Friday, March 23, 2012

Seamless Setting Descriptions

One of the things I've noticed in my early manuscripts is I have practically zero details about the setting.

Part of this is because I've read books that (I felt) had waaaaay too many details about the draperies and the wallpaper and such. I knew I didn't want to be that kind of writer.

But I know the main reason I don't talk about settings much in early drafts is because it's hard work to pause, imagine the setting, and seamlessly weave in those details. Taking a paragraph to pause the story and describe a room? No biggie. But that "seamless" business....

When I think about seams, the thought that pops into my head is the nylons women used to wear with seams down the back.

'Back in Business.' photo (c) 2010, Lauren Hammond - license:

(For those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, yes - that's why the internet search for nylons with seams!)

My grandmother once told me that during the war when women had to do without nylons, her and her friends would draw seams on their legs to make it look like they still wore them. (As a modern girl this makes no sense to me, but I'm sure it seemed natural at the time.)

This is not the effect you want in your novels. You don't want any blocks or "seams" of description about the setting. You want it to be woven in so fluidly the reader doesn't even realize you're describing the setting to them.

I'm puling an example from a historical novel, Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland by Roseanna M. White, because not-overdoing-details seems trickiest for historical and sci fi/fantasy writers.

This comes from chapter one, the opening of the second scene:

Emerson scraped the tavern chair across the wooden floor, fell into its hard seat, and, for the first time in his memory wished Wiley Benton would hold his tongue for five blasted minutes. He barely saw the familiar whitewashed walls, the wainscoting, the multitude of friendly faces. His mind still reeled, wrestling with images of those blinding diamonds - and the equally blinding tears in Lark's eyes.

Ms. White does a couple of great things here. First, she establishes the setting within the first couple lines, but she doesn't linger there. She keeps the action moving ("Emerson scraped" or "his mind still reeled") yet still she manages to slip in details about their location.

Another great thing is Ms. White picks specific nouns and verbs. We talked about this in regards to description in general, and it applies to your setting details as well. We don't need to see every crack in the wall and every speck of dust. Be intentional with what you pick. Ms. White starts us off here with some general details about where her characters are, but those words work hard. It's not just a chair, it's a tavern chair. And the combination of Emerson "scraping" it and his frustration with Wiley's chatter tells us this is a noisy place.

Also, make sure you're describing the setting through your character's eyes. This is extra tricky when your character is somewhere familiar to them, like their home, or in this situation, the coffeehouse Emerson frequents. The most natural way to achieve this, I've found, is to tie an emotion to whatever they are describing. The lace curtains they've never liked. The scratched up table your heroine bought ages ago with her good-for-nothing college boyfriend.

In the example we've been looking at, Ms. White does this with, "He barely saw the familiar whitewashed walls, the wainscoting, the multitude of friendly faces." Emerson's mind is whirling from the encounter he just had with his betrothed, so he's not paying attention to specifics, just the blur of his surroundings.

Jill Williamson did this fabulously in Replication. One of her POV characters, Martyr, is a clone who has never been in the outside world. The descriptions in his POV are wonderful. Because of his background of living in an underground facility with no windows (duh) and hardly any color, when he's finally moving around in the real world, he calls houses facilities, bedrooms cells, and attaches color to everything. Makes for a wonderful reading experience.

And don't overlook dialogue's role in establishing your setting, particularly for you historical writers. Observe this exchange between Emerson and Wiley, which happens a few paragraphs down from the first example:

As the proprietor stalked off, Wiley lifted his brows in that particular way that bespoke both humor and confusion. "What plagues you, man? You have been playing the dunderhead ever since we left Endover."
"I played it while there too." Indulging in a mild oath, he swept his tricorn off his head and plopped it onto the table between them. "I upset your sister."

What plagues you? Dunderhead? Even before we get to the tricorn part, this dialogue roots us well in the time period (Williamsburg 1783) and in the man cave of R. Charlton's Coffeehouse.

I know something I need to work on is being more mindful of where my characters are. Especially in the first draft, I tend to focus on dialogue and action, and I don't take the time to think about where I've plopped my characters and how to make that place come alive for readers.

What about you? What part of your writing comes naturally, and what part do you have to be intentional about?

(By the way, Roseanna M. White is one of our judges for this round's contest. Don't forget to enter!)


  1. I can not tell you how helpful this post is. The first two stories in my trilogy take place, generally in the same location. This third one takes place in a completely different location.

  2. It's funny that you would post about this today because I'm in the middle of my fifth draft, where I'm going through my story just trying to make sure we are grounded enough in setting. It's an epic fantasy, so the setting is changing all the time. In this draft, I've really had to work on not only establishing the setting, but also reminding the reader of it throughout the scene.
    For me, writing setting isn't really hard, I just have to remind myself to do it and ask myself if there's enough there.
    Thanks for a great post, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah F.

    1. How strange, Sarah! Fantasy writers have such a challenge with balancing description and story. Sounds like you're on the right track, though!

  3. My grandmother told me the drawn-on-seams story too. =) And might I add how weird it is to hear you calling me "Ms. White"? LOL

    Another grounder I find I use a lot is weather/temperature. Wrapping one's hands around a coffee cup, even though the coffee's cold, blankets of heat descending, a chill in the room finally being noticed only after receiving bad news. Love using those. =) In ine book that will never see the light of day, it rained during every major life-changing event in my heroine's life. Things no one else will pick up on, but . . . =)

    1. I know, but calling you Roseanna seemed too informal when I was using your book as an example. And Mrs. White seemed a little strange too...

  4. Something I fall back on is to start my scene describing the weather too. Multiple chapters in my WIP start out with talking about the resplendent sun, the slow descent of night, the beautiful sunset as it paints the evening sky... I've been wondering if I'm starting to sound more like a meteorologist than a writer describing her scene... LOL. At least I've never opened with, "It was a partly cloudy day with the wind going 5-10 miles per hour..." ;)

    1. LOL! Love that opening. Total hook. ;-) Just don't forget to include the barometric pressure, tee hee hee.

  5. I was wondering all yesterday what this post was about, lol!
    It's a really great analogy :)

  6. I'm really bad at setting too. I tend to get so caught up in the action and the speech that I forget the characters are actually in a certain place. It's something I know I really need to work on.

    1. That happens to me all the time! And then I overcompensate with huge blocks of description. Ah, me. X) Something to work on. ;)

  7. I read this post and then read this one:

    Both are so good and so helpful to me right now! Thanks, Stephanie! {And I chuckled at the Ms. White, too!}


  8. I always love figuring out how to fit in the setting - it's almost like a game for me. My vocabulary is way too vast, and it gives me an excuse to "play" with it. (Wow, I just proved my point by being the only 14 year old to use 'vast' in an everyday sentence...)

  9. Hmm, I'm probably best at weaving emotions and memories into things. I love how my characters associate furniture and whatnot with memories. It also proves a useful tool for if you have a character who wanders, and has never really had a home or family.

    Pardon my grammar girl moment, but shouldn't it be ". . . SHE and her friends," rather than ". . . HER and her friends?"

    -Becki Badger

  10. I'd say what comes more naturally to me in writing is describing things with or without dialogue. :) All though... I'm not very sure now actually.