The last two posts in my series entitled "What Makes a Great Story?" were about how an opening sets the tone for the rest of the story and various ways an author can pull the reader in.  You can read the first part HERE and the second part HERE. Today's post moves on to how authors use description to define a story's setting.

Description is one of those areas that few readers or authors can agree on. Some readers like authors who paint a scene using long, detailed descriptions so there aren’t any blanks left to fill in on their own. Authors who excel at this method tend to be those with a natural knack for language in general. As readers, we can sometimes overlook the longwinded nature of this approach because the author's prose is so eloquently put together.

On the other hand, some readers prefer descriptions to be brief and to the point. In this case, the author gives a few general facts about a scene or character’s appearance and trusts the reader's imagination to fill in the rest. This description works great if you’re trying to keep the story moving at a quick pace. The thought behind this method is that if it isn’t important to the story or character, then it’s not important to the reader.

I personally lean more toward the latter camp and prefer short descriptions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally enjoy those longer, more detailed descriptions. However, VERY few authors can truly pull off page after page of descriptive prose without totally losing the reader. And even still, I would argue that their story would be better without it.

The odd thing about the fantasy genre is that for many readers, the world itself is often as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As a result, certain readers are not only accustomed to lengthy, detailed descriptions, but many expect it.

As an author, I know that I will never be able to fully satisfy both camps. The best thing I can do is write using the method that I most like to read.

This means that most of my descriptions are pretty general with a few details mixed in as needed to make sure the world seems “real” to the reader. Again, that doesn’t mean that I won’t, on occasion, take several paragraphs to describe something if I feel it is important to the story. But it isn’t something I do often.

There are two methods I find most effective when handling description. The first is to start a scene with a paragraph, maybe two, focusing only on the setting. Afterward, move into the story, while reemphasizing those first few points, adding slowly over time to the scene. If I do describe something in detail, I try to ensure that the next time the characters are in that place, I won’t describe it again. A sentence or two at most is all a reader needs to trigger what they’ve previously read. Then, it’s time to move on.

The other method is much harder to do. Basically, a scene is described through dialogue, internal thought or character development. If done correctly, the reader never realizes they are reading a large amount of otherwise boring detail because they are so engrossed in the story.

Below are three examples of description I pulled from books I’ve read. The first is very detailed. The second is detailed, but in more general terms, not focusing on the minutia. The third is given to the reader while developing character and story.

The light grew clearer as they went forward. Suddenly the came out of the trees and found themselves in a wide circular space. There was a sky above them, blue and clear to their surprise, for down under the Forest-roof they had not been able to see the rising morning and the lifting of the mist. The sun was not, however, high enough yet to shine down into the clearing, though its light was on the tree-tops. The leaves were all thicker and greener about the edges of the glade, enclosing it with an almost solid wall. No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants: stalky and faded hemlocks and wood-parsley, fire-weed seeding into fluffy ashes, and rampant nettles and thistles. A dreary place: but it seemed a charming and cheerful garden after the close Forest.
Fellowship of the Ring, J.R. Tolkien

The Monastery grounds were split into training areas, some of stone, some of grass, others of sand or treacherous slime-covered slate. The abbey itself stood at the center of the grounds, a converted keep of gray stone and crenellated battlements. Four walls and a moat surrounded the abbey, the walls a later addition of soft, golden sandstone. By the western wall, sheltered by glass and blooming out of season, were flowers of thirty different shades. All were roses.
Legend, David Gemmell

We used the skulls and poles to mark the bounds of the camp. I had the interior laid out in a checkerboard cross with the center square for the headquarters group, the four squares on its points for four battalions with the squares between as drill grounds. The men grumbled about having to set up for twice their number—especially since certain favored individuals, who had been performing weel, only had to stand around holding poles with skulls atop them.
Dreams of Steel, Glen Cook

So, which approach do you prefer? And why?

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