Margo entered the restaurant and searched for her sister and niece in the noon crowd. Plastic molded tables were filled with teenagers, mothers, and blue-collar workers chatting over food baskets. Above the cash register, a bright sign presented the menu in vivid primary colors and tantalizing pictures of hamburgers, corn dogs, and onion rings. The young cash register attendants took orders from those waiting in long lines and called pick-up numbers over the intercom.
Have you got your favorite fast-food joint in mind? Good! That was the point of the description. But, while it isn’t a bad description–it certainly evokes images–it stops the action and is overly descriptive of a place common to virtually everyone’s experience.
Setting description drops your reader into the character’s world, and that world can be as complex as a space ship in the outer blackness of the universe or as simple as the neighborhood McDonalds. For simple settings, only a few props are necessary to evoke an image in your reader’s mind, so you can simultaneously describe the scene and keep the action rolling.
If you keep the character in the setting instead of putting her on “hold” while you step back from the action to describe it to your reader, you can keep the action going without missing a beat:
Margo opened the restaurant door and was blasted with chilled, grease-laden air. She paused only a moment before spotting her sister and niece waving from a yellow plastic booth under a sunny window in the corner. Weaving between tables of teenage girls giggling over strawberry sundaes and blue collar workers downing double-meat burger supremes, she made her way back to her niece’s open arms and bent low for a french-fry kiss and a ketchup-coated hug.
In exactly the same amount of words, I described the scene through my character’s actions instead of stepping in as the author and describing it for her.
However, when the setting is unfamiliar to your reader, it is necessary to describe it with more detail. When that’s the case, remember a couple of side “keeps”: Keep it short, and keep the character out of it until you’re ready for the action. In her Rightfully Mine, Aggie Villanueva provides the perfect example of this:
It was inconceivable that after forty years of chastisement in the Zin desert and the recent military successes in the Transjordan hills, the wandering nation of Israel could succumb to the temptations offered by the Moabite and Midianite women, but the tomb-like encampment attested to the sin. As a result, hundreds and thousands of sprawling black tents suffocated their inhabitants with the lingering, putrid taste of the death within them.
The vast camp of Israel lay crippled by plague. They huddled piteously beneath arcing acacia branches along the oasis-like steam of Abel Shittim, the only shelter available in the scorching summer sands of the Moab plains. Israel was halted only a few miles east of the Jordan they yearned to cross.
In the southwest corner of camp, among the tribe of Manasseh, Rizpah, the second-born of Zelophehad, grabbed a leather pail from a peg on the center pole of her family’s tent.
This is the novel’s opening scene. Ordinarily, beginning a book with description is a sure-fire way to have the agent roll his eyes and tap the “delete” button. But Aggie’s is different. In two short paragraphs, she sets the tone, provides the history, and paints a picture. Then she brings in her main character and puts the story into action. Notice how she introduces her character: Rizpah is getting a leather pail from a tent pole. Aggie is still describing her setting, but she is doing it through Rizpah’s actions.
When you’re writing your descriptions, put thought into what your character is doing while you’re scene-setting. Is she involved? Does she need to be? Have you set her aside and stepped into the scene yourself? Should you? Whenever you can, keep your character in the setting. But when you can’t, really make your scene description pull its weight: Set the tone, provide a short history, paint a picture. If you must open a novel or a scene with description, keep it compelling.