Description and Detail

Sorry, folks, it’s another preachy one.

Because it’s essay time right now, about the only writing stuff I get to do on any form of regular basis are the tabletop RPGs I run.  And about the only form of actual writing I get to do in those is describing things.

One of my campaigns is, sadly, suffering a little at the moment for my lack of time to plan ahead.  Our sessions are slapdash, hasty things I vaguely link together.  I hate random encounters – they seem so forced and tacked-on – but I’ve been relying on them a little lately just to bulk out sessions and give some weight to them.  At least I’ve been able to give them some form of relationship to the plot and tone.

But then a friend of mine called me up on Skype late last night, asking if I could run a quick campaign.  It was better than another article on genre theory, so I agreed.  It was just the two of us.  To begin the campaign, I had a few pictures of places and people for inspiration, and a basic trigger for the character.  And from there, I created a world and a campaign.
We didn’t get very far.  In fact, we never even got out of the first town, but I honestly believe that was the best town I’ve described in a game in months. It felt like a cohesive world, at least to me.  It felt like somewhere with particular customs, particular people, a particular feel and atmosphere. The most recent town I described in my larger game couldn’t hope to have that.  So what gives?  What did I do differently?

Funnily enough, I described the town and its surrounds much closer to what I’d be describing if I were writing a book, rather than running a game.

First off, I was tailoring the description to the character.  It’s really quite freeing, having only one player.  It played out a lot more like a collaborative story than a party of players in a situation I created.  And I love that.  But in terms of describing the situation, what it meant was that I could go ahead and say things like “From the way your sister described it, you were expecting taller buildings, but these are squat and solid”.
A lot of the time, when I see people giving description advice, particularly for first-person or third limited works, this is the advice they give: “Always consider the character – give the description through them.”
That’s great.  I love that advice.
One problem.
How?  The bit that people usually fail to put next is what they actually mean by that.
Well, that’s not entirely true.  The bit that comes next usually falls into two categories.  The first is show how the character feels about the things they’re seeing.  Are they impressed by the huge fortress wall, having seen nothing like it. Are they excited to see the smoke on the horizon, because it means they’ve arrived home?  This is a really good start.  But too often, I see it done separately to the description.  Consider:
“The great city appeared on the horizon, just beyond the wide river.  The bridge was wooden, but just beyond, became cobblestones, and then became a huge portcullis, manned by guards at the top.  The smell of the city wafted from over the walls – even at this distance, the smell of horses and cooking meat and bread, and the thousand other odours of a thriving city overpowered everything else.  As Arthur drew closer, he couldn’t help but smile.  He hadn’t been here since he was a boy, and everything had the tang of nostalgia”
That’s alright description.  But notice how, even with the addition of Arthur’s feelings about the city, there’s not a whole lot going on until the end sentence?  Compare:
“Arthur hadn’t been home since he was small enough to ride double with his father without inconveniencing the horse.  He’d been silent since he first saw the huge walls on the horizon – topped by guards watching over the portcullis.  Yes, there was the wooden bridge … and the old cobblestones, turning the soft thud of the horse’s hooves to a sharp clack.  He’d been so delighted to hear that change, once.  Even the smell – people and horses and cooking and laundry on a clear morning – carried the tang of nostalgia”
Maybe the description is the same quality, but everything is now in Arthur’s head, coloured by his memories and his thoughts and his nostalgia.  This is truly making description do double-duty as characterisation.

Second, I really picked my details.  This links back into showing what the character would notice, but here, you’re really catering to the reader as well.  Here, you’re giving character to the setting as well.  After all, which is the more interesting setting: “The streets were thin and dimly lit, full of people selling items from stalls – amulets and glass beads struck through with gorgeous colours.  Around a corner, someone played a melancholy song on an instrument Maeve wasn’t familiar with.  A vendor shoved something on a stick into her face, and she waved it away, not hungry and not trusting the meat they sold here.”
Or
“The houses seemed to lean over each other, to shadow the street.  Although it was mid-afternoon, the vendors lining the sides of the street had already lit bulbous paper lanterns, casting puddles of light over themselves and the trays of curios they held on their laps.  Around a corner, Maeve heard an instrument – a melancholy plucking, accompanied by a man’s high, thin voice singing in an unfamiliar tongue.”
They might well be the same scene, but choosing a different set of details to notice changes the character of the setting.  Meat on sticks is common – paper lanterns and that particular instrument?  That’s new, and interesting, to the reader.  And that’s how I choose those details.  Equally by what jumps out to the character and what should jump out to the reader.  What makes this setting not quite the same as any other fantasy-setting merchant city?  What is special about this street of New York or Melbourne?  Particularly if you’re going for a truly weird or unfamiliar feel – a whole lot of little details being just slightly off will do more legwork for you than everything being hugely and massively different.

And third, I had limited time. I was typing all of this over Skype, so I didn’t have the time to compose pages and pages of description, and if I had, I would have bored the skin off my friend.  If I’d written pages and pages in a novel, it would have been exactly the same thing, though with less immediate feedback.  So not only did I have to pick my details, I had to pick a very few of them.  I don’t have a rule of thumb about this, except perhaps only three details per scene described, maximum.  So, for the street sign, the street vendors are one thing, and the instrument is one.  For the vendors, I only note 1) the paper lanterns, and 2) the trays on their laps.  For the instrument, I note that 1) it’s a melancholy sound, 2) the instrument is plucked.  I could probably go into more details on both of those, but I’d drown the reader.  Some call it broad-brushstrokes, but I prefer to call it ‘connect-the-dots’.  If you set the scene well and establish tone, you’re giving the reader a few anchor points and letting them fill in a whole picture based on the atmosphere.

And that’s quite enough ranting from me.  Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything or said something completely stupid.  I’ll be back to editing in a week, so probably some editing posts coming up, frenzied ranting and level-headed discussion alike.

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