Describing Things The Way My Brain Processes an Image

Setting is hard for me to write. It’s always the point where I slow to a slug’s pace. I think the main reason for this is when I read, I never give the setting my full attention. Just give me the basics so I can concentrate on the dialogue and character arc. Not surprising, dialogue and character arc I do well.

Up until now, I thought I set the scene well enough, but I’ve been reading craft about plot and story structure, which has helped a lot. Unfortunately, (but really fortunately) strengthening those muscles has shown me how weak my setting muscles are.

To Amazon!

I decided on two books, Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle and Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan. I started with Description & Setting. So far, so good. The early chapters give techniques for being more observant like carrying a notebook or journaling. There’s a chapter coming up about using the five sense for description, which isn’t something new I’ve heard, but it got me thinking about how the brain processes an image.

When we see, for example, a car, the reason we know it’s a car is because of our memories. But we don’t have a memory file labeled “car” in our brain. When an image comes up the optic nerve, our brain pulls data from numerous parts of our mind and puts them together to tell us what we’re looking at. The shape, size, color and a host of other traits are combined so we’re able to say, “That’s a car.” It’s a complex system and I want to bring that to my writing.

Sometimes a tree is just a tree, but if that tree will work to set a tone or build on my character’s mood, it can’t be just a tree. It has to be more than just a tree so the reader can connect on the same level as I do. If I want a reader to feel like they’re at the coffee shop with my characters, I could say coffee shop and most everyone will know what that’s like. But why stop there? Why not compliment their memories with some details? Obviously, the balancing act of when I need more description or scene setting is mine to figure out.

I’d like to finish Description & Setting this week, so I can put the lessons to work right away.

5 comments on “Describing Things The Way My Brain Processes an Image

  1. “Sometimes a tree is just a tree, but if that tree will work to set a tone or build on my character’s mood, it can’t be just a tree.”>
    I like this line because this is a lot of what beginning writers struggle with. Some tend to want to create rich, immersive (spell check says that’s not a word) settings by describing everything. Which often leads to reader boredom or impatience, rather than immersion.

    I was watching TV recently–and I cannot remember what I was watching–and I pretty much thought the action was over, but something about the way the camera lingered on the door before the character opened it worked very well to say Nope, not over yet; there may be something behind that door. It was subtly done and provided a nice moment of anticipation of if and what.

    When a writer focuses the camera (reader’s attention) on irrelevant details, not only does it tax the reader’s attention, but it builds an expectation that those plants will pay off later. If they don’t, there’s confusion and disappointment. [Right now I’m reading a book (trad) that is just laden with detail, a lot of it anecdotal. I’m frustrated because I’m having trouble following the thread of the plot and am concerned that I’m supposed to remember all this history and detail about the world. I suspect that I’m not, that it’s just local color, but I don’t know what it’s okay to ignore and it makes for hard reading.]

    So I think the art of setting and description is learning when to pan and when to zoom in and focus, when to sketch and when to paint.

    My personal bias, for both external settings and internal feeling, is for me as the writer to become the character and write from their point of view. Then it’s easier for me to determine what details they’d be more likely to notice (keeping in mind what I need them to notice) and what’s most important to them. But that doesn’t work for broader viewpoints where you have to be observant enough for everyone.

    • For the story I’m working on now, the broader viewpoint just feels right. The whole TV show element in the story was another factor that got me thinking that there was homework I needed to do. I think it’ll be interesting to make the cameras a character as well. They have no agenda except to record the facts. How will they see my story world differently than my people characters? How will that enhance my story? Questions that need answering.

      P.S. Please forward any answers to these questions to my email.

  2. Setting…that can be a hard one. Where do you draw the line between too much description and not enough? Susan says not to write details about food. I love writing about food, and judging from some of the comments on my blog when I mentioned I described food too much, many of the readers enjoy reading about food. But I DO know it’s something I need to work on. I sometimes don’t do ENOUGH description in my settings. I don’t want to bore people, and yet I want them to get the feel of the setting. And then there was the time I wrote one book, and one beta reader said I had too much description and another one said I didn’t have enough! Grrrrr. I think reading the craft books is probably a good idea for you. As long as these books are written by seasoned authors who know their stuff, they can be very helpful. We learn through advice from those who have been at this a long time and also through practice. We strive to get better and better, and hopefully we achieve that goal.

    • Like Susan said, we have to decide how what we’re putting in enhances or moves the story along. Depending on how it’s used, I think you describe just about anything.

      Suppose the scene is two people having a quiet dinner at home. Person A has poisoned person B’s food and the poison has started to take effect. Rather than help person B, person A continues to eat while raving about how delicious the food is. So, person B dies knowing his “friend” is the killer and we see what a sadistic monster person A is.

      Or maybe, using the dinner scene again, the two people eating are taking a break from a tough case (legal, crime, etc). One guy looks in his alphabet soup and gets the eureka moment to solve the case.

      I wouldn’t necessarily trust the blog comments because, in situations like that, I think there’s such a thing as too many opinions. Some people will agree, maybe some won’t and you’re back to square one. The most important opinion is yours. If you like describing food, then find other authors who’ve done that and figure out why it worked. I know Diane Davidson Mott writes a culinary series of mysteries. I’ll bet there are loads of techniques to pick up. The most important thing (and this where I’m in total agreement with Susan) is to make sure everything we describe works to bring our readers deeper into the story. That way they come back for more!

      • Or like in The Gnome when there’s a scene where they’re eating pizza and moaning in delight and it starts to sound like something sexual. It kind of pushes the plot along because the couple are working toward a relationship. 🙂

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