Masterful Setting Description Part 3

Masterful setting description teaches us an important lesson: writers need to take the time to paint enough of a sensory-rich picture in order for readers to feel they are there—or at very least, get a glimpse of how the setting feels and looks to the POV character.

As we’ve discussed in many of these posts on masterful description, all details presented in description is the POV character’s observation. When you are in POV and you describe a tree, you are not giving dry statistics about that tree; you are sharing what that character notices when looking at that tree. And the way that tree is described has to

  1. fit the character’s personality, vocabulary, background, and education (you can’t have an uneducated character describe the tree the way a botanist would);
  2. fit the character’s mood at that moment (the choice of phrasing and adjectives, as well as the aspects of the tree noticed, has to reveal, mirror, or imply the mind-set);
  3. and help set the tone of the scene.

That description could do much more than what I stated above. It could act as a metaphor in some way, or a motif. Spindly bare arms could signify bareness, for example, and while the character may not be standing in front of the tree thinking, “Gee, this tree is like me: barren,” you could masterfully describe the tree in a way that the reader gets the subtext, the unspoken thoughts, that are often more powerful than the outward descriptions.

I’m often asked how much sensory detail should be put in a description. First consideration, of course, is genre. Once you study enough books in your genre (highlight all the lines of description, if you need t0), you should have a good idea of how much detail to use. Some genres are sparse in description of characters but are extensive in description of setting. Do your homework.

But work to develop your own style. Practice writing like others until you feel confident you can write like you.

If pressed to give a general answer to the question of amount, I would say this: Choose 2-3 senses in describing setting, then come up with at least 3-4 masterful sentences that showcase those sensory details. Make them details that help paint that picture for the reader.

Here is a description by Ron Hansen in his novel about Jesse James:

Bob . . . stepped off the wooden porch into the night. The earth was cold as marble to his feet and the grass stabbed like a broom. He wore gray wool trousers over his longjohns but the chill convinced him to shawl his shoulders with a tattersall quilt that was being aired on the clothesline. He could see a mare asleep on three legs next to the stable–the fourth leg was canted rather coyly, as if a curtsy were coming. The wind in the sycamore branches made a sound like “wish.” . . . He could smell fruit trees in the way that one can smell a neighbor’s cooling pie. He settled himself on a plain bench under the clotheslines that sagged from the cottage eave. A mangled spoon was in the dirt; a straw doll was in a tin bucket.

He heard the screen door creak and clap shut, heard his brother limp over and stand to the rear of him. He seemed to ponder their predicament, the past, the galaxy. He lowered onto the long bench like a man who weighed six hundred pounds, and Bob saw that it was Jesse.

We can feel that cold ground as Bob steps onto the grass. We see through his eyes and notice the mare and how she is standing. We hear the wind and smell the fruit trees, and then notice a spoon and a doll nearby, in the dim light of the night.

Hansen didn’t need to go on for pages to give a sense of what the setting was like for Bob in that moment on that night. True to his writing style (similar to Cormac McCarthy’s), POV tends to be distant, more like a cinematic camera that records the action but rarely dips deep into characters’ heads. The rest of the scene, via dialogue, shows the situation and implies Bob’s mood.

This is much different from infusing emotional value into the choice of words, particularly adjectives, that we usually see with James Lee Burke’s description. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, better or weaker. It’s all about style. With Hansen’s biographical, newspaper-chronicle style, this type of setting description is just right. The domain, terrain, and era of Jesse James is wonderfully conveyed in every paragraph through vivid sensory description, even if it is rarely emotionally charged.

I hope you are learning much from these forays into masterful description. More to come next week, in 2018! Wishing you a very happy New Year and hope you make it your resolution to become a masterful writer!

Your thoughts?

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  1. Yet another encouraging and extremely useful article! Many thanks as always and wishing you a highly productive 2018!

  2. I love that you are using some of James Lee Burke’s work to illustrate your advice on description! He is on the short-list of my favorite writers and I have read and followed his work since discovering it in the 1980’s.

    One thing I’ve noticed about his style: when he changes scenes, locations, etc: he begins that passage with evocative description. It is a method that sets up his character(s) and his readers for the change in location, as well as sometimes foreshadowing what will follow.

    I have nearly all of your books about writing and of the couple dozen writing blogs that I once followed, yours and one other are the only ones that I still read and consider.

    Thanks for all that you do to encourage and teach aspiring and/or learning writers!

    1. You’re welcome! I’m finishing up House of the Rising Sun this week. Loving it. I teach that it’s important to have a cinematic establishing shot at the start of scenes. It’s important to establish the setting, the mood, the mind-set of the character. Too many writers skip this important setup, and Shoot Your Novel goes into this a bit at length, with examples. Glad you are getting bang for your buck (time) out of reading my blog and books. I’m always trying to find new, inspiring material to help writers. If you haven’t joined my Fast Track email group, consider it. You’ll get free books and lots of advice and special offers, just for novelists:

      Anyone can opt in and unsubscribe anytime (and I give away books every month)

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