Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Setting The Table

There is nothing more pleasurable than to read a book where the description and exposition is seamlessly woven into the narrative instead of an intrusion into the story. How many times have you skipped over the “grocery list” of description when a new character entered a room, or skip-read pages of “story set up” so you could get back to the action?

A good piece of advice I received from a creative writing instructor was to never stop a story to describe a room or a character. Utilize the POV of one of the characters to introduce details of a room or a person, and let them notice a little at a time while something interesting is happening. Use description to show character, establish mood or somehow move the story along. The story should not stop for description or a set up.

Some authors seem to think they need to explain a lot to the reader before they allow the story to proceed. That is often true in science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence; like he or she won’t ‘get it’ if the author doesn’t spell it out.

However, readers are smart, and good writing will set the stage in a compelling way. In Brother Termite by Patricia Anthony, the central character takes the stage and a lot of action takes place before the reader is given this little tidbit: “...he righted the case and lifted his opposable claw from the...” That is the first clue that this character is not human, and the only one for several pages. No pause to give the entire back-story of who he is or where he came from. All that is doled out in bits and pieces throughout the rest of the story. What a wonderful bit of writing.

The opening scenes from the first Terminator movie are also a classic example of a writer not cluttering up the action with lots of explanations.

I remember watching the movie with the producer I worked for, and I kept asking what was going on. Who was this guy that fell from the sky naked? The producer just kept telling me to wait. Stay with the action and the story and all my questions would be answered.

He was right.

So let's see how well we set our tables without making the characters stand along the wall waiting for us to get finished.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, she loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

Bookmark and Share


  1. Great post! Thanks for all the helpful reminders about moving the story along. I love the discovery part about the characteristics as I move through the action that holds my interest.

  2. Maryann I always jump over those description interludes, they are dead boring you're right.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Donna and Lauri. I am always amazed that editors at the big houses in NY are not urging writers to skip those detailed descriptions. I see them in a lot of books, and like you Lauri, I skip over them. But think of how much better the book would be if the lengthy descriptions were not there at all.

  4. I'm guilty of flipping through pages of description to find the point where the story begins again. I much prefer to discover things along the way.

  5. Just what I needed to hear today as I work through my rewrite, thinking about detail/description. Thanks!

  6. I suppose that works for the reader who is mainly interested in the action, but there are also those of us who like to drown in the descriptive passages. Some readers are plot driven, others mainly interested in the relationship perspective, some readers prefer lots of dialogue and a few like to really "feel" the place they are in. We are all different. I don't want to sound controversial, but I thought I would just put down the other point of view.
    Blessings, Star

  7. Right on!! I frequently receive manuscripts that start off wth rote, prolonged descriptions, especially in sci fi and fantasy where authors feel doubly inclined to "world build" ad nauseum. It slows down the action, sometimes fatally.

    Much as I love JRR Tolkien, he was guilty of pages-long descriptions of trees and such, and I skip over this sort of thing nine times out of ten. I like as-you-go snippets of detail peppering the action. Much more suited to my preferred Short Attention Span Theater leanings.

  8. Star, you are not controversial at all. I agree that there are certain types of books where more description is called for than say, mystery. But the key to doing the description well is not to stop the story for a lengthy bit of description. Do it from the POV of a character. For instance, in describing a room I had a detective look it over as part of her job. Cops are always looking. That made it integral to the character and did not seem to interrupt the story as much as if I had just did the usual list of what the room looked like.

    Hope that makes sense. My mind is fried right now. :-)

  9. Maryann,

    I love what you said about not having to explain to the reader. One of my editing clients who writes historical novels is so wrapped up in the history that he wants to explain the importance of every character in history and the significance of every event. I keep telling him his readers aren't stupid; they'll figure out if the war turned on a particular battle, it was significant. He doesn't have to say so.

    Lillie Ammann

  10. I loved when you said this: "without making the characters stand along the wall." That brought to mind when the police do a line-up. Each suspect is lined up and studied closely. Some books do read like each character has to be described as if they're lined up along the wall.

  11. It depends on the book and the subject matter for me. I just read a highly touted book that kept describing the same people and objects over and over again, which turned me off. I got it. I got it.

  12. I really enjoyed this post, Maryann. A couple of years ago I worked on a fanfiction site with teen writers. Part of my duties included working in the validation archives to make sure the stories met with our TOS. It was difficult to read stories that stopped to tell the reader, "She was tall and had long blond hair. Her skirt was purple with blue and white iridescent fabric patches and her haltered top was made from the same material as those patches. Her green eyes were large and serious with a hint of mischief..." They were all young writers, but I couldn't help wondering where so many of them learned to describe and introduce characters that way.

    Enjoyed reading your wisdom!

    Jenny Bean


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.