Descriptive Passages, Part I: Setting


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

33 comments to Descriptive Passages, Part I: Setting

  • You had me at ‘hulking.’

    This is great, David, and (I feel) much needed. Too often we (i.e. everyone in the writing/publishing biz) talk abotu description like it’s padding: something dull, unnecessary and easily cuttable (you know, the way some politicians think about education). It’s not. It’s crucial, essential and part of what makes a novel a novel as opposed to, say, a screenplay. It’s atmosphere and poetry and sensual grounding, and though I absolutely take your point about Vernor’s law, I’d take more of it well executed from most writers.

  • I would say the biggest problem I’m running into is that the description sometimes bogs down (or maybe I should say feels like it bogs down) the action, especially if that action involves dialogue. I have heard that with YA, which is what I’m writing, it probably helps to be a bit sparing, but I also know that this is my weak spot, and something I often struggle with.

    As for what works for me, I think it’s my character’s observations. Sometimes I’ll find her making observations that convey her particular unique opinions and take on the world, which helps to colour her character at the same time as it conveys information.

  • Excellent points, David. I find in my own writing, the weakest description areas come in scenes where I don’t have the location clear in mind. It’s one thing to think two characters are talking while strolling in a park. It’s another to think about them in that park strolling down a paved path that’s worn and cracked, that has huge weeping willows arched overhead, and a homeless man sleeping on the chipped park bench the two characters are approaching. The more detail you can picture in your mind, the easier it is to pick out the necessary details to include. At least, that’s how my mind works.

  • Julia

    Thanks, David! The quotes from your books, together with the explanations you give, are very helpful. The use of the gulls in the later paragraph really works for me.

    I agree with Stuart’s comment. Do you have certain ways of cultivating a visual image of a person or place? I find that I often have trouble holding visual details in my mind’s eye, while I have a much stronger ability to evoke, remember, and portray emotional detail.

    To try and adress this, I’ve recently begin collecting photos or images that remind me of certain characters or settings in my book. If anyone else does this, I’d love advice about ways to do it.

  • Mikaela

    My problem is that I tend to forget about description when I write the first draft. But I flesh them out during revision, and adds a lot of words in the process 🙂

  • Unicorn

    I’m just revising the opening chapters of my WIP, and beginnings are so HARD! Getting everything onto the page without info dumps…
    I tend to bog things down with description. I can get really flowery and poetic and just go on and on and on for paragraphs, while actually achieving absolutely nothing beyond what the setting looks like. But setting can be so useful to establish mood. As is so vividly displayed in the excerpts from Thieftaker. Now I’ve just got to read it.
    Character and backstory are, for me, much harder to describe than setting – especially in the beginning. What I do find fascinating is contrasting the setting with the mood. Such as fighting a battle in the spring on a field of flowers, or having a banquet of victory in a crashing thunderstorm. Done well, it really grabs my attention.
    Thanks for the really helpful post.

  • A.J., I agree about Vernor’s Law. I find it’s a very useful axiom for teaching, for keeping aspiring writers directed as they’re working through drafts. I stick to it 90% of the time. But I also do allow myself the occasional descriptive indulgence when working on a novel. Next week I’ll write about character descriptions and will harken back to an extended character sketch I posted about some time back. I probably could have cut that section down a little. According to Vernor’s Law, it might be a little too much. But I think that it brings to the book far more than it detracts, and so I kept it. As I say, I think most of the time it’s a helpful rule to keep in mind. Every now and then, though, it’s nice to remind ourselves that this is art as well as entertainment.

    Laura, I’ll get into this more next week. I think that too much descriptive work, if undirected, does bog things down. And I believe you’re on the right track when you say that character observations are key. Remember, all of this occurs within the context of point of view; it’s all a character’s observation. So those details that we choose to have him/her notice can be quite telling, and can enhance character development.

    Stuart, you offer a terrific example, and yes, my mind works similarly. Which leads to…

    Julia, some time ago Faith and Catie (I believe) posted about visualization, saying that they found it difficult to simply close their eyes and “see” a scene. Not all people can do it. As it happens, I can. I’m very visual cognitively — always have been. That’s just me. But even so, it’s not always easy for me to hold images in my mind. I’m better with people — once I imagine a face, I can usually see it again and again. But I will use photographs from books, and even old photos my parents took while traveling in Europe decades ago, as reference material to help piece together settings. I don’t simply copy what I see in those photos — rather, I’ll notice a detail from one and blend it with a related detail from another and thus come up with something that winds up being my own. Often these are architectural, but it works for landscapes, too. I don’t know if that’s helpful or not. If no, let me know and I’ll try to explain it better.

    Mikaela, that’s not the way I work, but I know of authors who do exactly what you’re talking about. They deal with character, plot, dialogue first time through, and then “color in the details” the second time through. If it works, stick with it!

  • Unicorn, I think we posted at the same time! Thanks for the kind words about Thieftaker. If I could get it to press sooner, I would, but we’re looking at a release in Spring 2012. Setting and mood really do go together; I agree. I’ll touch on character next week and other stuff in the weeks to come. But I wanted to say that I, too, love the types of contrasts you mention here; it’s almost like embedding irony in your descriptive work. Very cool.

  • Julia

    David, that’s very helpful — thanks! I understand what you mean about taking a detail and blending it with another. Do you have a way of “recording” the combination, in order to remember it better? Or are you just able to see it again and hold it in mind, once you’ve noticed the details that you want?

  • Julia, there is no visual way to record it, if that’s what you mean. At least none that I have the technical know-how to do. So the way I do it is I write it, describe what I “see” as soon as I come up with it, in as much detail as possible — not in the story, but in a file, much like a character info database. That works for me.

  • David,

    I strongly want to agree with your point that while the various components of writing may SOUND compartmentalized when we discuss them individually, they have to work together as a comprehensive whole in order to be truly effective. Great essay, great examples. It makes me more eager than ever to read the Thieftaker books.

  • Julia

    Of course! Thanks, David. I’ve done that for characters, but it never occured to me to keep a file for settings and buildings.

    I second everyone’s excitement for the Thieftaker books!

  • Edmund, thanks. Looking forward to the distant day when Thieftaker will be available for everyone to read. The word I like to use to describe the interaction of all this stuff is “synergy.” When a book or story is going well, every element feeds on every other element, if that makes sense.

    Julia, thank you for the kind words. Glad you found this stuff helpful.

  • David Said, Not all people can do it. As it happens, I can. I’m very visual cognitively — always have been. That’s just me.

    Same here. I’m very visual. The danger for me comes in because I see things so clear that I can miss describing detail that I take for granted that others won’t be able to see if I don’t put it in the book. I’m catching some of those places in what I’m calling my final draft (if I go on too much longer I’ll just be quibbling over word choice and stalling).

  • Unicorn

    David – And here I am searching Amazon for Thieftaker. Vastly embarrassed now. Incidentally, so that I can find it when it does come out, what name did you write it under? David B. Coe or was it D. B. Jackson if I remember correctly?
    Daniel – I have exactly the same problem. I read aloud to my sister (else she drives me nuts with her constant “What’re you writing?”) and sometimes she asks, “So what does so-and-so look like?” and I incredulously answer, “You don’t KNOW?” because of course I can see so-and-so perfectly in my head. But. Revise. Revise. Revise. My new mantra.

  • Daniel, yeah that. I have to be watchful for this, too. As you say, that’s why we revise….

    Unicorn, the embarrassment is all mine. I’ve been talking about Thieftaker so much for so long that you’d think the books had been out for years. They will be published under D.B. Jackson, which is great from a branding perspective, but this is part of the delay. If they were under my name, we wouldn’t need to do quite so much prep work for the launch and could get them out sooner.

  • David, description is my first love. It’s like the glue that holds a story together, that gives it tone and richness.

    Anne Rice uses intense, purple prose in her writing, and those descriptive passages used to be my favorite parts of her books. I think I subconsciously used that purple style of description in my early works. Even now, I am often accused of over describing, and when I cut from books to tighten, that is one of the first things to go. And even in Anne Rice’s newer books, I find myself skipping ahead to see what happens next rather than letting the flow of descriptive narritive float me along.

    I wonder if the market has changed so much. Or if it is just me, writing and thinking tighter, more spare in delivery.

    Thanks for this post. It has me thinking.

  • Yeah, the market’s changed quite a bit. I like reading some of my older books I own and past couple weeks I’ve been reading some from TOR from back in the 80s. There seems a lot of stuff in those novels that we’re being told will get you rejected nowadays. One in particular from last night from a book from ’88 that stuck out like a sore thumb, “blindingly swiftly.”

  • Thanks, David.

    I definitely agree with Daniel. I’m a very visual person, too. With that, at least, I’m thankful for my job, because part of it involves describing figures in textbooks for blind students. That means being very clear and specific. But I still miss details with my own stuff, either becasue I’m not focused or the image is so clear in my head that I forget that the reader can’t necessarily see what I’m seeing.

    Maybe this is also in your plans for for next week, but just to add to what I said earlier (because I am so good at not finishing my thoughts), the other part of feeling “bogged down” by description is that I often wind up not using it enough in the first draft, and then I have difficulty working it into the rewrite. That’s where I’m having the most difficulty. I know that we shouldn’t get too attached to the words in a draft, but especially when I’ve already crafted a rhythm, I feel like I’m breaking it up and interrupting the flow I’ve already got going.

  • David> Great post, and you illustrated for me what one of my problems is. I tend to do description without the emotional connection. Early beta readers of one of my novels said that my character came off as bitchy and detached and it was because she wasn’t responding to the surroundings, even as they were in her POV. (Though, admittedly not first person POV). So I had to go back and think about ways to have her responses there (and then to cut the “she saw/watched/looked/heard/felt” language that went with it the first time I did it). I’m getting better at it now.

    The other problem I have is way too much detail, especially if setting involves people moving–they don’t just stand up and open the door. They get up (with one leg, then the other) they take a step. Another step. They get to the door. See the door? Then they reach out. Touch the knob. Grab the knob. Turn the knob. Pull the door. The door is ajar. See the door ajar? Then they open it. ARGH. It happens because I’m writing exactly what I see as I watch the character go through the process in my head. No one else needs to see that, though. 🙂

  • Faith, I agree that the market has changed. As books have gotten shorter, and as subgenres that rely on a tighter voice (like UF) have grown in popularity, the lush descriptions we grew up reading have become rarer. Look back at the descriptions in the Mary Stewart books about Camelot. The descriptions are incredibly involved, and beautifully written. But at times they do bring the action to a screaming halt. Not what editors are looking for these days. As with so many things, I think there is a balance to be found between the descriptions going on too long (as they did in my first series) and disappearing altogether.

    Daniel, “blindingly swiftly”? Really? Ouch.

    Laura, as I said to Mikaela, lots of authors do add in the descriptive details later. I don’t write that way, for the very reasons you point out. I edit as I write and try to have my drafts come as close to the finished product as possible. And so much of that revolves around flow, “hearing” the book as we write it. And so it sounds as though you need to do something akin to what I do, which is to force myself to pause now and then and ask my character “What do you see? What scents are riding the air? Tell me what you’re experiencing, not just what you’re doing.” I will try to include this in next week’s post.

    Emily, thanks. That emotionally connection is everything (and again, I’ll touch on this more next week). The details we choose to include need to have meaning beyond simple observation. In real life we notice all sorts of superfluous stuff, even when we’re in the middle of a conversation, stuff the person we’re talking to would be offended to learn we were noticing, if you know what I mean. But fiction isn’t real life. In fiction, our characters’ observations need to be directed and significant. This is what I was trying to get at with Vernor’s Law. Again, I’ll elaborate in my next post. As to the rest, the detailed staging of each action, yes, I have fought that tendency throughout my career, and still do. “Sometimes, David, he just opens the freakin’ door! He doesn’t have to grasp and turn the doorknob first….” Yeah, that.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I enjoyed that, David. You talk about the compartmentalizing of writing tasks. There is great truth to that…as I well know because I have had to teach myself each one separately. The very first one that I started with back in 1985 was description. I knew my descriptive powers were horrendous and set out to improve.

    I started by rewriting passages I liked by other authors, just writing them long hand to see what words were used. I learned a lot of new words for hill and valley from Tolkien!

    Eventually, I went on to other things, but even as late as working on the Prospero books, I still really slaved over descriptions, writing them again and again and again.

    The outcome is that I’ve received numerous compliments particularly on the descriptions in the first two books. Grateful as I am that people have enjoyed them, it makes me kind of sad…as I never will have that kind of time to slave over my descriptions again, so all future books will just not be quite as polished…but I hope that some of what I learned comes with me, so that maybe I can do at least half decent descriptions without so much slaving in the future.

    Anyway, thanks for your keen insights into this important aspect of writing.

  • David, thanks for this post.

    I love to read – and tend to write – descriptive passages through the lens of the character’s emotions. A forest is just a forest unless it becomes sharp-edged and brittle as the character deals with a shocking or painful revelation, then melts as the pent up pain turns to tears. That same forest, on a different day, might be filled with golden ribbons of sunlight, or filled with shifting shadows, depending on the mood of the character.

  • Lance Barron

    Even later than usual. David, thanks for telling us about Vernor’s Law. That really clarifies things a lot. My weakness tends to be describing the trees and never getting around to describing the forest. Would you comment on setting as character?

  • Jagi, thank you. What a fantastic exercise!! Rewriting the work of other writers — that’s brilliant! And I do agree that the descriptive work in PROSPERO LOST is wonderful. Great comment. Thanks.

    Lyn, like you I always try to color my descriptions with the emotions of my character. If she’s angry, the imagery reinforces that. Scared, same thing. It all works together: character, narrative, setting, descriptive work. When it’s working well, they all feed on each other. Thanks for the comment.

    Lance, thanks for the question. Setting as character: As I say just above in response to Lyn’s comment, setting, character, plot, etc. — all these things work together to create mood for a book, and so I think that on one level setting and character share a good deal. But I think you mean something deeper — creating a world (or recreating an existing place) that is so crucial to the narrative and ambiance of the story, that it becomes a character in and of itself. I believe that’s the case with the Thieftaker books, which as set in 1760s Boston. In these books, I try to make the city come alive through description, but more, I also try to build in so much of the city — its sights, sounds, smells, etc. — that the story really couldn’t be told anywhere else. Boston itself exerts influence on those who live there; it interacts with the characters. In part I do this with details teased out in descriptive passages; there is a scene in the second book where Ethan steps out into the street, and is struck by the crispness of the air, the smell of wood smoke blending with the musty scent of fallen leaves — Autumn in Boston; unmistakable. It doesn’t take long passages to tease out this sense of place. A little well placed goes a long way. Don’t know if that’s helpful or not. Let me know if you want me to take another stab at it.

  • Thanks for this. I feel like I’m stopping my story and jamming in some description every time I try to give some setting. For the first draft, that works, but your suggestions will help me smooth that out in the revisions.

    My critique group will probably be much happier with my efforts now.

  • Thanks, Perry. I do hope it helps. I know just what you mean about jamming stuff in, and often have to fight my own tendency to do the same. Best of luck with it, and thanks for commenting.

  • Lance Barron

    Yes, David. You hit it. Where the story could take place only in that setting. The cave, the heath, the mountain, … is more than a backdrop against which the story takes place, it actively influences the narrative.

  • My problem is that I tend to take the minimalist approach to descriptions of setting. The more I write, the more I realize that I describe settings and physical characteristics less. Originally, it was not intentional. However I tend to favor it because it allows much of the descriptions to be filled in by the reader. If I just point out what a reader needs to know for the story, the tiny details can be filled in by him/her.

    I guess that is why I flourish more with short stories where wordcount is very important. Perhaps in my novel length stories, I will need to expand this a lot more?

  • Lance, cool. I believe that when setting is done right, it is nearly always that important an actor in the story. Thanks!

    Mark, I agree that leaving room for the reader to fill in details in a good thing, and necessary. Writing and reading are two sides of the same interactive endeavor. Still, when I write, I like to direct my readers toward certain details that I feel matter, that build on my character and narrative work. As you say, descriptions don’t have to be long or intricate, but I do believe they can be very powerful tools. Thanks for the comment.

  • Young_Writer

    I have to force myself to write descriptive paragraphs. I just get so caught up in action scenes and dialogue, I forget. So thank you, this article was very helpful.

  • Glad you found it helpful, Alexa.

    >>I just get so caught up in action scenes and dialogue, I forget.<<

    If you read back through the comments above, you'll find that you're by no means the only one who does that. You can always revise, of course. But if you start to think of description as part of character and narrative development you'll find that it becomes easier to work it in the first time through. More on this next week.

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, that’s a good way of looking at it.