A story’s environment is vitally important, but how do we describe it? Too little description and the reader feels like the story takes place in a blank white void. Too much description and the plot gets lost. Should you use unusual and distinctive words, or will they only confuse the reader? What about employing senses other than sight? We’ll cover all that and more, plus a little detour into the world of audio dramas.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: This episode is brought to you by our patron: Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Oren: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren; with me today is…
Oren: And our returning special guest, Ariel.
Ariel: Hi! [laughs]
Oren: And today, we’re going to be talking about describing the environment. Or basically, anything that is not the characters, or at least not the POV character themselves. I don’t know; I think that it might be overrated. I think that if you just have a book that’s just entirely dialogue with no description, I think you’d be fine. Like, what do you even need those other words for? [Chris laughs]
Chris: Maybe you should just make sure to work all of your environmental description into the dialogue. [Oren agrees] ‘As you and I both know, there’s a table between us, and on the table is some documents.’ [laughs]
Oren: Oh man, that’s like- okay, so you can actually get away with that in audio plays.
Chris: Oh, that’s right, cause there’s no other way to do it, right?
Oren: I mean, you try to do it with like, sound cues and stuff, and context, but sometimes you kind of just have to have a character be like, ‘look! A thing approaching!’ And then describe the thing. [Chris laughs] And it’s like, ‘okay, that’s a little awkward,’ but in audio dramas, we’re more willing to forgive it.
Chris: Do audio dramas also sometimes just have narrators, on top of the- or is that unusual?
Oren: They do, sometimes. But that’s cheating.
Chris: Oh, I see. [laughs]
Oren: I mean, that’s actually- one of the things that generally defines an audio drama- that’s actually what defines an audio drama, versus a novel being read, is that in audio dramas, you don’t have a narrator describing things, cause once you have a narrator describe one thing, you can just kind of describe everything.
Oren: You might as well- at that point, you’re just doing a novel.
Chris: I’m sure it’s considered to be like, a voiceover in a movie, right? Sort of heavy-handed.
Oren: Yeah, and it takes away from the basic feel that you want from an audio drama anyway. Audio dramas are supposed to replicate television, but without the video. Anyway, I don’t think this is about the environment, but, you know… [Chris laughs]
Chris: I guess I would consider the environment to be the general scenery. Like, the set, if you were having a play.
Oren: I understand that, from talking to other people, that using senses is a big one. People are- like, I hear smell is described a lot as being important. Which, I always have a hard time with, cause I don’t- I’m not really a very smell person. There’s a term for that, but I don’t know what it is. I’m not a very smell person. I’ll smell something if it’s really strong, but otherwise, I mostly go through life blissfully unaware of odors.
Chris: I mean, the tips that I see a lot are just a lot of people encouraging you to not just do visuals, the easy one that comes to people’s minds first, and to go to the other senses. And I think that can make it a little bit more immersive, but also push you to be a little bit more creative, which I think is kind of important with your description, to have something that does not- you want to be clear.
Now, there are several writers, definitely, in more literary fields, that feel like creativity is more important than clarity, but I’m definitely pro-clarity. [Ariel laughs] But having it be creative, it’s hard to underestimate- I mean, it’s hard to overestimate how much entertainment value can go into like, the wording of a book, and how you’re describing the surroundings, I think is a big part of that.
So, I think one of- the place that I usually start with when talking about description, describing environment, is talking about, like, when and how much? Particularly, this is an issue when the work opens because there’s just so much competition for space at the very beginning of a work or the beginning of a scene, too often, where you need the reader to know everything at once. So, what are you going to do first?
And if you do too little description of the environment when a story opens, or when a scene opens, it has a couple problems. One, it can feel like characters are just floating in a void right away. And then, if you try to clarify it later, it can feel really jarring. It’s like, ‘oh, I thought they were inside. They’re out in the forest?’ Or just kind of unpleasant.
At the same time, if you do too much, your opening usually becomes boring, unless your environmental description is really interesting, and there are some writers capable of that. But for most people, that’s just going to be a boring opening; and that’s possibly even worse, because people aren’t going to read further if your opening isn’t interesting.
Oren: Yeah. They just put the book down right there.
Chris: I guess the balance I try to do is, I try to work in some environmental hints in the first paragraph, so that we know like, whether the person is outside or inside. [Ariel laughs] Something very general so you’re not going to be totally stunned, but at the same time, focusing mostly on other things in at least the first paragraph. Ariel, do you have an opinion on this?
Ariel: I think that you can definitely go too far at the beginning in describing the environment, and it’s going to put a lot of readers off. I always just aim for like, exactly enough- [Chris laughs] -so that the reader knows they’re not just floating around in this weird, white space. Are their feet on the ground? [laughs]
Chris: I guess if I were, for instance, opening in a forest, I might mention like, the trees overhead or something like that. And then that would pretty much- cause then, people know that they’re in a forest, we’re outside, and then the rest can usually be left for the next paragraph.
That would be the kind of level I would personally go for, something that gives you a general context without spending a lot of time- now, sometimes an environment is interesting, where you’re looking at something really cool, and it’s a cool part of the worldbuilding, in which case, I think it’s a little better to spend more of the paragraph- if you have a really unusual setting- let’s say that somebody is in- working in an office that is dangling over an open volcano- [laughs]
Oren: Hmm. That could be fun.
Chris: I feel like, in that case, where you have something really unusual and entertaining, and it hints at some really unique worldbuilding, then that can almost be your opening hook itself, and so, then you could probably spend- you would usually try to have an additional hook and not just rely on that by itself in the opening paragraph, but I think, in that case, you could spend a significant portion of the opening paragraph just describing it, because it’s so unusual.
Oren: Yeah, I’d agree. This is actually one advantage that starting your story with a fight has, in my experience. Presumably, the fight should be important to the story. You don’t want to just start with your character getting jumped by some random street thug. But it can be useful, because a physical confrontation makes it very natural to include descriptions of the surroundings, because your character is having to interact with them in violent ways.
Like, if your character gets- if the story opens with the character getting slammed on the ground, it’s reasonable to describe what that ground looks like, cause that feels like it’s just natural. And that’s what The Blade Itself does when it opens. And The Blade Itself also uses descriptive- I think tactile is the best word; like, adjectives and nouns, and even verbs sometimes, just to get a feel for this… pretty normal forest, actually. It’s not a super weird forest; it’s a normal forest when you get to it.
But like, the description just makes it sound more real, talking about the slush, and like, the prickling of the needles as he’s moving through the undergrowth. That sort of thing.
Ariel: I hadn’t thought about that before, how like, if they’re slammed up against a dumpster, then you would probably guess that they’re in an alley.
Oren: And I mean, you have to think a little bit about that in terms of like, ‘what are you implying by the description you do include?’ And like, ‘when you fill in the rest, are you going to confuse the reader or make them feel like they’ve been lied to?’ Cause that’s not a fun feeling; readers don’t love that.
Chris: Just to build on that: so, I have one story that’s on the site, where it has a tree that’s inside of a temple. And when I did my first draft, it was confusing, because I was describing a tree- [Ariel laughs] -and then people assumed it was outdoors, naturally; and then, of course, it was jarring when they found out, ‘wait a second, what’s going on? Are we inside?’
Oren: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chris: So, it became critical that when I introduce the tree, I also introduced contextual details. I think in this case, I said it was on an altar, or something, to hint at the actual environment that it was around so people wouldn’t think it was outside.
Oren: It’s like, the first paragraph opens with ‘the main character knelt at a tree. (Which was in a temple, guys. Not outside.)’ [Chris and Ariel laugh] Don’t just make assumptions cause it’s a tree. [Chris laughs]
Chris: Oh, no.
Oren: I do have a theory that fantasy, in general, tends to use more creative description than sci-fi does. Just based on my own experience; and I suspect the reason for that is that, in most cases, fantasy is trying to find new and exciting ways to describe things that we already know, like, normal things like forests. That takes a lot of work, right? It’s like, one of the reasons Tolkien is great is because Tolkien could make forests interesting.
Whereas sci-fi is trying to describe weird space things that most people don’t have any direct experience with, and if you start trying to get weird and evocative in that, it’s just confusing. I know an example of that was a book that Ariel really loved; it was called Babel(babble)-17. Or Babel(bay-bal)-17, I don’t know. But I remember Ariel was a huge fan of that book.
Ariel: Of all the setting in that book, the only thing that stuck in my brain was ‘these people are really cramped.’ [silence] [Chris laughs]
Oren: They are. They were very cramped. But like, that book had- it was technically set in space, but it was just really hard to tell what anything looked like, because the author was just using all kinds of weird words that I didn’t understand, talking about ‘snaps’ and ‘aether-winds’ and all this, and I’m like, ‘wait, what kind- what is this? Are these real things that you’re using in-universe terms for, or did you make something up? I’m a little unclear; which one is it?’ So, that was strange and confusing.
Chris: There might be, also, other genre conventions that are contributing to that. And again, you can do the same thing with both fantasy and sci-fi, but I think a lot of the conventions in fantasy are that fantasy is supposed to be wonderous and mysterious. And so, I think that lends itself to more atmosphere-building and trying to do creative description to make it feel magical and wonderous.
Especially with the heritage from Tolkien because that is exactly what he did. He had a travel sequence and landscapes that he made sound fantastical by the way that he described them. And so, I think that is also part of what people think of and look for with fantasy. Whereas- I mean, personally, if I’m doing science fiction, I’m more likely thinking about creating a different kind of feeling for it, and not something that is more technical and less wonderous.
But not that that can’t be creative too; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and some other- cyberpunk can certainly have some very creative description. But I think that might be a contributing factor, as well as the ‘okay, I have to make this forest seem interesting,’ when every fantasy setting has a forest.
Oren: Right. And I think- maybe now that I think about it, it’s not even so much the divide between sci-fi and fantasy; it’s really more the divide between things that take place in completely alien environments versus things that take place in more familiar environments. Cause like, cyberpunk takes place inside cities, and most people know what a modern-day city looks like.
And so- cyberpunk, depending on your cyberpunk genre, does have some things about the cities that actually do look different. There’s generally more neon in your average cyberpunk city. But for the most part, they don’t- they still have to rely a lot on evocative description to make, for example, rain interesting, because it’s always raining in cyberpunk, right? [Chris laughs] And we all know what rain looks like, so they have to really amp it up.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a good point. If you have a really unusual setting and details that people aren’t really familiar with, then frankly, just describing them in itself has entertainment value. You don’t have to add as much novelty to it, so you don’t have to get as creative with your description. Clarity becomes a lot more important, or people become confused, as you said.
Whereas, if you have something familiar, you’re not really at a huge risk of confusing people, and there’s no inherent novelty in just, a forest, so now you have to add novelty with creative description.
Oren: Well, I’ve got a whole list of books here that I think are really good or bad at description, but I’m curious to hear more from Ariel. Ariel, is there anything that you’ve read recently that you thought was particularly good or bad?
Oren: Or, I mean, not recently. [Ariel laughs] Just whatever you remember. [Chris laughs]
Ariel: I think that probably my favorite book I’ve read in the last couple years was Life After Life. And the description of the setting- I mean, it’s a setting that we’re all familiar with; it’s twentieth century England. But the description is so crisp. Every word that she goes, you know exactly how her house is laid out, you know how the apartments she goes into are laid out, you know the bomb shelter that she’s in in bombed-out London.
But it never gets in the way of your enjoyment and watching the events that unfold, and each of the environments that she’s in says something about the life that she’s currently living through.
Chris: So, it sounds like she has quite a bit of detail, but just enough so that it’s not getting in the way of plot or getting boring.
Oren: And I mean, that’s the sort of thing where, if your book- if your story, not just your book, but if your story is very tied to place, if the place is really important, then that’s another reason to spend more time on description and details. If Tolkien does- you know, one of Tolkien’s problems is that he spends a lot of time describing things that aren’t really important and that we will never see again. So, that’s one area that- where his description kind of cuts the other way.
It’s like, ‘did I really need to know all of that description about, like, Tom Bombadil’s house? Or this Barrow-wight hill that- we’re never coming back to that?’ But probably, I could have done with a little less.
Chris: It’s a really tricky balance, because with the right amount of description- he definitely made the world feel like it came alive and made it wonderous.
Oren: Yes. This is true.
Chris: But you can certainly do too much- [laughs] -if it doesn’t have enough novelty or entertainment, especially. It’s definitely very easy to go too far. I think Tolkien’s primary issue is that he did have a tendency to do what I call ‘description overload.’ Which isn’t just too much description; it’s description that is very difficult for a person, in their mind, to put together in a way that they understand, because it involves drawing complex maps or schematics in somebody’s head.
Basically, drawing a very complex picture of some sort, where everything- you would have to be able to piece it all together at once, you know, in order to have all of the pieces clearly in your mind, and then put them together like a puzzle. Where I think it works is if you just focus on simple relationships between the protagonist and something, or the two things- like, ‘this is in front of the protagonist, this is behind the protagonist.’ Or your viewpoint character, I should say.
Or, you know, ‘this chair was sitting next to this desk.’ Those are really simple relationships that are easy to understand, but when you go into like, ‘this yard was shaped like a triangle with a curve at one end, and then, on the forepoint of the triangle was-’ you know? [Chris and Ariel laugh] That’s clearly too much; that’s what I would call ‘description overload.’
And Tolkien definitely- it felt like he was looking at a landscape painting and he wanted you to see the entire painting. That’s just- you can’t really do that with narration very well.
Oren: Well, you can now, thanks to good old Peter Jackson. But, you know… [Oren and Chris laugh] So, another sort of lesson that I’ve taken from some of the novels that I’ve read is that there are two important rules in description:
One is that if something is important- like, important to the story, you should be able to know what it is and what it looks like. That sounds basic, but if you refer to something a lot, your audience will think it’s important, even if you’re kind of vague about it, and then it just gets frustrating.
The one that I really remember is from this novel called The Quantum Thief, which has a lot of weird description that I had trouble following, but the one that kept coming back up was that the characters keep referring to this thing called ‘the Spike-scape.’ And I’m like, ‘what is that? What is the Spike-scape?’ If it was ever described, I missed it. It was just this thing in space, and I was like, ‘what is that? That’s surely important to the plot somehow.’
And then I eventually figured out towards the very end that the Spike-scape is the remnants of Jupiter, which apparently exploded previous to the story and has nothing to do with the plot. And I was like, ‘what? What the heck? I am so confused. What is happening?’ So, if you mention something over and over again, people will think it’s important; and if it’s not, you should probably just not- you should probably save it for later.
Chris: I mean- definitely, stories are stronger if everything is actually important to the plot, right? So, if you have a unique world, like, Jupiter that blew up and is scattered throughout space, and that never matters to the plot, it’s just inherently less satisfying than if you have cool, weird things in your world and they do come up and matter to the plot in some way.
Ariel: Do they have to matter to the plot, or can they just matter to the characters?
Chris: Well, I would say that if they matter to the characters, they probably do- I mean, it goes down to- plot can involve the external conflict, but it can also involve internal conflicts, so, if the character has a character arc. Like, ‘this exploded Jupiter Spike-scape has special meaning to the character because when they look at it, they remember this memory of-’ whatever it is, I would say that that would also, in many cases, be plot-relevant, because the way that the character develops, and the character movement is part of that.
Oren: Yeah; and it’s like, a thing where it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be like, ‘oh, well, you described a place; that means that we’re going to have to go there and that’s going to be the final scene of the confrontation, right?’ [Chris laughs] It can be important in some other way.
And really, what it felt like was that, at the end, was that this was like, ties for a sequel, because this whole novel takes place somewhere on some backwater Martian city that doesn’t really have a huge effect on the grand politics of the solar system. Well, I guess the destruction of Jupiter was important on a solar system scale, and like, maybe in the next book we’re going to get into that.
So, in that situation, I wouldn’t just save that description for later, since the first book is pretty self-contained.
Chris: I would say, as another example, we have this exploded Jupiter, and we’ve got a ship, and they’re trying to keep from being detected by some radar. And they’re like, ‘okay, well, we could- if we go behind the remains of the exploded Jupiter… It’s kind of an unstable and dangerous place to be, but then we won’t be detected.’
Or just, having it come into account somewhere in some character’s decision-making is, I think the actual biggest marker of, ‘does it affect the plot? Does it ever change what a character does in any way?’ Then I would consider it plot-relevant. Assuming this is not just a side scene that doesn’t matter to the rest of the story- [Ariel and Chris laugh] -where our character’s just doing random things.
Oren: Right, random things, ‘cause I had this cool idea for an exploded Jupiter that I wanted to put into the story.’ [Chris laughs] So, this is an interesting effect that I’ve noticed as I read more, is that, if you spend more time describing something, it kind of- it’s almost like it gets bigger and more present, and other things fade into the background if you’re not careful.
So, like, if you spend all of your time describing this one tree, even if you don’t explicitly say that the tree is super-big, if you’re not careful to describe that it’s small, the audience will assume that it’s big, that it’s the biggest, most striking tree around. And that can create weird effects.
My favorite one is from Eragon, where- this is technically a character, but it’s a side character, so I think it counts; the book only describes the helmet that this elf is wearing. [Chris laughs] Like, to a ridiculous degree, to the point that it kind of gives the impression that the elf isn’t wearing anything else, even though it doesn’t actually say that. It just creates kind of a comical impression of this elf with a giant, oversized helmet on his head, and is otherwise naked.
Which, I mean, would be interesting if that was on purpose, but that’s not really what it was supposed to be.
Ariel: Yeah; I think Annihilation fell prey to that trap too, because, in- oh my gosh, Annihilation. It- some aspects of it were really good and clear, but the writer spent so much time talking about… what was it? The tunnel, or the tower, and even having this internal debate about, ‘everybody else calls it a tunnel, but I know it’s a tower.’
And spent so much time describing that aspect of the environment that so much of the rest of her journey through the fields and over by the beach didn’t matter as much to me, and I expected more to come out of the tower-tunnel debate than what we actually got out of that book.
Oren: It did, in retrospect- like, it worked for me in the moment, but in retrospect, it did seem weird that there was no important distinction between it being a tunnel or a tower. I think I did sort of expect that to come up and matter more in some capacity. I think, at the time, I assumed that cause it was talking about a tower, I assumed that that was a meaningful distinction, and I was thinking, ‘okay, does that mean it was built up?’ Cause a tunnel would indicate it was like, tunneled down.
Ariel: Or across?
Oren: Right. Or like, it came from inside the planet or something? And I was wondering about that, and I was like, ‘no. There’s nothing about that. Nothing there.’ [Ariel laughs]
Chris: One of the strange things about Annihilation is, I felt like the description sometimes was the most vivid when we were in a flashback with the main character- the biologist just talking about how she would stare at her swimming pool or her- when she went on a study- I’m trying to remember where she went. She looked at tide pools or something.
Oren: Some tide pools in Alaska, I think.
Chris: Tide pools in Alaska, and she would just stare at these tide pools. [laughs] I’m surprised how long Vandermeer could go on about the little things crawling around in the tide pools.
Oren: The tide pools are very interesting, okay? They’ve got lots of little critters in them. I will say that, as a whole, I really liked the description in Area X. I thought- it’s on my good list. You know, reading it again for the second time, it was notable to me that I didn’t enjoy the book as much the second time because I was- I had already read the description. It wasn’t working its novelty on me a second time, and so, I had more time to think about how the plot never really comes together. [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Chris: And I will say that, when you first read it and you’re in this flashback, you have the hope that, at some point, this flashback of her staring at tide pools will be relevant to the plot. And when you come back a second time, you know that they don’t really matter. [laughs] So, that does make it feel more like a tangent, unfortunately.
Ariel: Well, part of the idea behind the environment was that it was supposed to be a little creepy and a little mysterious, and so, it’s not going to be as clear, because you would suffer from- you would lose that mystery.
Oren: I thought that part, it worked quite well; like, the whole concept that Area X is a weird place. And it’s never stated as blatantly as it’s shown in the film, where there’s a giant shimmery soap bubble thing that you have to walk through. [Ariel laughs] Which is fine. I mean, that works fine in the movie.
Ariel: You didn’t imagine a giant shimmery soap bubble? Cause I imagined a giant shimmery soap bubble.
Oren: I did not. That is not what I imagined it looking like. I just sort of imagined empty air that you walked into and disappeared. But again, it’s- there’s multiple interpretations. I just thought that- [laughs] -I thought that the book did a pretty good job of making everything seem kind of off, which was very helpful in stoking the cosmic horror of this pristine wilderness of Area X.
My favorite part is that he never says where it is, you kind of have to piece that together. It’s like, ‘ooh, it’s a fun detective game to play while I’m playing this book.’
Chris: Of course, people told me, so, that was… [laughs]
Oren: I’m sorry.
Chris: I definitely liked the description inside the tower-slash-tunnel. I thought that was suitably strange and creepy.
Ariel: The spores were good.
Chris: The spores, yeah.
Ariel: The threats inside the tunnel were good.
Chris: Yeah. [laughs]
Oren: Look, everything’s better with spores. This is just a fact. [Ariel laughs]
Chris: Spores are creepy. There’s no getting over that; they are creepy. [laughs] I suppose- it’s funny that spores are creepy, and pollen is not considered creepy.
Oren: Cause pollen is wholesome and collected by bees. And everyone loves bees. Whereas spores are- nobody likes them. They’re bad. Also, they come from fungus, and like, fungus is apparently evil.
Chris: I think it goes to- comes down to our fear and hatred of fungus. [laughs]
Oren: But, I mean, that was an effective way to make everything seem creepier. Especially, you know, wounds with things growing in them is like, ugh. Even if it’s not on the character, it’s still creepy and weird. [Ariel laughs] And like, the book just did a great job with that.
We’re almost out of time, but one quick thing that was really funny to me: so, there’s a book called A Fire Upon the Deep, which is a sci-fi book, but half of the book is spent on a low-tech planet, so, basically a fantasy story in those sections.
And it was interesting to me; I could feel the novel switching between this fairly straightforward sci-fi description of all this weird spaceship stuff, into the much more evocative like, ‘well, now we have to describe a forest,’ section. So, that’s an interesting read, if you want to see some differences in how authors describe things.
Alright, well, we are out of time. Thank you for joining us, Ariel.
Oren: And, hopefully, those of you at home, we’ve given you some tools to help describe your world, or at least maybe given you some things to avoid. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week. [closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?