I’ve come to a point in my book where my characters are pretty much acting like tourists. They come and go through some of the most bustling cities in my world, plodding about the expanses of paved roads and grand architecture, all the while advancing a shambling plot. It’s proven to be a fun ride for now, but being someone whom is used to working with natural descriptions really swept the rug under my feet with regards to the skills I needed to describe cities.
Writing advice can be tricky at times, especially with regard to description. Most advice I hear on description is treated as universal guidelines for whatever kind of setting you need to prepare. And, as with far too many things, this is true to a VERY certain extent. A plethora of guidelines that could be used for all manner of descriptions do exist, but being the obsessive person that I am, I like to tear things down to a microscopic level. And this is how I found that there are some key differences in the philosophy of describing nature versus that of describing settlements.
But before the QuestingAuthor team can get down to elaborating on this subject, I recommend that you head over to this post to get a better idea of my perspective on description. Furthermore, keep in mind that my prose has some purple tendencies, so that could possibly have an effect on any advice I give on description.
So, without further delay, let’s get down to three ways you can enhance those cities in your story!
1. Don’t Tell…but don’t Show either
Alrighty! You weren’t expecting that now where you? Now, before any of you come running toward my doorstep to ask just what the hell I mean by this, I recommend that you take a seat and read the rest of what I have to say.
Cities, specifically major cities, are big. And when I say that they are big, I don’t really mean to say that they are big. By this I mean that they are massive, immense, and most importantly, EXPANSIVE. “Aren’t all of those just synonyms of big?” you ask? Yes, yes they are. But there’s more to it than that, especially the last one.
Cities, by there very nature, can go way past the field of vision of anyone. It gets to the point that you can have a kid and his mother exiting a candy store on one side of the city while a serial killer is cleaving someone’s head off with an axe in another neighborhood (Don’t ask, I feel macabre today). This translates to cities not only being expansive, but having A LOT of stuff going on at the same time.
But what does this have to do with my tip?
Well, for starters, when I say that you shouldn’t show or tell, I’m not speaking in a literal sense. If you’re incapable of showing or telling, you wouldn’t even be able to write a book in the first place. What it does mean, is that you won’t be able to keep a record of every
detailed corner of a city. Often times, one sector of a metropolis can feel like an entire world of its own! After all, how else would there be books where the whole setting takes place in a city?
As a result of this, the feel that one can get from a city does not necessarily increase with how much of the city you actually describe. In fact, it could be argued that the more limited your description of a sector is, the more it will feel like an actual city!
Always bear in mind that cities can be claustrophobic, and very few people even bother to take anything into account other than immediate surroundings. So the key is to use precise prose that is limited to a specific area.
2. Whip out that Dynamic Description!
If you read the post that I linked to in the first few paragraphs of this article, you would know that I like to classify prose into two different categories. For my lazy readers, allow me to give a brief definition of both. Static Description is the kind of prose that focuses on immobile objects and sets the boundaries of a scene. Dynamic description is prose that is moving and gives character a scene.
Now, I usually advocate a balance between both of these in your description, but when it comes to cities, Dynamic Description ought to take precedence.Why, you ask?
Well, it really is for just two simple reasons. For starters, the reality is that too much Static Description for a city would become repetitive in a short amount of time. This is because you’d have to describe buildings, pavement, windows, etc. And while a writer can add variations to these and
spice them up, it goes without saying that these variations would be minor at best. And this is because building materials tend to be the same for every part of a city. So unless the prospect of spending five paragraphs describing the rock walls of a house intrigues you, I’d avoid this.
The second, and most obvious reason, is that people don’t usually pay attention to the buildings of a crowded suburb. Our eyes usually veer over to cars zooming by, doves flitting from one building to another, and the throngs of people bustling about. Let me give you an example of what I mean, with the help of the wondrous Robert E. Howard.
“The blare of the trumpets grew louder, like a deep golden tide surge, like the soft booming of the evening tides against the silver beaches of Valusia. The throng shouted, women flung roses from the roofs as the rhythmic chiming of silver hosts came clearer and the first of the mighty array swung into view in the broad white street that curved round the golden-spired Tower of Splendor.
First came the trumpeters, slim youths, clad in scarlet, riding with a flourish of long, slender golden trumpets; next the bowmen, tall men from the mountains; and behind these the heavily armed footmen, their broad shields clashing in unison, their long spears swaying in perfect rhythm to their stride. Behind them came the mightiest soldiery in all the world, the Red Slayers, horsemen, splendidly mounted, armed in red from helmet to spur. Proudly they sat their steeds, looking neither to right nor to left, but aware of the shouting for all that. Like bronze statues they were, and there was never a waver in the forest of spears that reared above them.”
– “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard
If you can’t tell by the numerous other times I’ve referenced him, I love Robert E. Howard’s work. In all seriousness though, what did you fellows notice about Howard’s splendid prose? If your answer is that there is a distinct lack of Static Description, then you are correct.
This passage right here is one of the most vivid descriptions of a city that I have ever read. Yet there are barely three sentences in which Howard describes the City of Valusia itself. All we really know about it is that it has silver beaches, a paved street, and a golden tower. And the ironic thing is, that that was all he needed to describe.
Because although there was barely any detail given to how the tower looked or how the street winded bout the city, his description of the army entering Valusia was more than enough for me to picture them striding triumphantly into town. There is so much character, from the way that the shields of the soldiers clash, to the women flinging roses over their roofs, and the trumpets blaring off. And all of that character tells me more about the city than describing the architecture or streets could have ever told me.
It shows me what kind of people these citizens are, what kind of military they have, and the pride they share for their nation. Now THAT is effective description.
Cities, more than any other setting in my opinion, should be treated as their own characters. Each ought to have a distinct personality and presentation from the other, because at their core lies the “Human” Element. As writer’s, we must try to understand the quasi-spiritual core of the settings that we work in. This means that we have to fine-tune our descriptions to adjust to the current needs of our story. Every setting has its own character, and it’s up to the author to bring that to the foreground.
What do you think? Do any of you struggle to add that extra character into your cities? Have you noticed any exceptions to the guidelines I presented here? Feel free to comment down below!
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.