Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Are you a reader who loves descriptions and details of settings? Glittering ballrooms, the bone-chilling cold of a winter in the Rockies…or maybe the oppressive, killing heat of the desert? What about something idyllic, like a river or creek babbling through the woods? A beautiful rose garden, or even the ugly side of description—such as barren prison walls, or a Civil War battlefield?
It depends on the story, doesn’t it, and again, how much importance those descriptions have on the impact of the action, and the outcome of the story.

Let’s use a ball as our example.
If you’ve never been to an 1800’s ball—and none of us have—we need to know at least the barest details.

Five basic things we need to know are:
What is a ball?
Why is the ball being given?
Who will be invited?
When will the ball be given?
Where will it be held?

That’s enough for some stories. But the main question is—how important is the ball to the plot?

This is where layering comes in—and this one scene, and the details it contains—can be vital to what comes next, or even many scenes later.
So many things can happen at a ball!

Guests can meet for the first time, uninvited guests can show up, clothing can have significance, music can bring back memories, the food can even be poisoned!

Or, the ball can just be a ball, like the old saying attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…” –and if that’s the case, then tedious description and intricate detail is wasted because the ball is just a vehicle to get from one scene in the story to the next, and has no real underlying importance.

Describing the details of the clothing worn is sometimes distracting as it pulls us away from the action. We may be reading about a blue satin gown when we need to be concentrating on the man who lurks in the shadows. Too much description can bog down the reader and deaden the story rather than bring it to life.

Why? Because deep description of the things such as décor, clothing, and meals stop the action of the characters. The plot “takes a break” while our minds process all of the description of the scenery, the meals, the clothing. In this case, again, sometimes, “less is more” and we need to let the reader’s mind fill in much of that kind of detail.

Consider this: We know certain facts—a ball costs a lot of money to host. So we already understand that those who are invited are most likely people who move in the same upper crust social circles. Therefore, we know they, too, have money, so are appropriately dressed, arrive in style, and are schooled in proper societal customs. One excellent way to cut through the “red tape” of description (of things we already know) is to describe something that is out of place, or “not right” as this reminds us of what should be—and those details of descriptions we’re already aware of.

Perhaps an imposter at the ball commits a social faux pas without realizing it, alerting others to the fact she isn’t who she pretends to be. Maybe an unlikely hero comes to her aid quickly, offering an excuse, or correcting the mistake before others notice.
This scenario does several things for the story that simple description can’t achieve.

1. Points out the discrepancy in what should be and what is.
2. Allows our characters interaction, and possibly dialogue and observation, rather than the author filling the page with scenic description.
3. Allows the reader the opportunity to learn more about the characters and their personalities through this interaction, and can be a vehicle to reveal something of importance.
4. Can possibly further the action during such a scene rather than slowing it by miles of scenic description.

This is not to say that there isn’t a time and a place for detailed descriptions of settings! We can’t call ourselves authors and take the “easy” way out by saying, “It was a ball like any other” by way of description, unless—we put it in the right context.

How about this:
Jake looked around at the opulent ballroom –the surroundings were familiar in a tiresome, cloying way. Or…maybe was jaded. It was a ball like any other—except for one thing. Something that made him catch his breath and inwardly let go a streak of curses he’d love to shout to the skies. She was here. The woman he’d thought he’d never see again…

Well, anything can happen now, can’t it? Maybe she’s wearing an inappropriate shade of red amidst a sea of violet and blue. There are so many ways to make setting come alive without endless description that many readers become bored with and skim over.
If you read my last installment of this blog series about main characters, the examples I used from Shane (Jack Schaefer) and St. Agnes’ Stand (Tom Eidson) are also prime examples of description of setting as well as character.

But here’s another good one I really think is wonderful from Conagher, by Louis L’Amour. In this story, Evie from “back East” has come out west to marry a man with two children. Evie tries to make the best of things, but she lives in fear at first. The land is so different, After she’s been there a while, she finds there is a beauty in her surroundings she had to grow to love, in time.

As L’Amour describes the heroine's (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive. Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see. The underlying message is, "The land is what we make of it."

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence. She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she'd first laid eyes on.

The land is beautiful, but unforgiving. Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn't know what has happened to him. She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.

In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds. The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie. Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East. One of them says to Evie something to the effect of "I don't know how you can stand it here."
This is Evie's response to her:

"I love it here," she said suddenly. "I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it's in the wind.

"Oh, it is very hard!" she went on. "I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances. The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes. But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines. Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there"–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–"until I can see the other side…if there is another side."

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate. L’Amour gives us this description through Evie’s eyes and feelings, not in writing about it from his perspective as the author.

Think of your own writing projects, and books you've read. What importance do you give setting in description, plot, even characterization? Within 40 pages of 'Conagher', we understand that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie's character. She can't leave it, and it will never leave her.

Endless, detailed description can’t do what L’Amour does through Evie’s eyes in a very few sentences. Do you have a favorite description of a setting you've read about or written about?


  1. I am finding these posts so useful, and beautiful. Watching masters as they work their magic is something we take for granted, until we come up against it in our own writing.

    As an actor from an early age, I tended to tell stories with dialogue. It was a huge learning curve to add description. I still struggle with the amount of description. Hopefully I get better with each project, but posts like yours help me a lot. Doris

    1. Doris, I'm enjoying writing this series of blog posts SO MUCH. There is so much to say about the different components of stories and the amount of detail needed for each thing, and it differs from genre to genre--which is sometimes hard to relate to.

      I love this passage from Conagher--I think that's one of L'Amour's best stories and he really does bring Evie to life through scenes like this.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Great blog post. Lots of useful information.

  3. Wow, I love this blog post, you have such very good advice and a lot of very helpful information. I really like how a plot is very important in a story, plus way a lot more! Thank you so much for all this information. I enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot from it. God Bless you.

    1. Alicia, I'm so glad you stopped by today! I should have linked my earlier posts in this series in case anyone is interested in them. I'm happy to hear it helped you and gave you food for thought!

  4. I always love discussing setting as another character in the story. For obvious reasons, my book ART OF LOVE has been on my mind today because it's set in medieval Paris and how tough it was to make the streets and churches and bridges a part of the story.

    And who doesn't love a heroine in a red dress.

    1. Keena, you did a great job in Art of Love with your setting! That was the first book of yours I ever read and I felt like I was right there--you brought me right in to that story but didn't belabor the description. Just perfect!

      Yes, truly, and having her just be like, "I don't give a care, I'm wearing my red dress!" LOL

  5. Great post, with many great tips and pointers to us new writers. Thank you.

    1. Christine, I'm so glad you found it useful. You use description so well in your stories. Just the right amount! Thanks so much for stopping by today!

  6. I always enjoy your posts, Cheryl, as they're so informative. I still remember your previous post with examples of description through the hero's eyes (St.Agnes Stand). I've lost count of how many times I've watched Conagher. I agree certain genre require more description for the reader to "see" that other world as in the very popular Marvel, Avengers, Aquaman movies. I remember the historical romances from the 80's and how they were heavy with description of clothing, drawing rooms, etc. Then there are the classics, long monologues/narrative and me impatient with the author to get on with the plot. It seems the age of the internet has really speeded up stories and the assumption that today's readers are much more familiar with period stories thanks to the movies and the internet. I try to briefly "set the stage" and then let the action take over.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, yes, I totally agree--in a new world that's been created such as the ones you mention, we HAVE to have description to be able to imagine what the author has planned for us to see. And oh, yes, those romances of the 80's were SOOO heavy on describing clothing, and meals, and so many details. I was like you--GET ON WITH IT! LOL But, I do understand that that was a time when that kind of writing was in style, just like James Fenimore Cooper's style was considered so eloquent for his time--and his books are still considered masterpieces, but...for me, they're hard to wade through some of those long passages of description in such detail.

      I do think that the movies, the internet, and television has made us more impatient in our reading because we have been able to be familiarized with so much more through pictures than generations before us.

      Thanks for coming by, and I'm goad you enjoyed it!

  7. Cheryl,
    Great post! Descriptions can be delicious, or they can be tiresome. I shriek for joy when I find a way to cram tons of color into only a few words. (At the shocking news, Rose's face stretched into an exclamation point.)

    1. Vonn, you made me laugh, girl! I sometimes read those opening paragraphs from St. Agnes' Stand, Shane, and this passage from Conagher, to just remind myself what I NEED TO BE DOING! LOL Thanks so much for coming by! Hugs, my friend!

  8. Cheryl,

    I don't recall where I read this, but someone was complaining about JRR Tolkien's lengthy descriptions in the Lord of the Rings books. Basically, the person was saying that it took Tolkien five pages to get his characters from Point A to Point B because of the excruciatingly boring details of the land, the birds, the rivers, etc., when all he had to write was "The travelers were weary from days of walking hill and vale, and they welcomed the rain for the day's rest it gave." Or something like that. lol

    I have a tendency to write entirely too much description in my early drafts, then I whittle it down to a manageable amount in the final version.

    My description-whittling process comes from the first joke my daughter (4-yrs-old) learned.

    The joke and punchline:
    How do you get a one-armed man out of a tree?
    You wave at him. <<just enough description to paint a vivid image - this is where I want to end up in final draft.

    My daughter was compelled to explain the unnecessary details in the punchline, just as I write too much description and detail in the early stages.

    4-yr-old version:
    How do you get a one-armed man out of a tree?
    You wave at him and he lets go and he falls out of the tree and that's how you get him down.

    So I strive for the simple wave in my descriptions.

    1. Kaye you made me laugh so hard. I am like your 4-yr-old daughter so many times, too! I want to explain because I see it so clearly in my mind. And you know, when you are creating a new world like Tolkien did, I think it's more "excusable" than when we're talking about the same ol' stuff that everyone is familiar with.

      I love that analogy, though. So perfect! LOL Thanks for stopping by.

  9. I rarely ever read description before I started writing (preferring my own picture rather than the author's) so it was really hard to learn that all that boring stuff had to be written. To ameliorate the pain and my own boredom, I generally incorporate description with action or dialogue and hope that helps create the picture. I doubt if I've written a paragraph of description in any of my books or stories. (If so, I must have skipped it when I reread it. LOL)

    But I still skim or skip long passages of internal description or internal thoughts when reading for pleasure. To me as a reader, a story is an interaction between the words on the page and me. I can create whatever world I want it to be. Imagine my surprise when I found out most readers don't think this way! So yes, this has been a struggle for me since I started my very first book.

    1. Jacquie, you always make me laugh! I agree. I don’t like those long drawn out passages of description of things I already know about. But... I have to consider the fact that I’m not the only person reading this particular book and that someone else might not know—or might even enjoy that type of writing.

      But when I write I always wish I could perfectly mix the descriptions of the setting with the story line and characters like this Louis L’Amour example! Thanks for coming by! We need to catch up!

  10. Great Blog post. I enjoyed reading it and it bought to mind the book I'm working (should be working) on, how did I use my setting to deepen the plot, to add interest and curosity? I hope well. Thanks Cher'ley

    1. Hi Cher'ley! So good to hear from you, and I'm glad you found this post useful. I love to read things that make me think about what I'm doing in my own writing. I'm so glad you came by today!