Sunday, September 26, 2010

Description vs Setting / Author vs Reader

Do you pay attention to descriptions in books? I don’t. Well, not always. Then again, frequently I do. It depends on who I am at the moment, and what we’re talking about. So what are we talking about?

Right about now I should be doing the dreaded, “Before We Begin, Let’s Define Our Terms. What is Description? What is Setting? What color is my hat?”

However, I refuse to do these things on the grounds that it’s boring. I would have to do stuff like look in the mirror to see what hat I’m wearing. (Author or Reader?) I would have to look up words. Scan through paper or online dictionaries. Root around inside how-to-write books like,

“The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy” by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond,
or perhaps,
“How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Orso Scott Card.

Or, Google for meta-descriptions of description-writing at websites like:
Jeff Gerke’s “Where The Map Ends” (
• Description, Part 1—Introduction
• Description, Part 2—The Establishing Shot
• Description, Part 3—The Full Sensory Sweep
• Description, Part 4—Comparisons

By gum, I’m not gonna do that!

Having disposed of the official definitions created by people who know of which they write, when -I- think about the building blocks of settings, I think in terms of descriptions of:
1. miscellaneous characters (Sometimes—but not always—this kind of description is really an aspect of characterization. When it is largely characterization, it doesn’t belong here so we can drop it. (Clang!)
2. a room or any kind of interior space (One type of setting)
3. an exterior space, usually part of nature. (Another type of setting)
4. “space, the final frontier” –but only if you’re a Trekkie. (Clang!)
5. objects decorating either indoor or outdoor space. Play and film set designers cleverly call this “set decoration”.

When I have my Reader Hat on, I pay far more attention to the details of internal settings like living rooms, deep wells, classrooms and belfries, than I do exterior settings. I’m particularly entranced by objects that fall under the category of set decoration.

Descriptions of the outside world usually have my eyes glazing over when I’m reading them. That practice gets me into a heap of trouble later on when it becomes important to remember that the mountain chain blocking the protagonists from their goal runs north-to-south, not west-to-east, and the characters are currently on the –west- side of the mountains. (Oh! That’s why they have to creep through the Mines of Moria! Gotcha!)

When reading another author’s physical descriptions of characters as part of setting, my Reader Hat must slip down over my eyes. For example, several chapters after beginning one of Andre Norton’s juveniles years ago, I realized that a woman I thought was middle-aged was actually in her teens. Andre may possibly have messed up but more likely, I had let my attention slip for a second and decided out of nowhere that the character had grey hair.

When I have my Author Hat on, I spend great gobs of time describing most everything. Within the limits of a given scene, if my Author hat is screwed on –really- tight, I’ll even make an effort at hitting as many of the Five Senses as possible. For instance, I –love- creating new species of trees and wild animals—the colors and textures, and even the scents and sounds. (Yes, trees make sounds and animals have scents.)

Once, I spent an inordinate amount of time on a rug. I mean, describing a rug! This random bit of piling detail on detail probably had readers thinking the rug was going to be significant in the future. Well, sorry. Not so much. (I understand when readers get put out about this kind of writing.)

Over all, I’m more likely to provide detailed descriptions of furniture, people, animals and trees than I am to mention any wall-floor-ceiling or the broad geographic layout of the land. This may come from being myopic.

Recently, I’ve been serving as a beta reader for a UK author named Malcolm Cowen. After a short interlude near the young protagonist’s home, Malcolm describes a scene in which “Mary” stands on a road with a steep drop to her left and an even steeper natural stone wall to her right. He eventually takes us up that fiercesomely slanted height. Mary finds herself in the middle of a mountainous landscape that seems to scroll on forever as our character travels through it, climbing slopes, riding down into valleys to find hidden pools beyond the bushes, turning sharply past rocky walls to find totally unexpected vistas—waterfalls, forests, villages—before her.

I was and am deeply enthralled by Malcolm’s descriptions. Why? Because waiting expectantly for the next bit of scenery to come into view around a curve or over a rise in Malcolm’s manuscript reminded me of weekend rides in the car when I was a kid—long before the Interstate. You never knew what would be around the next curve in the road, thanks frequently to the foliage blocking the view. It was always such an adventure, even when we had travelled that way many times before. The adventure of discovering settings through a door, up a staircase, and around the far side of a great tree are something we owe our readers.

I think it’s time for me to start wearing Author’s Glasses, so I’ll remember to describe the –distant- countryside.

What setting descriptions do you most enjoy reading—or do you skip right past them?

On what kind of descriptions do you focus as an author? What do you tend to ignore, in order to get on with the story or for other reasons?

Thanks for reading!

Sherry Thompson, author of the YA fantasy “Narentan Tumults” novels from Gryphonwood:

Seabird (Paperback)
Earthbow Vol.1 (Paperback)
Earthbow Vol.2 (Paperback -- due out at any time)
Earthbow V.1&2 combined in electronic format


  1. Sherry, I often to place my characters in a setting. I remember an editor, very early on, sending me this commnet. I like your story, but why are your characters existing in a vacuum. This made me stop and begin another revision of a book that underwent seventeen of them that sold. Writing descriptions of places and sometimes people is very hard and never gets done in the rough draft. I have to think about them.

  2. Great post, Sherry. I really like minimum description but enough to give me the feel of the scene, as if I were there. To hear the wind whistling through the tree leaves, the ocean waters slapping on the beach and the scents drifting in the air. I like to get to know the characters through their actions, dialogue, and their attitudes. And it takes me many drafts too. :)

  3. Finding the right balance seems to be such a subjective thing, for authors as well as readers. So much goes into scene setting, and there are so many variables besides, which I listed out in a blog post I did some time ago, that its a never ending task.

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts on the topic.

  4. Great post Sherry! Really enjoyed your thoughts. As an extremely novice writer, I find myself doing a lot of description at the beginning of a scene, I guess trying to set the stage, but I feel like I let the description end there as the characters take over. (I have to look back over my writing, to see if this is true, but that's what I feel like I do!) To all the writers here, is this a common mistake? Any thoughts on this practice? (By the way, Sherry, I seem to recall as a child reading a book by Beverly Cleary where she described in detail a threadbare rug... and I loved that book! You never know what's going to "stick"!)

  5. I do, especially the second and third times I read a story, and I REALLY pay attention to it when I'm writing. When reading, I'd say I focus on all details equally (as long as they are not over technical in areas I know nothing about). When writing, I tend to describe characters and locations that they take an interest in. If the character is not interested, or not very knowledgeable about what they're looking at, the details end up pretty sparse. I.e. someone interested in cars would refer to a red 1965 Mustang as a red 1965 Mustang and someone not interested would simply call it a red car.

    Also, from experience, I can say that it is often easier to take off your hat and look at it than it is to get up and find a mirror.

  6. I'm afraid I'm one of those who skip through long descriptions. (IMHO LOTR could have been a lot shorter without all of those descriptions) I like thumbnail sketches, enough to get a feeling but not enough to fully describe. I like to let my own imagination take over and fill in the gaps. Unless it's important to the story for some reason. You mentioned a rug description. If you fully describe it, to the tiniest detail, I would expect there to be a reason. I think I might have felt cheated to find out there was no reason. So, when I encounter a detailed description of something, I hope that it will prove important and I pay attention.

    @ Brandon - as an editor, I do see this a lot in beginning writers. Sometimes it works, tho. It depends on the story, the genre, the tone. It can be very effective in some cases.

  7. It depends on the book. Some stories are weighed down by way too much descriptive writing. I find myself skimming over most of it. But then I read a book such as THE REPLACEMENT which is rich with details and images. I want to savor each line.

  8. I read descriptions firstly whenever I want to look at a book. Sarah James Decorating Ideas

  9. JL, I sympathize with your struggles to include setting in your scenes. On the other hand, evidently you come up with characters and their interactions with ease. Not everyone can do good dialogue!

    We all have at least one aspect of writing that gives us trouble. Mine is writing short. Cannot do it for the life of me, and this presents a problem when my focus is on young adult books.

    Short stories? Forgeddaboudid!

  10. Hi, Beverly!
    I notice that you touch on the senses when you describe setting! Good for you! Sometimes I remember to try for several senses, and many more times I forget.

    Your point is well taken about showing characters via more than their appearance. But to do that well as the author, you really need to get to know all of your characters intimately first. Once you accomplish that, their "actions, dialogue and attitudes" flow naturally from what you know.

    Re character appearance, I'm still tempted to convey that knowledge by use of the handy-dandy mirror or reflecting pool.

  11. Thanks R.L.!
    So what's the URL for your blog entry?

  12. Brandon, I don't think that it's a common -mistake- to put most of the description for a setting at the beginning of a scene. In fact, I believe it's often good practice. Of course, a lot depends on the scene. You can always add bits of description later in the scene, as needed.

    For example, two characters are talking out in the backyard at a picnic. Part of the way through the conversation, you need to cut it short for some reason. That's an ideal time, for the scene of burnt ribs to waft past. "Yipes! Got to get back to the grill!"

    A -threadbare- rug can have so much history attached to it. No wonder you found it intriguing. There's such a potential for history and personal experience involved. Why has it been kept rather than replaced? Money? Sentiment? Hallowed tradition? Do the (possibly exotic) pets or the family's 11(!) children use it as the launching pad for their favorite games? Did it become threadbare, thanks to wind-resistance as it flies and loops secretly at night, high above the villages and forests? And like that...

    Found my rug--here's part of the passage:
    "The floor was of dark green stone, softly muffled by a Bethnian carpet figured in pale greens and blues and silvers, like fish in a sunlit sea."

  13. Hi, Ashley!
    I like the idea of focusing on the details that interest the characters--they're much more likely to be relevant to the plot.

    As for taking off my hat to confirm its color, looking for a mirror instead gives me a chance to get away from the computer. :)

  14. Hi, JennaKay!
    I think we're similar in our tastes for setting description, though I may focus on nearby objects a bit more than you do.

    Yes, thumbnail sketches give us more chance to participate in the story since we have a chance to insert a detail here and there.

    I wonder how mystery writers manage. (I don't write mysteries.) They need to give enough details to provide necessary clues from time to time. On the other hand, if mystery authors only supply sufficient clues when needed for the plot, doesn't that draw inappropriate attention to the clue?

    I ask because I remember the pattern of "Murder She Wrote" on TV some 20 years ago. If Angela Landsbury made a comment abut an object like a piece of jewelry, it was a sure giveaway that she had seen the solution to the mystery in it. Once I caught on the the pattern, I lost interest in the show.

  15. Kim, you wrote, "Some stories are weighed down by way too much descriptive writing". Have you ever read any George MacDonald or other 19th century authors? Talk about weighed down with too much description for a 21st century audience! I love his adult novel, "Lilith"; however, I keep finding myself thinking, "Get on with it!" To this day, I don't think I've ever read the first chapter word for word.

    Could you tell us more about "The Replacement"? Is this Brenna Yovanoff's new book?

  16. Hakan writes, I read descriptions firstly whenever I want to look at a book".

    I gather that description is very important to you then. Do you leaf through a new book, and look for descriptions?

    (I tend to look for dialogue and action, when choosing new books in a bookstore. But that's a subject for another blog entry!)

  17. Yes, the book is by Brenna Yovanoff. I love the way she uses all the senses and how her story moves almost in a poetic way. I wanted to savor each line, phrase. Now that's great writing.

  18. to KimB:


    Knew it sounded good.