Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teen Inklings E-Zine: Volume 5: Setting, Description, and Mood

What’s a book without setting, description, and mood? The answer is simple: A bunch of boring heads talking in outer space. You probably don’t want that for your novel, but the unfortunate truth is that lots of books are like that. There are ways to keep yours from falling into their midst, though, and I’ve laid a few of them out for you below.

When starting a scene I’d advise that you know what the setting looks like as well as how it smells, how it’d feel if your character touched it, etc. Know as much about the place as you can, but when you write the scene, choose only a few of the strongest senses to convey. It’s easy when you’ve taken the time to know everything about a place to prattle on endlessly about every fine detail.

The solitary blade of grass atop the barren hill stood like an erected tower, defying age and decay—a bugle of hope in a void of sorrow. But it wasn’t an ordinary blade of grass, no, it had a leaflet shaft jutting out of its base, lifting its head beside its older brother like twin blades brandished at the withering noonday sun—the epitome of defiance.

Don’t get carried away. It’s nice to know these things, but when you look at something do you really stop in your tracks and think something like the above paragraph? Probably not. Tolkien was famous for his overwrought description of setting, and as a result he lost a good many readers—a couple of my family members included. The rule of thumb for fiction is this: Immerse your readers in your setting, don’t drown them. Give your reader a few specifics and let their imaginations run with the rest. Donita K. Paul does this well.

It’s necessary to give a paragraph of description for every new setting you come into, preferably on the very first page of that scene. Some writers think you should never do this, that you should avoid the paragraph and trust that the reader will come to their own realization of setting on their own. This creates very irritating, vague writing where random objects can pop up halfway through any given scene. Imagine this as the first scene in a novel:

Megan walked toward Brad. “Hey! I thought you were at college. Why are you here?”
“Yeah… I dropped out. Those classes are confusing—totally not for me.”
“Didn’t your parents pay your tuition?”
“Sure did,” Brad said.
Megan scowled.
Brad returned the gesture and hefted his surfboard under an arm. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this. See you on the waves.”

Wait a minute, are Brad and Megan on the beach? When did that happen? Where was that surfboard the whole time? All of those questions should’ve been explained, but they weren’t. Here’s what that would like rewritten:

Megan stole across the scalding sand and wished she’d kept her sandals on. It was like Hades had opened up beneath her and was now attempting to swallow her whole. Should she go back? No. She was already halfway to the drink shack. She listened to the ocean waves crashing on the nearby shore to distract her mind. Halfway there…
“Megan?” The voice was familiar. Brad’s voice.
She spun around and saw her old boyfriend, standing a few feet away, a blue surfboard tucked under a freakishly muscled arm. She feigned a smile. “Hey! I thought you were at college. Why are you here?”
Brad was the same as ever: broad and blond with pearly whites that reflected the bright afternoon sun and nearly blinded her. “Yeah… I dropped out. Those classes are confusing—totally not for me.”
There’s a shocker. Megan scowled. She fought to relax her jaw and winced as stray granules of sand gritted under her molars. “Didn’t your parents pay your tuition?”
“Sure did.”
Megan abandoned all pretense and smirked.
Brad returned the gesture and hefted his surfboard. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this. See you on the waves.” He stood still for a moment—allowing the awkward silence to continue—then managed a twitch that might’ve been a wink and turned away.
“Whatever.” Megan ran the rest of the way to the drink shack, ignoring the blistering sand. Why had her friends insisted she come here? Did they seriously think that putting her on the same beach as her ex would make them get back together? Unbidden tears leapt to her eyes, fueled by her raw emotions. Brad was a loser. She shouldn’t have ever let herself get wrapped up in a relationship with him.

See how much I added? Lots of it was characterization, but go back through it once more with a pen and highlight all the description of setting (and of character, if you want) that I added. You’ll find lots. Another thing I added up there was action beats to tie the reader to the environment. After establishing that Brad has a surfboard, I allow him to “heft” it instead of using a said tag. This is good to do. You need to keep your reader tied to the setting they are in. Jeff Gerke said it best on his Tip of the Week Column: “Like a hot air balloon, conversation needs tie-downs to the setting or they will float away. Every fifth line of dialogue or so you’d better be giving us a note about how the characters are relating to the environment (standing, eating, changing the radio station, etc.) or your reader will lose track of what’s going on.” He speaks truth.

Bland description is better than no description, but only by a little bit. The words you choose in that paragraph of description we just talked about should convey your POV (Point Of View) characters mood or emotional state.

1. Megan walked across the sand.
2. Megan stole across the sand.

Which of those creates a better understanding of Megan’s mood? The first one is bland and boring—it tells us nothing about Megan. The second one is quite a bit better. “Stole” evokes the feeling that Megan doesn’t want to be there. Weak verbs like “walked” should be weeded out and replaced with stronger ones, unless you’re purposefully trying to make a character boring. Choose your vocabulary carefully.

Another way to convey your viewpoint characters’ mood is to point out different things in their environment. In that paragraph awhile back Megan was dwelling on the scalding sand. This elicited the feeling that she was feeling slightly mutinous, that she wanted to leave. If instead she had dwelled on the bright blue sky or the seashells, she would’ve seemed happy. If you’re walking through a graveyard, do you see the bright flowers placed there by loved ones, or the chalky, unfeeling grave stones? Either one creates a very distinct mood.
Yet another way to set mood is to use Imaginative Comparisons. A well placed Simile can work wonders on your manuscript. Metaphors can do the same, but I tend to use those less. Here’s one Comparison I used above: It was like Hades had opened up beneath her and was now attempting to swallow her whole. These are sometimes called Word Pictures, and by the end of that one I can decipher Megan’s mood easily. Make good use of them in your novel, but be sure not to overuse them. They can get annoying if they’re in every other paragraph.

Check back later for next month's E-Zine


  1. Great post! I can empathize. There was a part in my sister's book that lacked some setting because of the character being out of it. (to put it blandly) I was weirded out because I am very visual, I couldn't picture where the protagonist was!

    I felt like I was in a haze that I couldn't break through. Very good advice!

  2. In Opposite World, where your ezines are filled with terrible advice, I still read your ezines just for the writing samples. Or... would they also be terrible in opposite world? Hmmm

  3. Thank you for the mention. Your column is very well done, and you've given good examples to back up your concept.

  4. That first paragraph about the blade of grass almost seems like it would fit better in a poem than a book. And the second version of the paragraph about Megan and Brad was definitely much better; at first I thouht they were in a college building.
    I'm just curious, did you write the examples for this post, or are they out of a book, maybe?

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys!
    Emily, all of the writing samples in my articles are written by me. That way I don't get sued for copyright infringement! :P

  6. Great post! You're a good writer.

    I just found your blog; I'm looking forward to more!


  7. Very good post! I usually have some problems with descriptions.

  8. I love it! Descriptions are my favorite. :)

  9. Thanks for the great advice, but I personally really like Tolkien's stories.

  10. Christian,

    This is Elizabeth from Geo Girl. Out of curiosity, I am wondering how you came to find my blog.


  11. Argh!! Would that I had found your blog years ago...

    But you weren't writing this years ago, oh well.

    God bless-
    Jordan Elizabeth