The Most Important Tip About Setting Descriptions

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

san-francisco-989032_1280How should you approach describing a setting?

I wager most writers come to that point in their project and immediately turn to the imagination. They let pictures form in their minds, then start to write down what they see. Some writers Google around and find an image they can look at before they begin.

Then it becomes a matter of choosing the details they want to include. However, there’s a subtle trap here that new (and even vet) writers may fall into: the setting description can end up as a dry stack of details:

The conference room was large and cold. It had a big table in the middle, with black leather chairs all around. There was a bookcase on the far side of the room and a credenza with a coffee maker on the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave a view of the city.

Now, there’s nothing illegal about this. It does the job in a functional way. But it’s also an opportunity lost. A great setting description doesn’t just paint a picture; it draws the reader deeper into the marrow of the story and the heart of the character.

Which brings me to the most important tip you’ll ever get about writing setting descriptions: 

You describe a scene not so the reader can see it, but so the reader can feel it. And the way they feel it is by knowing how the point-of -view character feels about it.

That’s why I’ve developed a seven-step checklist for myself for writing a setting description. It takes a little extra time, but I’ve determined that the stylistic ROI (return on investment) is worth it. Here we go:

  1. How do you want your character to feel about the setting?

This is the crucial first step, and it’s a strategic one. You know where you are in your story and what the character’s attitudes and emotional landscape are. You know what’s going to happen in the scene (note to pantsers: you’ve at least got some idea). Now you’re going to set the scene through the character’s perceptions about it. Your decision can be as simple as: I want my character to feel intimidated.

Note that you don’t have to name the emotion when you write the scene. In fact, it’s better not to. Let the setting itself create the feeling.

  1. Using the sense of sight, describe the things the character notices.

The items that come into your mind will now be filtered through the POV character. If you want to locate a picture via the Internet, go ahead. But as you look at it, pretend you are the character and try to feel what she feels. Make a list of the items your character doesn’t just see, but notices. This is a crucial distinction. We focus on different things depending on our mood. If you’re unhappy and you walk into a sunny hotel foyer, you might ignore the fancy art and notice instead a droopy plant.

Do a little voice journaling. Have the character talk to you in her own voice, expressing her feelings about what she notices.

  1. Use the other senses to add to the feeling.

Imagine what the character might hear, smell, touch, or even in some cases taste. Make a list.

  1. Look at the items from Steps 2 & 3 and highlight the ones that work best.

That didn’t take long, did it? Five to ten minutes. But if you’re having fun, do more!

  1. Bonus Supercharger: What is the character’s personal interpretation of the place?

Here is a powerful technique used by some of our best writers: when the character offers his own interpretation of the setting, it not only creates a sense of place, but also deepens the character for the reader. Double score!

Here are a couple of examples. This is from Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript:

The Homicide Division was third floor rear, with a view of the Fryalator vent from the coffee shop in the alley and the soft perfume of griddle and grease mixing with the indigenous smell of cigar smoke and sweat and something else, maybe generations of scared people. 

Parker uses sight and smell, but also adds generations of scared people. That’s from inside Spenser. That’s his own impression of the place. It tells me as much about Spenser as it does the setting.

Here’s a longer impressionistic description from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee mystery, The Quick Red Fox. These are McGee’s feelings about San Francisco. (I apologize to all my friends in the City by the Bay!)

And so we drove back to the heart of the city. San Francisco is the most depressing city in America. The comelatelys might not think so. They may be enchanted by the steep streets up Nob and Russian and Telegraph, by the sea mystery of the Bridge over to redwood country on a foggy night, by the urban compartmentalization of Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, by the smartness of the women and the city’s iron clutch on culture. It might look just fine to the new ones.

But there are too many of us who used to love her. She was like a wild classy kook of a gal, one of those rain-walkers, laughing gray eyes, tousle of dark hair –– sea misty, a little and lively lady, who could laugh at you or with you, and at herself when needs be. A sayer of strange and lovely things. A girl to be in love with, with love like a heady magic.

But she had lost it, boy. She used to give it away, and now she sells it to the tourists. She imitates herself … The things she says now are mechanical and memorized. She overcharges for cynical services.

I think it’s fair to say we know how McGee feels about San Francisco! One of the things that made this series so popular was passages like the above, where McGee riffs on such matters as setting, social mores and current events.

  1. Write the description using active verbs and concrete images.

At this point, let me advise you to overwrite the description. Don’t try to get this perfect the first time through. Feel it first.

  1. Let the scene rest, then edit.

I don’t do heavy edits as I’m writing a first draft. But I do go over my previous day’s work for style and obvious fixes. So come back to your scene the next day, or at least after a time away from it, and keep the following in mind as you edit:

Check all adverbs with a loaded pencil

If an adverb can be cut without losing anything (which is usually the case) cut it. Strive for a stronger verb instead. He shuffled across the room is better than He walked slowly across the room.

Check all adjectives

First, ask if they’re necessary. Test them. Sometimes cutting them makes the description more immediate.

But adjectives are in our language for a reason. If you keep them, see if you can make them more vivid. Icy may be better than cold, etc.

Beef up what’s soggy 

You may find a spot that needs more descriptive power. Here’s what I do in such a case. I write [MORE] in that spot then open up a blank TextEdit document. I like using TextEdit because it doesn’t feel “permanent” and I can play around. I’ll take several minutes to explore the moment, writing fast and loose, and then I’ll look it over and choose what I like. It may be just one line, or even one word. But if it’s the right line or word, the exercise is well worth it.

You don’t always have to describe a setting at the beginning of a scene

Vary where you put the description. At the top is fine, but sometimes get into the action first. Or start with dialogue. Then drop in the setting description. Readers won’t mind waiting if something interesting is going on.

You don’t have to describe everything at once

You can dribble in bits of description as you go along. This is especially effective as the intensity of the scene increases. Your POV character can notice something that wasn’t evident before, in keeping with the tone of the scene. Hemingway did this famously in his story “Soldier’s Home,” when the young man back home after World War I is feeling hectored at breakfast by his worried mother. Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

Know when less is more, and when more is more

Deciding how much description to use for a setting is not a matter of formula. But here’s a little tip that will help: the more intense the emotions inside the character, the more you include in description.

For example, in an opening scene where the character is not yet in the hot crucible of conflict, maybe the description is brief. The first scene in Lawrence Block’s story, “A Candle for the Bag Lady,” has Matthew Scudder sitting in Armstrong’s, a bar. He describes it this way:

The lunch crowd was gone except for a couple of stragglers in front whose voices were starting to thicken with alcohol.

Block leaves it at that, because this is “normal” Scudder. He’s not feeling anything intensely yet.

But later, as Scudder is trying to find out who brutally murdered Mary Alice Redfield –– the “shopping bag lady” who inexplicably left him a sum of money in her will –– he investigates her last known residence:

Mary Alice Redfield’s home for the last six or seven years of her life had started out as an old Rent Law tenement, built around the turn of the century, six stories tall, faced in red-brown brick, with four apartments to the floor. Now all of those little apartments had been carved into single rooms as if they were election districts gerrymandered by a maniac. There was a communal bathroom on each floor and you didn’t need a map to find it.

So there you have it, friends. With a little thought and planning, you can turn run-of-the-mill descriptions into moments of stylistic magic. That’s the kind of writing that gets rewarded with word-of-mouth and future purchases.

So what is your approach to description?

What authors do you admire who do it well?

13+

Hey, Butt Out! I’m Reading Here©

 by Robert Dugoni

[Note from Jodie: I’m going crazy with last-minute preparations for my big move across the country
in a few days, so bestselling thriller author and writing instructor Robert Dugoni is filling in for me today. Take it away, Bob!]

I raise more than a few eyebrows when I teach, and that’s usually a good sign. I know I’ve got my students thinking. The first collective class-eyebrow-arch comes when I stand up and say, “No one can teach you how to write.” Students who’ve paid good money to be in one of my seminars or workshops begin to have immediate heart palpitations until I add, “But I can teach you how to teach yourselves how to write.”

So what do I mean by this?

How can I teach any student I don’t know intimately what to write or how to write it? I can’t even teach my two children how to write. Writing is an extraordinarily personal endeavor and each of us brings our own nuances, quirks, insights and experiences to not only what we write but how we write it. All of these things form what we frequently refer to as the writer’s “voice” – how the writer (and really her characters) views the world and others in it and how the character expresses that view. We hope that it is a unique and exciting and interesting. When it is, those are usually the novels publishers clamor to buy.

But the fact is the to-be-published novel will never make it that far if the author forsakes the craft of writing and makes one of those silly mistakes that cry out “amateur” to that would-be editor.

So rather than telling students “I can teach you how to write,” I tell them my job is “to remove as many obstacles in the path to publication as possible.”

One of those big obstacles is when the author intrudes into the story.

Author intrusions into the reader’s experience reading a novel can be deadly. Not only do they raise the “amateur” flag and slow the story pace, they also tend to annoy. It’s like being in a deep and meaningful conversation with one person and having another person continually interrupt that conversation to tell you things you really don’t need to know at that moment or, frankly, you don’t care about! 

When a story unfolds, the opening chapters should develop like a play on a stage. The reader wants to see what the character sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes, and touch what she touches. It is not the author experiencing the story. It is the reader experiencing the story through the character. So how does the author intrude? 

Let us count just some of the ways.

~ Omniscient narrative

This occurs when you’re reading a scene from a particular character’s point of view and suddenly the author barges in to provide a bit of information that the character doesn’t yet know, couldn’t yet know and may never know. Sometimes this is called bad foreshadowing. Here’s an example:

You’ve just written a killer scene in which your protagonist has arrived at a mountain getaway for three days of R&R and the author ends the scene with something like, “Little did she know that three miles away, Luke Reddinger, a serial killer, had just escaped from the state penitentiary.” Okay, so if the character didn’t know, who’s throwing in this tidbit? Does the reader need it at that moment? Would it be more powerful to see Luke Reddinger escaping, or running through the woods, maybe seeing the cabin she has arrived at? Wouldn’t that raise a story question that would keep the reader reading to find out what happens? Isn’t that what every writer wants?

~ Unnecessary biographical information

Ever read a scene in a book that is going swimmingly when suddenly the author stops the flow of the dialogue and action to tell you where the main character went to high school, their major in college or that their great grandmother was an alcoholic? Unless that high school is going to play a part in the story, the major is important to illustrate the character’s skill, or grandma is a serial killer when she gets drunk, what was the point of interrupting the story? Biographical sketches, if you’re so inclined to do them, are for the author to get to know her characters so the author better understands how the character will act and what she might say in a particular situation or moment. They are not for the reader.

~ Author Opinions

Nothing is more transparent than when an author tries to ram her opinion on a topic down your throat. Even when the author tries to disguise the opinion as a “character’s opinion” it is usually easy to spot. “Mary asked John what he thought about President Obama’s health care reform.” And then John starts spouting off. This is one of those instances where the author would be better off showing rather than telling. If you want to make a statement about the death penalty, write The Green Mile and let us see one of the pitfalls of the ultimate punishment. You want to write about abortion, write The Cider House Rules. You want to write on the evils of slavery, write Twelve Years a Slave. Racism in the south – Mississippi Burning. Greed in the roaring twenties – The Great Gatsby. There’s no place like home – The Wizard of Oz. And so on…

~ Flashbacks

This is usually the cause of the third collective class-eyebrow-arch. Some even snap at this point. Why? Because so many of us use flashbacks in our novels. So before anyone snaps an eyebrow, let me clarify – flashbacks can be used. The author just needs to know how to use them so they are not an intrusion. First, a flashback, despite its name, must still move the story forward. That is, the flashback should impart some information that is relevant to the plot at that moment, drives the plot forward, and/or reveals some important character trait or relationship that will come into play.

Second, a flashback is a scene. Therefore, all of the things discussed above that go into making a great scene still apply. A flashback should not be some character sitting alone at a table reminiscing about something that happened in the past. Put the reader in the scene with the characters and allow the reader to hear and see and smell and taste and touch the scene as it unfolds.

Think about the movie Titanic. Regardless of your opinion on the movie itself, note that it was actually Rose reminiscing about her voyage on that ship. How boring would it have been if the entire three-hour movie was Rose sitting at a table telling the movie audience what happened, rather than the movie audience flashing back to that time and getting the chance to experience it?

~ Information Dumps

This is usually where the writer has done a lot of research on a particular subject and darn it, everyone is going to know it! An information dump is an excessive amount of unnecessary information or details dumped into the story when the character does not need it and might never need it. Like biographies, research is for the author, not the reader. I’d say less than 10% of the information I research and learn about goes into my novels.

Information dumps can take many forms.

Research details. The research dump is when the author has learned a lot of information on a particular subject and dumps it into the story either in omniscient narrative or thinly disguised by creating a “character” to tell the reader everything they needed to know about such things as growing vegetables on rooftop gardens in New York City during the depression.

Character descriptions. Other information dumps are excessive details about what every character who comes on stage is wearing, or looks like. What the character is wearing is only important if the author has set the scene up so that another character has a particular interest in what a particular character is wearing, or the character’s own choice of clothes is important. When your character walks into a high school prom we can assume the girls are wearing prom dresses and the guys are in tuxedos. But if you’ve set the story up so that Billy is determined to make a splash and wears a tear-away tuxedo intending to leave high school by doing the Full Monty, then we want to know the details of that tear-away tuxedo.

Setting. The same is true with excessive details to describe a setting. Authors are not weather men or travel guides so your scenes shouldn’t read like a weather report or travel book. And if your protagonist is running for her life through a forest while being chased by werewolves, please don’t have her take the time to tell us every species of tree and type of fauna they are running past. Necessary details only. Excessive details need not apply!

So when you have the urge to pontificate, opine, brag, or otherwise bore, think about what my friend and brilliant writer John Hough Jr always says: “Dialogue is action and action is dialogue.” Get your characters on the move and talking. Avoid staying too long in a character’s head. Do your biographies and research for you, not for the reader, and give us only those details that will keep the story moving forward.

And above all, once you’ve hooked us with an incredible opening, lured us in with an amazing character, and mesmerized us with a killer plot, then please, BUTT OUT! I’ll thank you to let me enjoy your beautifully crafted story on my own.

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times best-selling Author of the David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand-alone novel Damage Control, as well as the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal and called the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Bodily Harm and Murder One were each chosen one of the top 5 thrillers of 2010 and 2011, respectively. Murder One was also a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. My Sister’s Grave is the first in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, email him at bob@robertdugoni.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.

0