One 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…
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:
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?
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.