Describing Environments?

How do you guys approach writing about environments or spatial descriptions. When I'm writing I have a very abstract image in my head of how things look. I usually add a little detail but leave the rest for the reader to fill in. But I've been told my writing lacks detail or is dry because of it.

This is harder for original areas because I have a idea of where locations are and how they look, but the distances may not be exact. I often find myself stuck trying to figure out how to explain a location or show the characters going from one place to the next. I'm not sure what should be where since my locations tend to be new, so I'm making up stuff on the spot. I find myself spending hours thinking of the right thing to say to help the reader visualize and I don't have that kind of time.


I understand it to be more of an intuitive and practice thing, but I can still try to field this question. Hopefully, I can help. All my subjective opinion, of course. But I'm going to have fun dissecting my method, here. Some cheats, here.

My starting point is always the senses. As someone who writes in the first person specifically, I believe it's natural to have the reader experience the environment as the POV character does. As opposed to "I approached the corner, ready to look out" I would try to diversify how I explain the action. Take the prior example and try something like, "My hand slid along the wall until I found the edge, inching to look out." Lost some efficiency, but we're not starting on an 'I' (which can become repetitive) and we have room to insert more information if we want. Such as changing 'wall' with 'the wet concrete,' or 'old boards'. We used Motion, too. More on that. I like a scattershot approach, to some degree. But we don't want to be too purple.

In my latest chapter, I never went out of my way to describe the environment in an expository way. The best rule I can propose and that I followed, is to think about motion. Interaction. I'd like to go over two examples from the last thing I wrote, which, as a first chapter, is an excellent place to set mood through description.

Motion, then consequence. Cause and effect. There are events, there are facts of your environment, but my understanding is that using words to build a scene works best when conveying action. If there's water, it's being kicked up by an oncoming car. Not simply 'the streets were flooded'. It's about conveying information while controlling attention. You do this automatically as a writer by leaving most details unsaid.

"Inset into the wall beside me was a vending machine. The face glowed brightly, a haze of red and orange backlighting the menu. In Chinese and English lettering, under pretty pictures and aside vibrant, happy food characters, items were listed."

Next cheat is light. Whenever you set a scene, light is the first thing I think about. The quality of the light (anyone else love Fortitude?). Light is the best way to mention coloration and by extension set moods very effectively. The noodle tent is orange lit? There's a reason for that. MOTION (especially gesture), LIGHT (especially color), and always, DIVERSIFY. Nothing is ever thrown, tossed, hurled, pitched, or flung twice. That goes for everything. I would suggest reading my or other's chapter, thinking about what angle they're using.

There's also rhythm, which is something I've picked up on many people using pretty overtly, including myself. That's beyond the scope of this post, though. That's all that comes to mind.

That's my spiel, my ramble, my piece. Hope it helped.

Depends on the viewpoint character. I try to use description the same way I use exposition: to say as much about the character as their environment. Some are precise, others evocative. Some focus on small details, others use their surroundings to pass comment on social, cultural or political issues. An artist is more aware of colours than others, while a photographer picks out small details, a scientist lists observations, and a poet spins a merry yarn filled with metaphor and simile.

When it comes to describing things, I pretty much add as much detail as my main character notices. A room can me large or small, plain or richly decorated. I generally don't go into more than the broad strokes unless it's relevant to the story (e.g. if characters are interacting with the environment) or a completely new concept that readers can't fill in themselves (i.e. a setting not drawn from real life or common fantasy tropes).

In terms of distances and travelling, I usually just state how long it takes the characters to get from point A to point B.

Honestly, I find stories with really long and detailed setting descriptions to be dry, not the ones that sketch things in minimal detail. As a reader, I feel like if you can't fill in details with your imagination, you might as well stick to visual media such as movies and comics.

Lots of good ideas above. I'm going to jump at this from a slightly different angle.

A good exercise, if you're willing to try it out, is to sit in whatever room you find comfortable and then describe it in writing. No limitations. Ideally, this might be your bedroom. Provided you aren't a medieval monk, live an extremely spartan lifestyle, or are not in prison currently, you'll have a lot of stuff around you to describe.

Don't just describe the walls, roof, floor and lighting. Describe what is around you and imagine you're telling all of this to an audience that is hanging on your every word. You are describing this scenery as the first introduction/chapter of your book on your life. If you have a stuffed animal on your bed, what is it and why is it there? Do you burn incense, spray perfumes, or do you have a mouldering stack of pizza boxes in the corner that gives the place an aroma? What kind of lighting do you prefer in that space? Where are things located and why do you have them there? Do you think you could move freely in that space in the dark? If you were to walk around in the dark, tell us what you'd feel or touch to get your bearings going from your bed to your door.

Now, do that kind of thing with other spaces. If you go to class, describe the lecture hall. Describe the atrium you might spend some time at before or after a class. Describe your favorite place to get coffee. Describe a location that is important to you from a memory. Go out sometime, provided you can, in the rain or a safe place at night and think about what is going on around you. How would you describe this setting to someone who doesn't have your eyes, your other senses, or your ability to be present there.

Try some exercises in exploring different sensory contexts with scenes. Maybe within your own story as a side thing to get your imagination flared up and build a routine for yourself to think about these things as you write. What does a place smell like? What does the ground feel like if you were to walk on it barefoot? How bright or dark is that place? Would you want to be there, or would you rather avoid that place? What kinds of memories and feelings might this place stir up in your characters?

Some big tips when describing scenes is to never use exact or objective descriptions. Avoid the "The room was 10 feet by 15 feet with a domed roof, and halfway down the adjacent wall was a wooden door about 6 feet in height with rusty hinges." That kind of thing might be fine if you're just starting out playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons, but even then after that first bad session, you should be using other things to describe the scene.

Sometimes it helps to grab some scene shots from movies or just ambient concept art sketches from the internet. Make a folder of these and tag them to key ideas or places for your story. Draw from these as 'reference shots.'

Another idea is to go back to movies. Watch some YouTube videos on cinematography of major directors you might like. How does Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick do a shot for a scene? What kind of feelings come out of certain lighting, props, camera angles and the like. Put yourself into a scene and describe that as an author. What would it be like to be inside the apartment scene with Jules and Vincent during the "What?" scene at the start of Pulp Fiction? How would you describe what it is like inside Bilbo Baggin's house in the Shire? How can you emphasize the feeling of fear and dread if you were describing a section of the Nostromo from Alien?

Don't get caught up in exactness. Although you can go nuts with exercises to see what feels right to you and what doesn't. Look at ways to tone stuff down to the bare points you need to convey the image or feeling to your reader. Try exercises where you're only allowed to describe a dozen things in a room. Then a half dozen. Then three things. Then a single object and it's profound significance.

Another technique is to experiment with 'coax' words. Try describing an object or area. List all the ways you would describe it. Like 20 words or so. Then re-describe that object or area without using any of those words you listed. Try using disjointed wording or metaphors. Some will be really silly like a 'spicy sunset' but you'll soon find disjointed words that add a poetic atmosphere to things. Describing a rain like droplets of blood on a drum-skin captures more than saying the weather sucked that day.

Never shy away from doing some exercises with your writing.

Also always remember when to cut your scene and gloss over down-time with writing. You don't have to describe every day and night of an epic quest. It's enough to drop in a quick sentence or paragraph of glossed over information. Or better yet, describe it through character interactions and dialogue. Maybe one character snored too loudly and it's driving another of their adventuring companions nuts.

Artists need to gather up references, styles, and learn techniques. Musicians need to learn chords, melodies, and the like. Writers... Well we gather personal experiences. That's what we draw from. Memories. Feelings. Perceptions. And yeah, a few fancy words or grammar uses.

You need to go out and watch the world around you. Frame it in your mind. Then use words to paint that canvas the same way you see it. The point is, it's how you would see it, or one of the characters in your story. No one else can see it that the same way.

Have fun with it. Everything you do to describe a scene, gives you mileage as a writer. Every memory you have. Every feeling you have. Every way you can communicate things to others.

I'll end this here or else I'll end up going off about the art of things.

As far as what I do... I come to writing from a background with art (specifically concept art and illustration) and from having done a lot of courses in film (film directing, screen-writing, and the like). I frame my scene. I use a character to pan through it like a camera would. I try to convey as many senses as I can, although I heavily depend on visuals. I also like to sneak in exposition whenever possible.

Some people absolutely hate my style. Those people tend to be really left-brained computer programmer types. I've yet to have any difficulty with right-brained creative types beyond my wordiness (in both description and exposition). Your mileage may vary with the way I might say to do things. So, go with what I mentioned above and just have fun exploring -your- way of doing things.

I've thought about this a lot. My main character has the superpower that allows him to make "goldberg devices" from the environment to suit his ends, so the very thing you are talking about is at the core of my novel. (By the way, it also makes him look super lucky)

There are a lot of techniques that can help you with this, but the big one for me is to consider the Tralfamadorian nature of the way people comprehend reading. People read forwards, but they comprehend backwards. As long as each successive thing builds on the thing before it, which keeps the reader from being bumped, you can kinda cheat by solidifying an additional relationship after the fact. In the abstract:

A begets B which begets C which begets D which begets E. Walking from B to E was easy. Sally came from C and fred came from B and they met up at E.

Even with just the skeleton, you can see that they did not walk the same path, but you only comprehend that when you go backwards, or rather when you look at the whole passage in total, like a Tralfamadorian novel (and if you don't get the reference, please read some Vonnegut - you are just depriving yourself) The trick here is to do such a thing quickly enough that the information comes to the reader in one block. In this way, you can get relative positions down without resorting to graph paper. It takes a bit to figure out the trick, but the concept is multipurpose. A little neuroscience now and then goes a long way.