On Writing: Description and Setting


Have you ever read a scene full of featureless, naked people in an empty void? (Not a love scene mind you!) Okay, so theoretically the characters aren’t naked, and they most likely are in a place of some sort, but they might as well all be mannequins in an empty room for all the reader knows because the writer failed to describe, well, anything.

Unless we’re reading a comic book, it is up to the writer to use words to paint pictures in the reader’s mind. We don’t need to know everything (that would bog us down) but we need enough details that our imagination will fill in the gaps. As a general rule, it is often advised that reader needs three descriptive details to ground them in a scene/ establish what someone looks like (your mileage may vary). A good rule of thumb, but how and when do you implement it?

Let’s start with setting. Anytime your characters change location, you should clue the reader in on some details of the new scenery as quickly as possible. When you have a jump in time, even if the setting is one you’ve been to before (even in the previous scene), you’ll need to clue your reader in as to where the character is. Another important place is after scene and chapter breaks–this is often important even if there is a direct lead into the new scene from the previous without a jump in time because readers often close books at scene and chapter breaks and might need to be reoriented when they pick it back up. Of course, especially in the last instance, you don’t want these details to slow down the scene. While sometimes a laundry list of details can be used effectively, most of the time you want to paint the picture through the action of the scene. Here are examples of both:

Sally sat in a rickety chair and wrinkled her nose. The desk in front of her was a mess with papers strewn across the top intermixed with a dozen half-filled cups of coffee and several toppled containers of takeout. The man behind the desk wasn’t much better. A bright mustard stain trailed down the front of his wrinkled shirt and his greasy hair was several weeks overgrown.


Sally pushed out of her chair. It swayed on uneven legs before crashing to the ground with a loud bang. At the sound, the man behind the desk froze, his mouth ajar to reveal his last bite of masticated hotdog. Sally ignored that, as well as the mustard that dripped from the rest of the hotdog in his hand onto his wrinkled shirt to join the other stains. She leaned forward. She intended to stare him down, but she had to drop her gaze momentarily to make sure she didn’t topple one of the numerous coffee mugs or place her hand in a half-rotten carton of takeout as she placed her palms on his desk.

Both of these short examples sets the stage of a meeting between Sally and an apparent slob. While both of these paragraphs work, you can probably tell that the second is much more active. In the second paragraph, the scene is set as things occur whereas the first steps back and describes things before (presumably) moving forward with the action. Neither is wrong, but more often than not, you’ll want to work as much of the details of setting into the action rather than pausing to describe the character’s surrounding. (Note, if these were not quick examples and were actually part of a scene, I’d want a few more important details as from these few sentences this dirty desk could be in a cube farm or a private office–also, I’d want a few more sensory details, but that’s another discussion.)

Description of character is much the same as that of scene. There was some description of the man in the above examples but Sally is a blank slate–she could be a two-headed grasshopper for all we known. How would I go back and add in some details about her in the above examples? Well, let’s assume she contrasts our slob so maybe we’d have her think about leaning over the desk, but decide against it because something might brush against her suit. That would tell us something about what she’s wearing (and maybe a little about her personality) but it wouldn’t actually describe her.

While the above examples are in third person POV, it is a tightish third, following Sally, and the character whose viewpoint we’re seeing the world from is always the hardest to get a description of. This is especially true in First Person POV. People just don’t tend to describe themselves to themselves very often. The trite scene in which a character stands in front of a mirror and lavishly describes themselves “My luscious full lips and mousy brown hair” –yeah, no, ick. It is almost always a mark of amateurish writing. (Not to say characters never look in mirrors–I find them especially useful when describing bruises and such when things change. Writers just shouldn’t abuse mirrors and remember that, unless you are trying to depict a character as terribly vain, they aren’t going to gush on their own appearance.)

I started this post late and now it is getting rather late, so I’m not going to hold it up writing examples of  more descriptions. When reading, we’ve all run across descriptions that worked (or didn’t) in scenes, so if you have a moment to spare, I’d love if you could post some of your favorite examples of descriptions that really set the scene or cemented a character for you. I hope you’ll share an example. Thanks!

Happy new year everyone. And good words to you all!


10 comments to On Writing: Description and Setting

  • Kalayna, In the first version, by the time I got to the end, I had almost forgotten about Sally. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder that the reader sees what we write and not with we think.

  • *What* we think. Shesh….

  • quillet

    Some description of one of my favourite characters ever, from one of my favourite books ever, The Curse of Chalion, by one of my favourite authors ever, Lois McMaster Bujold:

    “You there, old fellow,” the leader called across the saddle-bow of his banner carrier at Cazaril.

    Cazaril, alone on the road, barely kept his head from swivelling around to see who was being so addressed. They took him for some local farm lout, trundling to market or on some errand, and he supposed he looked the part: worn boots mud-weighted, a thick jumble of mismatched charity clothes keeping the chill southeast wind from freezing his bones. He was grateful to all the gods of the year’s turning for every grubby stitch of that fabric, eh. Two weeks of beard itching his chin. Fellow indeed. The captain might with justice have chosen more scornful appellations. But…old?

    I love this, because it sets up not only what Caz looks like, but also a bit how he sees (and doesn’t see) himself. There’s a deft bit of world-building in there too, and Bujold manages it all in tight third-person POV.

  • Thanks, Kalayna. It struck me that in the second one we can tell whose desk it is. In the first scene I assumed that it was Sally’s desk and she was annoyed at her own mess and then turned her attention to the man in front of her. The second description made it clear that the desk mess and the slob went together which made the scene’s action tighter too because I didn’t have to move my attention from one to the other.

    Quillet – is your avatar/icon Christine de Pisan?

  • sagablessed

    The Sisters had summoned him.
    After over a score-plus-ten of centuries in service, meeting the Sisters never got easier. He knelt before them, sweat falling from the tip of his nose. Under his knees lush grasses cushioned his weight, while the scent of apple-blossoms wafted around him.
    At the edge of his vision a wave of midnight-blue cloth rippled in the afternoon sun. The Eldest was moving towards him. Pools spread rapidly under his arms as his chin tucked tighter into his chest.
    “We have decreed. It is time again to wipe the daemon-sleep from the eyes of mortals.”
    Joining the black was a swath of blood-red cloth. “The world must awaken and slumber no more,” said the middle Sister. “The Children of Earth call to Us, and We answer most favorably.”
    Last to swirl in front of him was the snow-white hem of the youngest. “Too long hath the world of men been removed from the Wellspring. Another Age must be born, yet born slowly. Once again will balance be restored.”
    Reality shook as the three spoke in unison. “You must find and train the Weaver.”
    Slowly he counted his breaths to nine before he spoke. “How shall I know her countenance? I do not think I can remember.” He hated how weak and desperate his voice sounded.
    Small and warm, the hand of the youngest grasped his shoulder briefly. In her touch was the promise of everything yet to be.
    “You will have all you need. We do not send you on a fool’s errand. Have faith in yourself, if not Us.”
    His face burned at the gentle rebuke before what he had said dawned on him. Trembling at the grossest of leze majesty to the Powers before him, he threw himself on the ground. “Forgive me, my Ladies,” he cried through a mouthful of grass. “Forgive me. Attribute it to an old man’s failings of spirit, and show mercy.”
    The Youngest chuckled with compassion. “Truly, you have been a most faithful and loyal servant, for too many years beyond the ken of most mortals. Our promise shall be upheld when this, your final task, has seen completion.”
    Almost his head jerked up to look her in the face. Almost. Yet he was no fool. Not after so long in Their service. Hope sprouted in his heart. After so long, it would finally be his time to rest. He felt the Youngest smile at his back.
    A rustle of cloth gave him courage to glance up to see his knuckles, twisted and spotted with age. The finery of Their clothes spun around once blending into a single thread. Then his eyes beheld only grass. He kept his head down for long moments afterward.

  • Razziecat

    Quillet, I love that book, too! But my favorite of Bujold’s work is The Hallowed Hunt, and here is how it begins:

    The prince was dead.
    Since the king was not, no unseemly rejoicing dared show in the faces of the men atop the castle gate. Merely, Ingrey thought, a furtive relief. Even that was extinguished as they watched Ingrey’s troop of riders clatter under the gate’s vaulting into the narrow courtyard. They recognized who he was–and, therefore, who must have sent him.
    Ingrey’s sweat grew clammy under his leather jerkin in the damp dullness of the autumn morning. The chill seemed cupped within the cobbled yard, funneled down by the whitewashed walls. The lightly armed courier bearing the news had raced from the prince’s hunting seat here at Boar’s Head Castle to the hallow king’s hall at Easthome in just two days. Ingrey and his men, though more heavily equipped, had made the return journey in scarcely more time. As a castle groom scurried to take his horse’s bridle, Ingrey swung sown and straightened his scabbard, fingers lingering only briefly on the reassuring coolness of his sword hilt.

    …I love how quickly and easily Bujold establishes the situation and blends it effortlessly into a description of where Ingrey is, the time of year and time of day, his mood, clothing and how he is armed. Even the mention of the “lightly armed courier” hints a little at the situation: These people are not at war, but someone important (and not well-liked) is dead, and Ingrey is just a little concerned about the situation and about his own safety. All of this in two paragraphs.

  • Razziecat

    Ooops. “Ingrey swung *down*, not sown 🙁

  • Having some odd issues accessing this site and with some slowness of PC, but here’s one of my old favorites. I’ll try to add one of my personal writing favorites later from a story I’m really champing at the bit to delve into.

    One of my favorite characters from Thieves’ World, character by Andrew J. Offutt:

    Statement of Furtwan Coinpinch, Merchant

    The first thing I noticed about him, just the first impression you understand, was that he couldn’t be a poor man. Or boy, or youth, or whatever he is. Not with all those weapons on him. From the shagreen belt he was wearing over a scarlet sash—a violently scarlet sash!—swung a curved dagger on his left hip and on the right one of those Ilbarsi “knives” long as your arm. Not a proper sword, no. Not a military man, then. That isn’t all, though. Some few of us know that his left buskin is equipped with a sheath; the slim thing and knife hilt appear to be only a decoration. Gift from a woman, I heard him tell old Thumpfoot one afternoon at the bazaar. I doubt it.

    (I’ve been told he has another sticker strapped less than comfortably to his inner thigh, probably the right. Maybe that’s part of the reason he walks the way he does. Cat-supple, and yet sort of stiff of leg all at once. A tumbler’s gait—or a punk’s swagger.

    (Don’t tell him I said!)

    Anyhow, about the weapons and my first impression that he couldn’t be poor. There’s a throwing knife in that leather and copper armlet on his right upper arm, and another in the long bracer of black leather on that same arm. Both are short. The stickers, I mean, not the bracers or the arms either.

    All that armament would be enough to scare anybody on a dark night, or even a moonbright one. Imagine being in the Maze or someplace like that and out of the shadows comes this young bravo, swaggering, wearing all that sharp metal! Right at you out of the shadows that spawned him. Enough to chill even one of those Hell Hounds.

    That was my impression. Shadowspawn. About as pleasant as gout or dropsy.
    And I fell in love with the character. 😉

  • quillet

    Sarah: Yes it is! 🙂 She’s one of my heroes.

    Razzie: You have impeccable taste in books and authors! Your list in Misty’s recent post of the authors you’ve met left me positively greeeeeeeeeen.

    By the way, like Daniel, I’ve been having odd difficulties accessing this site today. Don’t know why.

  • Describing POV characters is, for me, one of the biggest challenges I face as a writer. When I was writing multiple POV epic fantasy, it was easier, because I could use the POV of one character to describe another. But now with the THieftaker books it’s really hard. Even that mirror trick (which I also hate because it’s always so contrived) won’t work, because mirrors in Colonial America were a luxury item, one that Ethan and most of my other characters can’t afford!