Linda Maye Adams

Visualizing the Setting


A couple of writers and I were talking on a list serve about describing setting — in this case, having trouble getting it into the story. Right up my alley. One of the writers said she didn’t get a visual image of the setting, so she had a hard time even remembering to get it on the page.

Then there’s me. I’m visual spatial, which means I think in pictures. You’d think that would translate easily into describing setting …

Not so much.

My default, in fact, is to simply leave it all out. It’s in my head, and it doesn’t get on the page unless I make the effort to do it — sometimes a lot of effort.

It’s hard taking a picture and translating it into words.

Add to that I don’t do well with the details, or the telling details as it’s been described for writers. I see more of the big picture, and the details tend to fold themselves up into that. So the woods are the woods. I can see them, and I get the picture, but I lose the specifics. So putting down that the character walked through the woods or that everything was brown makes perfect sense to me because I’m getting the picture, but then everyone says I didn’t describe anything.

But I can see the picture — why wouldn’t it be simple describing the setting?

I have to stop and think “Details.” Then it’s “What details are important to this character?”

I don’t think in details, so I’m having to do two things, both of which are very hard:

  1. Translate the details, which is sort of like translating French when I don’t speak the language.
  2. Sort through the big picture and try to figure out what details are important.

And none of this is like a description exercise where the goal is to treat the setting as if we were looking at a picture. Just about as dull as no description. It’s not about simply writing down what I see, but trying to figure out what the character would notice.

But also, it’s not just describing the setting once and getting it out of the way. If the character stays in that setting, there is constantly new setting information being introduced (about every 500 words) because he is still interacting with that setting. So I’m constantly having to revisit and translate that picture into words, at least two to three times in every scene, and it has to shift because it obviously can’t be about the same thing.

Take this picture of the tulips blooming:

Yellow and red tulips blooming

My default: Tulips were blooming at the side of the building.

Translation: Yellow and red tulips had started to bloom next to the building, soaking up a patch of warm sunshine. I wanted to lay down there with them and get some of that sunshine, against the warm, damp earth, and let the cool breeze carry everything else away.  I also knew I wasn’t going to get that.

This is not something I can let go for later and do a placeholder that says DESCRIBE TULIPS.  When I pulled the character into the description, it becomes a major piece of the scene that needs be in there.  So it’s constant state of trying to translate the pictures for each scene.

2 Comments

  1. Setting is setting. In the first person, I think it’s easier to describe, because I am deep in the character’s head and he’s only to notice so many things.

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    • Setting is characterization. It’s what the character notices and how they notice it.

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