Anton Chekhov on Description of Setting

Hillside in Wales, photo by me

“In my opinion a true description of Nature should be very brief and have a character of relevance. Commonplaces such as, ‘the setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.’ – ‘the swallows flying over the surface of the water twittered merrily, etc’ – such commonplaces one ought to abandon. In descriptions of Nature one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get a picture.

For instance, you will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the milldam a little glowing star-point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round black shadow of a dog, or a wolf, emerged and ran, etc. Nature becomes animated if you are not squeamish about employing comparisons of her phenomena with ordinary human activities, etc.”

–Letter to Alex P Chekhov, Babkin. May 10 1886.

(via Comma Press via The White Page)

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21 Comments

September 21, 2013 · 9:26 am

21 responses to “Anton Chekhov on Description of Setting

  1. This especially applies now when we live in such a visual age. Rule of thumb I have is not to include more than three things about a character or setting, and usually with some action or dialogue. Such as: As he sipped his Miller, he studied the large moosehead above the bar. You give the reader the right details and you often don’t need more than one or two details.

    • Yeah, we have plenty of media to see how things look. We’re way past the era of three volume novels read aloud by oil lamp.

      I was once given the advice to give the most distinctive and unusual details about a thing, which engages the reader more than the most obvious details. Like, we all know the ocean is big and blue. But what else is it, what else can you say about it that’ll make me think?

      • The boat on the water headed safe for Jim standing on the beach.

        • Meant headed straight for Jim standing on the beach, fishing.

          • Don, you have a setting (the water/beach) and an action (boat heading for Jim) but I’m not sure what the description is. What unique visual do we have that makes me, as the reader, see this setting in particular?

            Now I’m not saying everything needs a description, but what I think Chekhov meant was that if you’re going to describe something, specifically nature (which is susceptible to purple prose, or becoming easily overdone), do it in such a way that engages the reader, using active verbs (from his example, “flashed,” “emerged,” and “ran.”) Make them unique. All milldams have a stream, a pond, a waterwheel, etc., but Chekhov’s milldam in particular has a broken bottle flashing in the moonlight, shadows of large creatures running away, possibly startled by the viewer. By simply saying “milldam” we recall all the facts associated with them, and in his description, Chekhov provides all the facts we wouldn’t otherwise know, thus creating is own unique setting.

            In your description, what’s unique about the water, the boat, how the boat moves through the water, how Jim fishes? How can you give us a snapshot into your unique world using as few, precise, and active details as possible?

            • Now there’s the rub. Here’s a beginning: Jim tipped his biege ranger hat, then cast his line off the sandy red beach into the icy sea. The red motorboat sliced through the glassy water, heading straight for him.

              • Well that certainly is a unique snapshot into your world. If you want me to critique you I’ll be honest, but if that’s not your intent I’ll shut up. Just let me know.

                Your verbs are strong and vivid but they are bogged down by the addition of all your adjectives. I don’t know what it is about adjectives that tends to subtract clarity and meaning than adding it. Maybe it’s like painting with too many colors at once: they all mix together and turn a muddy brown. Maybe try to keep the details by spreading them out over more action. Let us know the qualities of the hat, the beach, and the water over the course of a larger part of the scene. Dilute it. All those details are kind of overwhelming. Less is more.

                (This is kind of fun. I’m game if you still are.)

                • As Sherlock used to say, “Me thinks the game’s afoot.” How’s this for the critic in you: His hook felt a tug, then the line jerked. His attention turned from the line to the roaring motor heading straight for him. The boat was empty.

                  • Ah yes! I was there! Concrete sensory details that make me feel like I was the one holding the rod, and the sudden terror of being targeted by a ghost-piloted boat. (Nice addition by the way, a little question implanted to keep the reader “hooked.”) Definitely an effective description, if you ask me. Well done.

                    My turn:
                    “Last time I stood on this beach the waves almost knocked me down with their force. Maybe it’s a calm day; maybe I’ve just grown a couple feet. I stand in one spot until the sand has swallowed me up to my ankles and the gulls start creeping back in, ignoring the stranger with neither a hunger for bird flesh nor a bag of stale breadcrumbs. The wind whips salt into my hair and my eyes, fixed on the pale blue line of the horizon. How far out to sea is that? Twenty, thirty miles? When I was a kid I was convinced I could see all the way across to Africa. Some things get smaller as you grow up. Others expand until you disappear altogether.”

                    • You have such a lovely way with description and narrative. My characters usually start when they open their mouths. Like Joe stood above his frozen friend. The words he wanted to get out and get out fast wouldn’t come. Then, “Hank! Hank!” It was all he could do as he watched, terror covering his face and sweat pouring out of his skin. Hank turned and looked up at his friend on the hill and smiled. The boat hit the beach and cut into the sand. Joe waved, trying to will his deaf friend out of harm’s way.

                    • At first I thought we had a friend on ice! Nice twist.

                      Thanks for the kind words. My stories are very dialogue heavy on the one end and full of narrative scenes on the other, where my characters wander around alone thinking. Something everyone cautions against, because nothing’s really happening. I can’t seem to get away from it, though. I just love writing narrative so much. Internal conflict.

                    • I don’t do characters alone. Seems to me when I do the scenes end up being not all that interesting. The character needs a second character to bounce things off. That second character can be another person. It can also be the weather or the setting or an animal. It could be looking in the mirror and seeing a version of the self talking back. Jack London has a wonderful story called “To Light a Fire” that shows how affective setting as a character can be.

                    • I read that in high school, probably worth a revisit. Still vividly remember listening to “Call of the Wild” on booktape as a kid. And you’re absolutely right about needing something to bounce things off. That’s the secret to narrative (or any other part of the story): you need something to create conflict. Characters, weather, setting, animals. Without conflict, story dies.

                    • That is why so many mystery detectives have sidekicks.

                    • Haha, exactly. Watson is so much more relatable than Sherlock.

                    • It’s also good to have a sidekick who happens to be a doctor. “By the way, Old Chap, can you write me just one more prescription.”

  2. This is really interesting- and I appreciate the less is more recommendation and the potency of your examples. Thanks!

    • The “less is more” principle applies to almost every aspect of writing. It’s amazing how much we can improve upon copy simply by crossing out unneeded words (spoken by someone who’s chronically long-winded!)

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Kurt Vonnegut once said, and I am paraphrasing here, “Describe a beach and no one cares. Put a man on that beach, then you have readers.”

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