How to Describe Settings (Without Putting Your Reader to Sleep)

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How to describe setting image 1One of the toughest nuts for any novelist to crack is where to start.

How do I know? Well, two-thirds of my 192 published books are novels, so I’ve faced this dilemma nearly 130 times.

Trust me, it doesn’t get easier. But there are common errors to avoid. I know because I’ve made them. And because I love asking agents and editors what mistakes they see in beginners’ manuscripts.

Ready for the most common error?

The apparent feeling that you must start by describing the setting.

Setting is important; don’t get me wrong. But we’ve all been sent napping by novels whose covers and titles promise to transport us, and yet begin with some variation of:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…

Gag.

Pro tip: Readers have little patience for description. In fact, they often skip it to get to the action. 

If your main question is how to describe the setting, I have a simple answer:

Don’t.

But, you say, I have to establish where we are and set the scene, don’t I?

Yes. Like any other reader, I like to get an immediate feel for where and when things take place. But we writers make a mistake when we make that—describing the setting—a separate element.

If you do it at the beginning, you should do it for every scene in a different setting, right? Sorry, but that will quickly transport your reader from slumber to death.

Well, you say, how do I set the scene without describing it?

You don’t. But you make description part of the narrative, part of the story. It will become almost invisible, because mentions of what things look and feel and sound like will register in the theater of the readers’ minds, but they will be concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension and drama and conflict that keep them turning the pages.

In the end they won’t remember how you worked in everything they needed to fully enjoy the experience.

Consider these examples:

Describing the setting before starting the action:

London in the 1860s was a cold, damp, foggy city crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and pedestrians carefully dodging the droppings of steeds that pulled all manner of public conveyance. One such pedestrian was Lucy Knight, a beautiful, young, unattached woman in a hurry to get to Piccadilly Circus. An eligible bachelor had asked her to meet him there…

I shouldn’t have to inform you that such an opening is all telling, no showing, and that the question of how to describe the setting has been answered, but not correctly.

Describing the setting by layering it in to the story:

London’s West End, 1862

Lucy Knight mince-stepped around clumps of horse dung as she hurried toward Regent Street. Must not be late, she told herself. What would he think?

She carefully navigated the cobblestones as she crossed to hail a Hansom Cab—which she preferred for its low center of gravity and smooth turning. Lucy did not want to appear as if she’s been tossed about in a carriage, especially tonight.

“Not wearin’ a ring, I see,” the driver said as she boarded.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nice lookin’ lady like yourself out alone after dark in the cold fog…”

“You needn’t worry about me, sir. I’m only going to the circus.”

“Piccadilly it is, Ma’am.”

First, the location tag, flush left before the first paragraph, saves us a lot of narration which can be used to let the story emerge.

And yes, the second sample is longer, but that’s because we’re not telling, we’re showing.

The reader learns everything about the character from the action and dialogue, rather than from just being told through description.

So try the technique you’ve likely heard about since the day you decided to study writing:

Show, Don’t Tell

You’ll have to remind yourself of this daily for the rest of your life, but once you add it to your writing toolbelt, you’ll find it adds power to your prose and keeps your reader’s interest.

The key, as you can see from the examples above, is to layer in your description.

Maybe when Lucy meets her new gentleman friend, he grabs her and pulls her into an alley, saying, “Come here where no one will see us.”

There she might scrape her knuckles against a brick wall and wish both hands were free so she could tighten her coat against the wind.

Incorporating description that way—showing rather than telling—can alone revolutionize your novel.

Apply This Technique Immediately

…and see how it picks up the pace and adds power.

It will force you to highlight only the most important details, triggering the theater of your reader’s mind. If it’s not important enough to become part of the action, your reader won’t miss it anyway.

But you’ve read classic novelists who use description exactly the way I’m advising against. What gives?

Two things:

1—If those novels were written before TV and movies (let alone smart phones), they were aimed at audiences who loved to take the time to settle in with a book for days at a time.

2—If those novels were written in our generation and still succeeded with that kind of writing, it’s because the author is a master. If you can write at that level, you can break all the rules you want.

I can’t, so I’ll stick with what works for today’s readers. How about you?

Still confused about how to describe settings? Give me examples from your own work in the comments below.

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  • Is this what you mean? What else can I do to make it feel real? There is sensory imagery in touch and taste and smell around this scenario, and already a lot of conversation. I could have her ramble about the trees, but it wouldn’t sere any purpose. I don’t want to overload the reader. They arrived on a plane and will be traveling.This scene is toward the end of the book when their characters have been well set, but they’ve gone overseas to make an important visit.

    “It is not far to the hotel,” he said. “I will arrange a private tour for you of the Reichstag, the Parliament building, tomorrow while I meet with my brother.”
    “Let me guess. I won’t be alone much, will I?”
    “Just a precaution. I will introduce you. Phillip and Viktor Scholz, in the front; Phillip is currently driving.”
    Rachel smiled. “I’m happy to know you.”
    Viktor stuck his long, thin hand back to shake hers. “We watch out for you,” he said in rudimentary English.
    “Hans Belter, the other member of the team behind us, the blond man, and Gustav Hartmann, are the others. They come highly recommended.” Gervas spoke a few German sentences to Phillip, who apparently agreed. Viktor spoke on a cell phone.
    “The others will meet us at the hotel. Phillip will take us to see some sites now. We will not leave the car today. You are tired from the travels, yes?”
    He must have seen her droopy eyes. Rachel smiled and sat up straighter, but agreed she was tired. “Car trips do that to me.”
    “I remember,” he said and put his arm around her. She told him she was happy there were so many trees in the city, the wide roads under skies dark blue through the tinted windows. And so many cars around them, like a cushion.
    “Here is very famous Victory Column,” Viktor said over the seat.
    They were driving fast with the traffic, entering a multi-lane roundabout. Rachel slid harder against Gervas. “Sorry.”

    • You’re right, Lisa, you don’t want to overwhelm the reader. That’s the whole point of my blog – to layer in just enough description to give the reader a mental picture of the setting. A word or two of dialogue accomplishes it. I agree you don’t want someone rambling on – about anything, let alone trees. I like the cars as cushion picture, though I don’t think I’d have her telling him she’s happy about the scenery. Maybe she just thinks it as he embraces her.

      “I remember,” he said and put his arm around her. She was surprised to see so many trees in the city. And so many cars around them, like a cushion.

      The tinted windows might be nice to layer in somewhere, but you don’t need to say anything about the night sky–unless it’s storming or threatening or something.

      Much of this dialogue hit me as on-the-nose. [http://www.jerryjenkins.com/my-best-writing-tip-for-the-new-year/].

      I would recommend summarizing the normal, everyday banter, while quoting the unique, like this:

      He said it wasn’t far to the hotel and that he would arrange a tour of the Reichstag and the Parliament building for her the next day while he met with his brother.

      “Let me guess. I won’t be alone much, will I?”

      “Just a precaution,” he said, introducing her to the others in the vehicle, who spoke to each other in German.

      When Rachel smiled and told the front seat passenger, Viktor, she was pleased to meet him, he shook her hand and said, “We watch out for you.”

  • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

    Here’s the beginning of my NaNoWriMo manuscript, sir. The story isn’t complete yet, and this is the roughest of first drafts…
    ******************
    “Forty minutes active.” She chewed softly on the leg of a roasted chicken. Odd move for someone on her side of the table.

    “Forty minutes. And you didn’t think I should be informed?”

    She attempted a smile. With the back of a palm, she wiped full lips and dropped the remnant on the table. The woman was strange, no doubt, but her audacity of late surprised Herman. Perhaps she was getting weary of the two-faced living and wanted to come clean.

    “There really isn’t any point in carrying you along,” she said. “Don’t you think?”

    Herman paused. Swift changes in tone required a pause. “It wasn’t part of the agreement. No breaking of the deal. Did you not make the proposition ten months ago?”
    *****************

    Does it work, sir?

    • It could. Some thoughts, in brackets.

      “Forty minutes active.” She chewed softly on the leg of a roasted chicken. Odd move for someone on her side of the table. [vague, confusing, out of place? What’s an odd move, saying that or eating chicken?]

      “Forty minutes. And you didn’t think I should be informed?”

      She attempted [don’t hedge; and you don’t know what she’s attempting because you’re not in her point-of-view; you can say what Herman thinks she’s doing] a smile, With the back of a palm, [too much stage direction] she wiped her full lips and dropped the remnant on the table. [sounds as if she dropped the remnant of her lips ]

      The woman was strange [telling], no doubt, but h [omit needless words] er audacity of late surprised Herman. Perhaps she was getting she weary of the two-faced living and wanted to come clean? [redundant; that’s what getting weary of being two-faced would mean]
      “There really isn’t any point in carrying you along,” she said. “Don’t you think?”

      Herman paused. [paused from what?] Swift changes in tone required a pause. [resist the urge to explain] “It wasn’t part of the agreement. No breaking of the deal. Did you not make the proposition ten months ago?” [always tighten dialogue wherever possible]

      So, I would render it this way:

      “Forty minutes active.” She chewed roasted chicken. “Forty minutes. And you didn’t think I should be informed?

      She appeared to force a smile, wiping her full lips and dropping the piece of chicken.

      Her audacity surprised Herman. Was she weary of being two-faced?

      “There really isn’t any point in carrying you further,” she said. “Do you think?”

      Herman stared. “You’re violating the agreement? Breaking the deal after just 10 months?”

      Then I would get to making this clear. Who are they? What’s it about? And be sure to establish that this eventuality constitutes terrible trouble for Herman for some reason.

      • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

        Wow. So many little things that weigh a lot. Thank you very much for the help, Mr. Jenkins. Having this edited version would help in reworking the first draft.

  • Daniel Holly

    Excellent article, Mr. Jenkins. One can never be told this enough, plus it’s encouraging to know I can skip some of the description if I want. Thank you!

  • Gini B

    I have to thank you for these little tips and helps. Little, but huge. I just finished a nanowrimo write and found myself doing some of the things I’ve learned from these blog posts. Surprised myself. These helps do make a difference. I think you said that about 40 million times, but it finally clicked. Given a century or two I think you could teach someone like me to write. Thank you, again.
    What happens if I want to know what became of my leading lady from nano? I know, write it and see. :)

  • Heather Hemsley

    Ahh, this is a serious problem for me!! Thank you so much for bringing this one up. This is so hard to do because I absolutely LOVE writing detail, but I can see what you mean when you say the reader gets bored easily and wants action. I confess, I’ve done that several times while reading books!

    • It is a serious issue, Heather, but it’s not about avoiding writing detail. Better detail than vagueness. The key is to never bore the reader, so that means just the right details. The late, great detective novelist John D. MacDonald once described an orbital character as “knuckly.” Can’t you just picture him? That’s a detail that triggered the theater of my reading mind. Less is more, as long as the details are right.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    As always, this is great writing advice. Thank you for sharing it! I’m posting a sample from the novel I’ve been writing, which is my first one. I followed your self-editing tips and am posting my very best writing thus far. This scene is at the end of the first chapter. It’s not the whole scene. I’m just picking up a few paragraphs into it, which takes it to the end of the chapter. A couple of important details to know before reading: my point-of-view character, Cindy, is a middle-aged mother with an adult daughter, Katie. They just had an argument outside a bakery, and Cindy plans on confronting Katie when she gets inside the bakery. Cindy is the owner of the bakery. A snowstorm is beginning.

    Cindy studied the sky overhead. It was turning darker. The daylight was visibly dimmer than it was a few minutes earlier. The wind picked up, chilling her. Large, wet snowflakes began to fall in front of her gaze.

    She knew she needed to get inside before the weather became worse. However strong the storm may be inside the bakery with Katie, she knew it was no match for the strength of the storm that was brewing around her.

    Cindy started to head back toward the bakery, but something caught her eye. She squinted in the fading light. The falling snow made it almost impossible for her to see clearly. She struggled to decipher the strange thing she saw.

    Was it the trash cans on the side of the building? No, it was too tall. Besides, the trash cans weren’t red.

    Suddenly she could make it out.

    She gasped. A chill ran down her spine, this time not from the cold.

    It was a figure, a jet black figure with red eyes.

    It stared back at her for several seconds, not moving. Its eyes bored deeply into hers.

    Who was it? What was it?

    She could see that the figure had the shape of a man, but she could make out little else but its eyes. Her breathing quickened. She braced herself to cover the remaining distance between herself and the bakery.

    But then, almost as quickly as she had seen it, the dark figure disappeared.

    Cindy stood completely still for several seconds. The wind howled eerily around her. The only other sound was the sound of her own breathing.

    It was almost completely dark now. The back porch light of the bakery provided the only light.

    Cindy gazed around her quickly, searching for any sign of the dark figure. There wasn’t any.

    Without waiting another second, she ran to the bakery as fast as she could. Once inside the building, she slammed the door shut and leaned her back against it. She listened.

    With the exception of the wind, all was quiet.

    Whoever it was hadn’t followed her.

    • Jamie, I’ll send you a file with the changes highlighted and explained, through the Guild.

      Cindy studied the sky. It was turning darker. The wind picked up and large, wet flakes began to fall.
      She needed to get inside. The storm with Katie would be no match for the one brewing out here.

      Cindy started in, but something caught her eye. She squinted through the snow and gasped.

      A jet-black figure with red eyes stared at her, not moving.

      She braced herself to make a break for the bakery, but as quickly as it appeared, the figure disappeared.

      Cindy stood staring, the wind howling.

      Almost dark now, the back light of the bakery provided the only light.

      Cindy searched for any sign of the figure, bolted inside, slammed the door, and pressed back against it. She heard nothing but the wind.

  • Love this! I hate long description, and try my best to avoid it at length. This piece I’m sharing is the longest description block in my WIP:

    “As far as he could see there was dirt and dead grass, trodden down into some sort of
    road. Kyle rolled onto his back and sat up, feeling every bit of his fall out of the sky, and found himself facing what looked like a prison. Barbed wire looped high above him, silhouetted in the burning sun, which shone in its fullness right above him.”

    Thanks for these tips!

    • You’re welcome, Reagan. Thanks!

      A few thoughts on your piece:

      To eliminate the passivity of state-of-being verbs like ‘was,’ to eliminate saying he saw this (which he has to because we’re in his point-of-view), and eliminating redundancies, maybe try this:

      “Dirt and dead grass, trodden into a sort of road, lay as far as he could see. Kyle sat up, feeling every bit of his fall from the sky, and faced barbed wire looped high above, silhouetted in the burning sun.”

  • Personally, I’d rather have too little description than too much. Too little means the reader has to work a little extra to create the scene. Too much disengages the reader completely. Also, when I read a book with heavy description, I feel as if the author doesn’t think I am smart enough to create a mental image in my own mind.

    The following is the final two paragraphs of my WIP.*

    The sky was overcast, and the grayness seemed to infuse everything it touched. She looked down at the single tombstone with her parents’ names: Hiroshi and Jayne Yamada. She had the memory of them; the memory which had been robbed from her for over a year. Still, somehow, she wished she felt something. But her soul was numb.

    Movement caught her eye, and she looked to see a butterfly resting atop the tombstone. Its iridescent blues and bright yellows were the only color on this bleak day. As Akiko watched, the butterfly flew away.

    *Spoiler alert: This book will be released with two different (but not mutually exclusive) epilogues. Thus, the above are the final two paragraphs of one version of the book.

    • Good thinking, Bruce, but “too little” isn’t better than too much. Just right is what you’re after. :)

      I would say the DAY is overcast, because that says the sky is overcast without being redundant (what else would be overcast but the sky?) But either of those are telling, and you want to show.

      And why does the grayness only “seem” (hedging) to infuse everything it touched (and does a color really touch anything?)?

      They key is to make the description other than a separate thing, so why not start with your character at the tombstone on a gray day? One thing you definitely want to excise are all the references to her looking down, something catching her eye, her looking–to see, etc. You’re in her point-of-view, so anything you describe, we know she saw, and that means she looked. BTW, your line about the only colors is showing, so you don’t have to tell it’s a gray day. But you don’t have to call blues and yellows colors, do you?

      So maybe something like this:

      Akito stood at the tombstone bearing her parents’ names: Hiroshi and Jayne Yamada, wishing she felt something. Anything.

      A butterfly fluttered away from the grave marker, its iridescent blue and bright yellow contrasting with the bleakness of the day.

      • Thank you, Jerry. This is exactly the kind of critique I ask friends and family for that they never give me.

        Sorry if I make a big deal about Akiko looking and seeing, but she has just spent roughly 30 chapters being blind, so it is kind of important now that she has her sight back. Up until recently, her point-of-view did not include any “view.”

        • I get it. But once you establish that she can now see and is thrilled with the new experience, that establishes her as your camera and you can then describe what she sees without all the stage direction of “she looked and saw.” Just say, “She marveled at the way the sun lit the sky and painted trees flowers, even blades of grass.” We know she sees this.

  • Brices Mice

    I think that’s way I love Cozy Mysteries… just enough description to let your imagination go where it wants too…they are short, sweet and to the point!

  • Sandy Shatley

    Chapter 1 From
    the Beginning

    “Don’t ever ask me to move to this God-forsaken place!” The disgusted tone of my voice
    said it all as I got out of the car after having to park on the narrow edge of
    the road.

    “I know, honey.” Hank tried to quell my fears with his little-boy grin. “But isn’t it wonderful?
    I mean, just look at that view to the north. Isn’t it spectacular? This place sits so high on the hill that you can see for miles out into the foothills of
    the Adirondack Mountains.”

    The conversation turned to how we found the house in Glen and just exactly what we were thinking of when the purchase was made.

    There was no driveway, and in fact the ground surrounding the house was on a hillside and
    consisted of deep ruts and crevice cavities filled with high brush and brown grass reaching two and three feet high.

    The house was situated on a downward slope, and the lay of the land was indicative of much of the little town of Glen. The structure itself, a financial endeavor on our part to give his son, Jay-R, and fiancé Janie a start in life, was a crooked,
    dilapidated excuse for a house.

    I continued. “We spent $10,000 for this house. It’s hard to justify spending money on the place. What are we thinking? Look at it, it’s just awful. To begin with, it’s too close to the road. Then it has absolutely no paint on the clapboard. The roof, if you can call it that, leaks, is sagging in the middle, and needs replacement, and the foundation is cracked and broken and bows in on two
    sides.”

    • Sandy, I like the effort to layer the description in amidst the action and conversation. But there are a lot of unnecessary words and explanations, as well as dialogue that seems directed at the reader rather than to the other character in the scene. This results in conversations that include information both characters would know without saying, making the dialogue sound invented. Here’s how I would edit this opening:

      Chapter 1
      From the Beginning

      “Don’t ask me to move to this God-forsaken place!” My tone said it all.

      “I know, Honey,” Hank said, clearly trying to quell my fears with his little-boy grin. “But isn’t it wonderful? I mean, just look at that view. You can see miles into the foothills of the Adirondacks.”

      I don’t know what we were thinking when we bought the place to give Hank’s son, Jay-R, and fiancée, Janie, a start. No driveway, and the house sat on the down slope of a hillside scarred with crevices filled with high brush and brown grass reaching as high as three feet.

      What a crooked, dilapidated excuse for a home.

      “It’s hard to justify what this cost,” I said, “let alone spending more on the place. Too close to the road, needs paint, roof sags, foundation’s cracked.”

      • Sandy Shatley

        Thank you, Mr. Jenkins. I appreciate the feedback.
        Sandy Shatley

        Quoting Disqus :