Writing Tip: Describe with Telling Details—Setting

Photo credit: Armando Maynez on Flickr
I've often found that you can tell a new writer from an experienced one by the way they handle description. 

New writers often feel as though they have to describe everything. They go on paragraph after paragraph (or even several pages) going through every last minuscule detail of every setting (and/or every character), oftentimes stopping the action altogether to paint a perfect picture of the character’s surroundings. 

To be fair, it’s an easy mistake to make, and one that I readily admit I made with my first novel. You see, writers understand how important it is to paint a picture for the reader and make the setting come alive. What many new writers often mistakingly believe, however, is that they must describe the hell out of everything in order to make the readers see. 

But the truth is, that’s not the case at all. You don’t need to describe everything in order to create full images for the reader—you just need to describe a couple important telling details. 

What I mean by important telling details are specific aspects of your setting that embody the spirit of the surroundings. Ideally, you’ll want details that appeal to all five senses (although you don’t need to use all five at once). 

Because I’m about to re-read Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo before reading the sequel Siege and Storm, I thought I’d show you a great example of an effective description of one of the many places the main character Alina encounters in the richly decorated world that Ms. Bardugo created. And I’ve bolded examples of telling details: 
“For a moment, all my fear disappeared, eclipsed by the beauty that surrounded me. The tent’s inner walls were draped with cascades of bronze silk that caught the glimmering candlelight from chandeliers sparkling high above. The floors were covered in rich rugs and furs. Along the walls, shimmering silken partitions separated compartments where Grisha clustered in their vibrant kefta. Some stood talking, others lounged on cushions drinking tea. Two were bent over a game of chess. From somewhere, I heard the strings of a balalaika being plucked. The Duke’s estate had been beautiful, but it was a melancholy beauty of dusty rooms and peeling paint, the echo of something that had once been grand. The Grisha tent was like nothing I had ever seen before, a place alive with power and wealth. 
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, page 40. 
One paragraph. That’s all Ms. Bardugo uses to describe the bulk of the Grisha tent, and yet I think we can agree that by the end of the paragraph, you have a great sense of not only Alina’s current surroundings, but how it differs from the surroundings she’s accustomed to (ergo: the Duke’s estate). 

The fact of the matter is, you don’t need very much to build a rich setting. You just need to describe a handful of the right details and let the reader fill in the rest. 

What are some of your favorite settings from books? Do you remember any of the telling details that made it stand out to you? 


Twitter-sized bites: 
Is describing everything necessary to paint a rich setting for the reader? One writer says no. (Click to tweet).  
What are telling details and why are they important? Writer @Ava_Jae explains. (Click to tweet)

15 comments:

J. A. Bennett said...

The other great thing about the snippet you posted is that it wasn't just talking about colors and the flowers on the silk. I can imagine flowers on the silk because of the rich way everything else is portrayed. Even the positioning of the other people in the tent give us a good idea of what it means to be there. And we're not just hearing about the tent we're seeing it through the characters eyes. I might just have to read that book again, it was so dang beautiful!

Ava Jae said...

Fantastic points! You're absolutely right—it's not just about what the description is, but what the character sees. A bodyguard entering a room may see the surroundings very differently from his (or her) charge.


And I agree! It's a fantastic book. :)

Grace said...

I'm so guilty of over-describing the setting! I've improved a lot, I know, but according to some of the feedback from my critique partners, I can still be too detailed and verbose at times. Or repetitive. :-P

Ava Jae said...

I over-described with my first novel, then after that I became more character-focused and fell into the way opposite end of the spectrum. Now I tend to beef up my settings in revisions, which I actually find helpful because to me, it's easier to focus on details in little revisions bursts than in the heat of the first draft. :)

Robin Red said...

I always thought I was too metaphysical with my descriptions a la Nathaniel Hawthorne, but I guess it's not too bad.

Grace said...

It's cool to see how each writer's habits are different, because I do just the opposite - I go overboard with descriptions in my first draft, so that I can build the world for myself and really see it. Then I trim in my revisions. :)

Aneeqah @ My Not So Real Life said...

I was one of those writers that stopped everything in order to describe a setting, haha. Now however, I've been slowly learning to incorporate the important details to create the bigger picture. I love how you quoted for Shadow & Bone, because Leigh's writing truly is beautiful, and she describes things SO effectively.


Lovely post, Ava! <3

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! It's fun to see the differences in every writer's methods. With two notable exceptions, I tend to write pretty lean first drafts, then add in revisions. Whatever works! :)

Ava Jae said...

Metaphysical descriptions, hmm? I'm actually not entirely sure what that could mean...but I'm guessing it has to do with not over-describing. Which is a good thing. So yes.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Anneqah! Learning to incorporate details throughout the prose, rather than dumping them all in one spot is hugely important, so it's good to hear that it's something you've been making strides in. :)


As for Shadow & Bone, I couldn't agree more. It's a fantastic book, and I was more than happy to share the excerpt as something to learn from.

Robin Red said...

I'm sure you've had to read The Scarlet Letter. If you go back to Hawthorne's first description of Pearl, he barely describes her physical features, but compares her to imps, fairies, and aliens to paint the perfect picture of her.

Ava Jae said...

Ahhhhh. Ok. Yes, I did read The Scarlet Letter, but it didn't really stick with me, so the Hawthorne reference went over my head a bit. Ha ha.

Robin Red said...

My writing style changed ever since reading it in the eleventh grade. I realized that the sun can not only be bright, but crude and violently hot as well.

Paul Caudell said...

I used to do this but I'm a little concerned I've swung the other way. My setting has such a big part to play in the story and I don't want to leave the reader wondering. That said, I know I should trust them more.

Ava Jae said...

It's definitely a balance that takes time to achieve. Too much, and you risk drowning your readers in lengthy description—too little and they can't quite picture where your characters are. Not an easy mid-point to hit, but definitely possible. :)

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