Setting Description

 He clutches the package tighter to his chest and shoots a glance over his shoulder. Still there. No shakin’ them. Whoever’d hired them is sure gettin’ his money’s worth.

His eyes dart to the “Walk” sign at the corner, and he quick-steps through the noon crowd to the other side of the road. Another glance. Stupid gorillas are still there, not two dozen paces behind. Here–cut in here. Nice busy place to lose them between the rows of bright yellow bananas and sweet smelling peaches. On another aisle, pungent onions compete with the scent of fruit. An apron-clad store clerk washes celery and sets it artistically among the squash and eggplant.

Whoa! Hold the guavas, there! What happened to our hero’s panicked flight? What happened to the gorilla goons on his tail? I got distracted with the scene description, didn’t I?

You may read this and giggle, but I’ve actually seen similar prose in published books–a little less exaggerated, but enough to rip me right out of the scene.

When the action is fast paced, detailed setting description simply does not work. You want your words and sentences short–not choppy, but short and quick to read. So stopping the action to set the scene isn’t the best route to go. Use a broader stroke when painting the scene so you can keep the pace:

He clutches the package tighter to his chest and shoots a glance over his shoulder. Still there. No shakin’ them. Whoever’d hired them is sure gettin’ his money’s worth.

His eyes dart to the “Walk” sign at the corner, and he weaves around rushing nooners to the other side of the four-lane.

Another glance. Stupid gorillas are keepin’ up, not two dozen paces behind. Here–cut in behind the peach stand. The apron-clad veggie hawker shots him the evil eye, but he don’t care. One more second and the goons’ll be closer. One hefty push topples the peaches, and he skedaddles through the fruit stall and out the back way.

Keep him in character and in the scene, and use the props to help describe the setting.

Sometimes the pace allows for more description. When it does, use the opportunity to set or enhance the tone.

Here’s a piece from one of my neglected manuscripts. In it, the MC, Claire, has a suspicion that the town’s mighty Sinclair brothers know the whereabouts of her surrogate grandmother, their great aunt. She’s afraid someone has kidnapped her, but she can’t get anyone to believe her claims. She decides to investigate on her own:

She turned left down Filmore Street, where home after stately home paled in comparison to the Stanfield mansion. “Re-elect Senator Marcus Stanfield!” placards planted ten feet apart down its entire length marred the street’s atmosphere of rich antiquity. She scowled at Marcus’s handsome, smiling face peering at her from the cardboard signs. The Stanfield brothers didn’t have an ounce of the kindness and compassion their late parents had possessed. They were nothing more than a waste of skin.

Her chest tightened as she pulled into the drive of their five-acre estate. When Mr. and Mrs. Stanfield were alive, they hosted Easter egg hunts and July fourth fireworks displays for the town’s children. At Christmas, their immense house had always been lit up like a fairy land castle. Today, with the charcoal skies overhead and the wind picking up from another wave of storms, the place looked menacing. The wet weather had given the brick drive a sweaty sheen, and the arched entry into the imposing mansion looked like a gaping mouth ready to gobble her whole.

Describing your character’s setting deserves as much attention as describing your character. In fact, the exercise can enhance your character’s description and add depth to him. When used to help set the tone, description can add depth to your scene also.

In other words, setting descriptions are a tool readily available to anyone who prefers a pen to a brush, a screen to a canvas. But like any other artist’s tool, it requires practice.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in editing, write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Setting Description

  1. Ooooh. That was good! I love the way you include examples with the explanation.

    It makes physical sense to keep description short and brief during stressful scenes. Someone running for their life isn’t going to stop and notice minute detail of their surroundings. They will be looking at how close the danger is and for a way to escape, to survive, as you cleverly showed in your example.

    Thanks you again for another great lesson in what to do and what not to do. 🙂


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