Writers often speak of different aspects of our work in a way that makes them sound compartmentalized. We develop characters, we establish setting, we advance our narrative, we sprinkle in healthy doses of action, we write descriptive passages. The truth is, though, that if we handle these things correctly, there is nothing compartmentalized about the result. Character and narrative development feed on one another, propelled forward by those action scenes, and meshing seamlessly with the worldbuilding or research we have done to make our settings come to life.
Descriptive passages, on the other hand, often seem to get short shrift in these discussions. They are mentioned as an afterthought, a necessary evil, something that we throw in now and then to connect one scene to another, or something we have to write so that our characters have faces, and our settings have something more to them than a bland landscape or white walls. It’s easy to forget that these passages are not superfluous. Far from it. Description is the tool we use to accomplish nearly all that we do as storytellers. We cannot establish a character without describing him or her, nor can we create an ambiance without describing it. And how are we to convey action without describing for our readers what happens and how?
The problem is that description is a bit like spice. Use too little and the result isn’t rich enough; use too much and it will overpower everything else. We writers need to find a balance; we need to describe things just enough to get our point across without going too far. So, how much is just enough?
Let me begin by restating for you what my editor and I call “Vernor’s Law.” Vernor is Vernor Vinge, the multiple Hugo Award-winning author of A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, who first came up with this. Vernor’s Law states that as authors we are always trying to do three things: develop character, advance plot, and fill in necessary background information. At any given time in a novel we should be accomplishing at least two, and preferably all three of those objectives simultaneously. If we’re only doing one, our story has stalled.
Like anything else in a novel or story, description is subject to Vernor’s Law. In other words, we want our descriptive passages to accomplish more than one thing at any given time. I would argue that description is a form of background — done right, it provides our readers with information that gives context to the rest of the tale. But just as we don’t necessarily want to give our readers every bit of background information we have on one character or another, so we don’t need to give every detail when describing setting. Rather, we include those details that bring to life the thing or person or place we’re describing, and that reinforce the story or character elements we happen to be focused on at that point in the story.
Here’s an example from the first Thieftaker book:
The western horizon still glowed with the last golden light of day, but the sky over Boston Harbor and the South End shoreline had darkened to a deep indigo. Wooden warehouses, hulking, shrouded in a faint mist, cast deep, elongated shadows across the wharves. Clouds of midges danced around Ethan’s head, scattering when he waved a hand at them, only to swarm again as soon as he turned his attention back to his hunt.
This is the second graph in the book — we have just met Ethan, and are only now being told something about the setting for the book. This is a brief descriptive passage, but it establishes where we are (Boston’s waterfront) time of day (dusk), a vague sense of the time of year (warmer months, when there are bugs). With the mention of those “hulking warehouses” and “elongated shadows” it also reinforces the menace that I established in the first graph. Ethan is pursuing someone, and has lost the trail. He knows the guy is near, but he doesn’t know where. And the detail of the midges gives me a way of adding to the discomfort of the moment, while also bringing my readers back from description to the central narrative point: the hunt.
I could have said more about the city at that point. I think an earlier draft might have mentioned a gull or something else that evoked the waterfront more. But I moved those details back a few paragraphs, to a point where Ethan is trying to locate the guy he’s chasing.
He heard small waves lapping at the timbers, and the echoing cries of a lone gull. But Ethan was listening for the man’s breathing, for the scrape of a shoe or the whisper of a blade being drawn.
Again, the point is not only to describe setting, but also to tie it back to the narrative tension of the book. The cry of the gull and the lapping of the water would have been superfluous in the earlier graph. Here they allow me to ratchet the tension more, to contrast the haunting sounds of the shoreline with sounds that might otherwise be more prosaic, but which are, at this moment far more frightening — the scrape of the shoe, the whisper of the knife.
Descriptive work for setting is a bit easier with this historical fantasy than it might be with alternate world fantasy. When we deal with our own worldbuilding we have far more detail to convey. The Thieftaker books are set in 1760s Boston, and though I had to do a lot of research to get the setting right, just saying “Boston — 1765” conjures up images for all of us: cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, tricorn hats, flintlock rifles, etc. If I say that a chapter is set in Yserne in 880 (Shapers of Darkness, book IV of Winds of the Forelands) it tells my readers far less. So does that mean I need a lot more description? Not really, no. We may be in a different world, but the idea remains the same. I want to describe the setting enough to anchor my readers, but not so much that I bore them or distract from the more important stuff:
A fierce rain pelted Yserne, soaking the farms that dotted the countryside, slaking the thirst of young crops. Vast pools of rainwater covered the inner ward of the queen’s castle, and beyond the walls of the fortress, the surface of Lake Yserne churned as if some fire from Bian’s realm heated its waters.
Again, this is a short description, but it tells my readers a good deal: It’s spring (young crops); this is a farming area; we’re in the queen’s castle (Is Yserne a matriarchy? As it happens, yes.); and there seems to be a guy named Bian who controls a hell-like realm (Bian is, in fact, the God of the Underrealm). More than that, the ferocity of the storm and the churning of the waters hint at danger, at turmoil. War is coming, and the description takes us in that direction, leading naturally to the council of war — and the undercurrent of political scheming and conspiracy — that dominates the chapter. To be sure, there is plenty my readers don’t know about Yserne — stuff they’ll need to be told before all is said and done. That’s where narrative development, dialogue, and internal monologue fit in. This description, though, sets these forces in motion. I could tell my readers more about the castle, about the storm. (And I do in subsequent pages — probably too much. If I was writing this book today it would probably be 10 to 20% shorter.) But this is enough to start.
Descriptive work is essential to setting the scene for your work. It is also critical in character work and conveying action. I’ll deal with these in subsequent posts. For now, let’s talk about setting. What works for you when you’re creating the ambiance for your books? What problems are you running into?David B. Coe