fabulous store said about Chip was more entertainingly portrayed by his relationship with the animals.

While my setting — Denver in the not too distant future — is important, the store wasn’t. Whatever words I would have wasted on the store, I will spend creating a living, changing, vital setting for Chip to interact with. Because of that interaction, I won’t need long descriptive passages for readers to skim over.

That’s the plan, anyway.

13 Responses to “Imploding Lifeless Descriptions”

  1. Suzanne Francis Says:

    Although I respect your decision to get rid of the pet store description, I think you could have used it, with a little modification. It says a lot about the character, if he is the owner, that he cares enough about animals to make such a sympathetic environment for them. You don’t have to belabor the point, but the shop sounds charming, much nicer that an “ordinary” pet shop. Wouldn’t it make sense to include it, especially if you are trying to portray his sense of loss afterwards? An ordinary pet shop would be less effective, IMHO.

  2. Bertram Says:

    Hmmm. You’ve got a point. I’ll have to think about this.

  3. lynn doiron Says:

    I agree with Suzanne. Even with the “lifeless”, as you put it, details of this amazing pet store, I found myself very interested in the character that would “try” to create such a place. And if the reptile room became a charnel house, or started to, that could be a flaw on his part to sort through (maybe). From what you’ve offered in the blog, I identify with the idea that people have big dreams, hopes, aspirations, not only for themselves but for what they love, but we forget (sometimes) the principles of nature; sometimes we cause more harm than good.

  4. Bertram Says:

    I wonder, though, if he did the store the way I have it portrayed here, would it detract from his dream of having a ranch where the animals could roam free? And if the animals weren’t in cages, would it detract from the parallelism of his ending up in a cage like his animals?

  5. sonjanitschke Says:

    I agree with Suzanne as well.

    As for the ranch (forgive me if I’m being forward, I tend to do that sometimes), but pet store animals and ranch animals are different. To me, creating such a sympathetic environment says that he wants the pet store animals to be free in their natural habitat — but since that’s not happening, to be as free as they can in the circumstances they already are.

  6. Bertram Says:

    Be as forward as you want! If comments bothered me, I’d write a diary with a lock on it. (Never was able to do that, though.)

    At the very least, because of your comment, I now know I’ll have to add a few more words to better focus his dream.

    One good thing about writing today is that I don’t have to chisel it in stone, which makes it easier to change. I’ll probably wait until I get further into the book before making any changes, though. See what develops. I’m still leary of spending too much time on descriptions too early — with the whole mother thing and having to add a young woman (to show one of Chip’s character flaws which he will overcome when he meets his life mate) I’m afraid I’m taking too long to get to the meat of the story.

    But that’s what rewrites are for!

  7. nomananisland Says:

    Instead of parallelism, it could be ironic that his animals had more freedom than he does. And the dream has more to do with freedom than ranches or pet stores.

    And the charnel house thing is workable, because it would show the flaws in playing God, we don’t have all the answers — because I’m also assuming that his captors are going to have trouble once they try to take Chip’s freedom.

    I hope you’re only using that name facetiously and have something else planned for the novel, though. 😉

  8. nomananisland Says:

    Oh yeah — and one more reason the setting of the store is important:

    Your readers don’t know you’re going to blow it up. If you build it and make them care about it, its destruction is more significant and unexpected. If it’s an irrelevance, they won’t care once it’s gone, and won’t believe that Chip should care either. If it was an amazing place, they’ll miss it.

  9. Bertram Says:

    What’s wrong with the name Chip? No, I’m not going to use it. I chose it because it’s close to the character’s name and because I wanted to keep the blog writing separate from the book, but I’m getting rather fond of Chip.

    The whole novel is about freedom — how much safety we will give up for freedom, and how much freedom we will give up for safety, so I am trying to present Chip’s store, his dream, his adventures in a way that illustrates the theme.

  10. nomananisland Says:

    Well, let me put it this way:

    In the movie “Hitch,” Sarah meets a man in a bar who relentlessly flirts with her. She asks his name:

    “They call me Chip.”

    “Can’t you get them to stop?”

  11. Bertram Says:

    That’s hilarious. Okay, I won’t call him Chip.

    You’ll laugh at this: my book is turning into an allegory. How bizarre is that, considering the discussions we’ve had!

  12. nomananisland Says:

    I noticed. I find it ironically amusing, in a good way. Everyone needs to stretch their boundaries once in awhile and try new things.

    Watch it be your best work. 😉

  13. Bertram Says:

    Wouldn’t that be a kick, especially since I’m writing it just for fun.


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