Describe Setting Without Getting Lost in the Details

28 May
The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry.

The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry. You can read the opening pages here.

In a story or novel, how do you describe an entire town or geographical area without getting lost in the details?

Many writers have done it, memorably Toni Morrison in Sula and F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Add to that list Jedah Mayberry, whose debut novel, The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle, begins with a description of a small New England town that demonstrates how to distill history, culture, migration, geography, and demography into a single short passage.

The novel is new out from River Grove Press, and you can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that the best writing omitted far more detail than it included–meaning that a story or novel resembles an iceberg, ninety percent of which is underwater. Critics have turned this idea into a theory for art, but, in truth, it merely describes an inevitable problem faced by all writers: if you’re writing what you know, then you know more than can fit into the story. But you can’t simply include and leave out details randomly. You need a method. Mayberry’s method in The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle becomes clear in the first sentence:

“The village of Preston is largely defined by the things it is not, by the things its expanse of working farms and decaying historic landmarks serve to divide.”

The novel tells us explicitly how it will organize details about the town. Any that do not fit into the idea of absence or division are left out. The Great Gatsby does something similar in its opening description of East and West Egg:

“I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.”

In this passage, the writing quickly moves to descriptions of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Those characters stand for the difference between the two places. As a result, the setting helps create character.

So that you can see how common this strategy is, here’s the opening of Sula by Toni Morrison:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”

Morrison gives us her organizing principle right away: the way the neighborhood looks now versus the way it looked then. That difference helps introduce the story, which is in part about the relations between the people who once lived in the neighborhood and the ones who have turned it into a golf course.

In all of these examples, the writers clearly identify the way they will organize details about a town or area. A place that is vast and filled with innumerable things is reduced to a single passage in a book. In other words, only the tip of the iceberg is revealed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s follow the example set by Jedah Mayberry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison.

  1. Choose a town or area to describe.
  2. Write a definition of the town that creates two groups, a la Fitzgerald and Morrison. For instance: “Everybody there was dumb except for the cops.” Or, “The town had a railroad line running through the middle of it, but the division wasn’t between poor and rich but between people living in rundown shacks and people sleeping on the ground.”
  3. Now, try writing a definition of the town that identifies a broad organizing principle, a la Mayberry. For example: “The town was defined by the opportunities it had missed.” Or, “So many people had ended up in the town by accident that everything about the place seemed ruled by random chance.”
  4. Finally, describe the town. Use the definition as inspiration and as a guide for the details.

In both #2 and #3, you can switch the order around. So, you can write the definition but save it. List the details first and then finish the description with the definition. Either way you use the strategy, you’ll begin seeing it in almost every story and book that you read.

Good luck.

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