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I have a location in my story that is a key central hub which much of the interaction surrounds. An example of this might be the bar in Cheers or Greendale Community College in Community. I want to really make this location stick out in the reader's minds when it is first introduced, as the story is going to keep coming back to it over and over again, but this tactic is creating problems.

Namely, it results in the setting, a building on a college campus, being described to the point at which it feels overindulgent. The draft I have gets way too into the layout of the building because it's going to keep showing up again over and over again in the story and I don't want to break the flow to re-describe it, but upon editing its clear it places way too much focus on something the reader has yet to become invested in, and thus gets bored.

The specific location itself is not something a lot of readers encounter in their everyday lives, so I really want to get across the feel of immersion for a type of place most people wouldn't get to experience.

How would I go about describing a key set piece to make it really stick in readers' minds, and how do I do this without going into gratuitous detail and boring them?

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  • What tradition of story are you following? Some story types have extremely sparse place description. Detective fiction is often like that. Some story types write extensive place description. High fantasy is often like that. It's often a contribution to some types of story being drastically longer.
    – Boba Fit
    Jun 4, 2023 at 19:06
  • In the cases you described, Cheers is a standing set for a series that last 11 years. It's not meant to be "stand out" but it's just familiar, befitting a bar where everybody knows your name. And it lasted for 11 years (fun fact, season 1 has no episode where a set outside of the Cheers bar is used... also the show was originally going to be set in a hotel ala Fawlty Towers, an inspiration for Cheers. It was changed to a Bar when the writers realized most of their scenes were in the bar.).
    – hszmv
    Jun 5, 2023 at 13:07
  • As for Greendale, the layout of the campus was kept vague for the puropses of the plot. Aside from the study group's room in the library/student union building (I forget which) it was left vague and filled in with what it needed for gags. The best description we got was the weird and confusing naming of buildings in Blankets vs. Pillow Forts which was more mocking the Ken Burns style that the episode was parodying than a factual description of the campus.
    – hszmv
    Jun 5, 2023 at 13:10

3 Answers 3

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Descriptions in written fiction usually tend to

  • name some relevant distinguishing specifics and
  • leave the details to the imagination of the reader.

Also, usually,

  • descriptions aren't presented en bloc, but sprinkled over the course of the narrative.

For example, one might describe that there is a café, a bank, and a police station among the many stores on a town square, because these three play a role in the story, but the other buildings do not, so you don't list each of them and their individual function, but you may indicate that the other buildings are mostly commercial or mostly residential buildings to give the reader a feeling for what kind of town square it is. Other aspects of the square – is it just an intersection of two main streets, is it a pedestrian area, is there a green with trees or a pond – and how the viewpoint character experiences the square (busy versus quiet etc.) can be mentioned in an aside in the next few sentences – and that's it! There is your town square.

If the layout of a location is complex, but the exact spatial organisation is not relevant, just mention the complexity ("a mazelike confusion of hallways and interconnecting rooms") but do not try and describe the floor plan.

Also, it is better to give a general idea at first ("a town square with commercial buildings and a lawn and trees with benches") and add some of the relevant details later as they become relevant. Repeat some of the general aspects now and then in your text, to remind readers of where they are and what the location looks like ("The café on the other side of the lawn was already open and people were sitting under umbrellas in front of it when John left the bank later that morning.") and add new detail as you see fit ("He went past the window of a flower shop, thinking of the bouquet he had bought his mother on his last visit.").

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If the details are

  1. very important to your story
  2. unique, we don't usually encounter
  3. permanent, no much changes happen to them
  4. repetitive, you want them to stick to the readers mind

I suggest:

A short "moveable" action that occurs at the beginning of the story, through the corners and rooms of the place. For example, two children (our young protagonist and his best friend) run to catch one another in a game (the reader moves with them from place to place) but encounter something memorable (romance, secret, crime, ..etc.) which makes introducing the place is not just plain and cold but something that hunt/visit the protagonist mind in the future.

If any point in the above list does not exist, I suggest to shorten down the details of the location.

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It really depends on the way the story should be structured and if it is mostly dialogue, plot, scenes, etc. My suggestion is to write more details, colors, things that stick out in the place. Kind of like giving it a sense that it is a place of people, from the objects they place to the way the place has been evolving over time. For example, if it is an older place that has seen many generations and uses, I would show old objects from its past and the way they have aged/defaced now in the present, or I would show if the place has held up throughout time (and in what ways it hasn't). If the place is newer, this can still be done with objects in it or describing the people who come inside the place. How are these people? Why do they go there? What do they do there? This is a way to create a feeling of importance among the place, in my opinion. Another approach is to strictly describe the place with immense detail. If there was so much description in that place and all the objects, then the reader will know that the place will probably appear a lot due to its description being so important. There are a lot of ways to tackle showing the importance of a place, but it comes down to what style the book is following, what scene is being set, and how descriptions of places are handled.

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