Writing Craft 101: Why Description Isn’t Just About Setting–It’s About Character

PulpFiction(This discussion assumes you’re writing in first or close-in third points of views. That is, you’re filtering the story though one or more characters’ worldviews.)

I’ve been thinking about how description gets a bum rap in many corners of the fiction world, especially in my world of crime, thriller and suspense writing. Even my mom wants nothing to do with description. My mom! (By the way, she’ll never read Kilmoon. Never. She says it intimidates her, I think because—oh horrors!—it’s quite descriptive.)

And don’t you hate it when you hear people say, “I skip the descriptive stuff”?

Well, I love description, and I’m proud of it. In my writing world, description should:

  • Be meaningful.
  • Be appropriate to the scenic moment.
  • Not bog down forward momentum.

For example, say your heroine Betsy Lou is struggling up a mountain to a safe house, the bad guys behind her. She reaches the top, the sun tips its first rays over nearby hilltops (symbolic, you know: she made it!), and then your heroine stops to admire the beauteous roseate light and the way the dew glistens and …

Yeah, no. Don’t do that. That’s just annoying, and you’ve broken my three basic rules. One, the description isn’t meaningful unless you want to show that your character is an idiot. Two, it’s not appropriate to watch a sunrise when you’re running for your life. Three, you’ve halted forward momentum. It fails the Mom Test: skip!

In action scenes, you want to sprinkle in the minimum required in the midst of the action. The five senses are always good, whatever type of scene you’ve got going, but only what Betsy Lou, in this case, would notice as she scrambles up the hill—brambles pricking her arms, a slithering noise that startles her into slipping. You get it.

Quieter character-driven and setup scenes are scenes in which you can employ the kind of description I’m talking about to best affect—to create mood and illuminate landscape.

By landscape, I mean both exterior and interior landscape. Good description employed at the right time (location! location! location!) sets scene plus shows character—in the way you want her to be shown, not like the idiotic Betsy Lou above. How a character perceives the world around her illuminates her interior world. Basically, this is a showing-not-telling technique that can help you create well-developed characters. No cardboard cutouts allowed, please.

Here’s an example from Kilmoon. Analyzing the following passage awhile back, I realized that maybe (because I have no clue really) it works because it accomplishes several things at once: it shows Kevin’s state of mind, describes the setting, and creates a mood. Also, it’s integrated into the action of Kevin entering the church and sitting down, so you don’t lose forward momentum. (Even quiet scenes have forward momentum!)

The church welcomed Kevin with stones set firm as arms crossed over chest, its cavernous silence the only embrace. In the faint light that filtered through the windows, the altar saints looked inconsequential while they waited for their vigil candles and tears. Crucified Jesus’s crossed feet and thin legs faded into the loin cloth that faded into the dark. Kevin slipped into a smooth oak pew, genuflecting as the nuns had taught him.

Without knowing anything about Kevin, you might get the sense that he’s not in a good way right now (true).

I love how description can reinforce character. In Kilmoon, Merrit is a newcomer to an Irish village. As a newcomer, she sees the vibrant shop fronts and quaint village plaza with fresh eyes. It wouldn’t have done to describe the village through a local’s eyes. A local would see the village in a less idealistic light, might even think the village has gone downhill in the last 20 years—which could be a good descriptive device for a different story. I wanted to initially portray the village as charming, because the story is partially about deceptive appearances. Therefore, the description belonged to Merrit’s point of view; she’s the one who’s going to go through a transition.

I could go on forever – however, in a nutshell, here’s why description is good, whatever your genre:

  1. Illuminate character: Like fresh-eyed Merrit and moody Kevin above. Interior landscape.
  2. Ground the characters in place: Exterior landscape. And all the better when a descriptive passage does double duty with interior landscape.
  3. Set mood: I hope this is obvious.
  4. Amplify a theme: As I mentioned above with the charming village. As Merrit wises up about village life, she starts to notice other things, like shadows creeping along narrow lanes.
  5. Develop setting as character: Depending on your novel, you can imbue a setting with personality. This makes sense for novels in which a setting is part of the plot—like the jungle in Heart of Darkness. But note: this too comes out of the character’s perspective.
  6. Increase tension: You may want to purposefully slow a scene way down to increase tension. You can do this by employing description. Note: I didn’t say halt the scene. I said slow it waaay down. In this case, you employ all five senses in the most excruciating manner possible. Stephen King is a master at this technique.

The truth? Even I skip the descriptive stuff sometimes, especially when the author has done so much research that he goes nuts describing every. little. thing. I’m thinking, huh, your character is really observing five pages worth of nitty-gritty about the flora and fauna? If she’s an ecologist, maaaaybe. This is nothing but authorial intrusion, my friends, not a meaningful and scene-appropriate use of description.

While writing this post, I realized how much I’ve grown as a writer since my first attempt at a novel. I used to describe everything in the most beautiful way possible (can we say purple prose?), not realizing what I was showing about my point-of-view characters in the process. Description seemed to be something outside of character. But it’s not—it comes out of character. Way back when, I didn’t use my characters’ viewpoints to filter descriptions. I wrote descriptions from my point of view, because I liked them. Mom Test failure: skip!

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

16 thoughts on “Writing Craft 101: Why Description Isn’t Just About Setting–It’s About Character

  1. Part of the rule about not killing forward motion is to — when possible — describe things early, so the reader already knows them later, when things are really kicking into gear. I thought about this (of all things) when watching the movie Kick-Ass. One thing that nobody commented on about that movie (distracted, no doubt, by all the violence and preteen swearing) was that early in the movie the director very carefully showed us the geography of the location where the final fight scene takes place. So, by the time the Hit-Girl is fighting her way down that corridor with all the bookcases, you know exactly where she is and where she’s going.

    Illuminating character is really key. The protagonist in my last story was a teenage girl from a small town, in the big city for the first time (she’s a runaway), so when I’m showing what she sees, I’m showing it through her eyes. There’s one scene where she’s in a townhouse owned by a wealthy family, and she realizes that all the furniture she’s seeing is probably older than anything in her parents’ house (including her parents).

    “Even I skip the descriptive stuff sometimes, especially when the author has done so much research…” You can always well, can’t you, when research comes poking its head into the story. It just feels different — inorganic — and I often skip that stuff, too. I read a mystery once that was set in the 1920s, and I could feel the weight of all the hours the writer had spent going through old newspapers. Completely different than the Philo Vance mysteries, which were written in the 1920s and which feel very organically set in that era.

    • Hi Anthony! You make a good point about establishing aspects of setting in the beginning as a setup. I essentially did that when I initially described the village from Merrit’s POV. After that, I just describe things as needed.

      Getting the research in organically takes practice. In my first drafts my research was a little too loud.

  2. Great post, Lisa. It IS your longest! lol. But all applicable stuff. My favorite use of description is to make a setting/location seem like it’s a character itself.

  3. I agree, Lisa. Setting mood is important. But it says even more about a character. My state police officer would describe a sunrise in a completely different way than my public defense attorney. And each description would (hopefully) give the reader an insight into the character.

  4. I’ve always struggled with description so one thing my readers never had to worry about was long descriptive passages. I barely managed short ones, even though my editor pushed me to do more. It wasn’t until I heard a writer talking about motivated description that I could do more. My problem was that my characters were in familiar settings and I could see no reason for them to describe where they were, especially in first person. But if they’re motivated to describe the setting, either because something has changed in the setting or because the setting is the same but something has changed in the character, then I was able to see how description could work for me.

    • “motivated description” — I really like that. It makes intuitive sense, Larry — and I can see how thinking about it that way can help you pinpoint how to get description in effectively.

  5. Wonderful post on a difficult subject. There’s a fine line between not enough and too much with setting, and the placement of that line varies between readers. Setting as character can be either something that makes a book, or a series, or something that really slows a book down, depending, (I think) on how deeply we’re embedded inside the character when the setting is reveled. This post is going into my reference file – Thanks!

  6. Describing a setting from a character’s POV is one of my favorite parts of writing, especially if you get the chance to see how two people see something in very different ways (say, in an alternating POV narrative). Even something as simple as how the sky looks is sooo subjective, so description can be an amazing tool if used right.

    • Oh, I can’t wait to dive into your novel, Natalia. I’ve been saving it up, I have to admit, so that my thoughts are fresh when I write my blog post about it.

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