When writing fiction, it’s important to set the scene, to portray the setting. But long descriptions can bore readers.
Therefore, I’ve been considering how to describe setting, but writing to hint at action to come, hence drawing readers in, wanting to read more.
Learning from Masters of the craft
I looked at descriptions by great writers, and picked two examples.
First, Ernest Hemingway’s opening to Farewell to Arms.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the raod bare and white except for the leaves.
It paints a vivid picture: the sparkling blue river, the sun-bleached stones, the road, the dust on the trees. But immediately, questions are raised. Who are ‘we’? Troops went by? What troops? Where are they going? They raise dust, they leave things ‘bare and white’ behind them. What other ‘bare and white’ things do soldiers leave behind them?
The passage hints at doom to come, but whose doom? The reader must read on to find out.
My second example comes from Margaret Attwood’s opening to chapter 11 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where they eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
Attwood begins so simply, describing mundane things that might be in any room. So mundane, in fact, why is she mentioning them? The ceiling ornament, likened to a missing eye, hints at mutilation, at blinding, with all the loss that brings. And then, the punchline: ‘They’re removed anything you could tie a rope to.’
It’s a short passage, generating an unsettling bleakness, hit home by the possibility that someone might want to hang themselves. Why? Who? And who wishes to prevent this?
Again, a sense of doom, but you must read on, to discover whose doom.
Have a go yourself – do an exercise
As an exercise, I aimed at writing a paragraph – no more – introducing readers to a location. It doesn’t have to be gloomy, it can be warm, cold, sad, happy. But it must not be static – there must be something there to hint at action to come, as Hemingway and Attwood have done. Hints that raise questions, that keep readers reading on, searching for answers.
Tea things on a lawn, under the dappled shade of the spreading chestnut tree. Who is expected? Maybe, Mr Darcy?
Or, a city street, packed with Christmas shoppers carrying their booty home. A gift to seal a family’s joy? Or, what else might lurk in those designer carrier bags?
Understanding your story
Before writing the paragraph, it’s worth considering a few questions. Knowing the answers to these questions helps to understand the setting. But in writing, witholding answers, as Hemingway and Attwood did, helps build suspense and keep readers interested.
1. Where is it?
- Where is it? London, Alaska?
- What are the physical surroundings? Living room? Forest? Swimming bath?
- What’s the time period? Day? Night? Prehistory? WW2? Contemporary?
- What are the social and cultural factors? Can characters speak freely? Are they allowed to be there at all? Do they own it? Must they hide?
- What’s the weather/mood? Sunny and safe? Sultry and simmering? Shadowed and threatening? Weather is a bit of a cliche, but there’s no doubt that the weather can be a powerful indicator of mood.
2. Why are we here?
- Why is the action here, and not somewhere else?
- What might happen?
- To whom will it happen?
- How does the setting influence – or, better – drive – the action?
3. What is the mood?
- How does the setting influence the mood of the CHARACTER in this moment?
- How does the setting set the mood of the ACTION to come?
4. What does the READER need to know?
- What details of the setting do you NOT need to tell the reader at this moment?
- What details have you selected, at this moment, to enable the reader to ENVISAGE the setting?
- What detail have you selected to illustrate the MOOD of the moment?
- What detail have you selected to hint at the ACTION to come?
- What QUESTIONS will you raise (implicitly), but leave unanswered?
Give it a go
I worked on this in a group. Each person wrote a short piece, and read it aloud. The texts were not polished, but every single one, when read aloud, generated discussion, questions, and listeners wanting to discover more.
So, that was the fiction writer’s job done: a setting was introduced, and people wanted to know what happens next.
Have a go: we can learn a lot from the masters of our craft.