Setting the Scene – Description


Description is something that escaped my writing for a long time. It can be difficult to strike the balance between description and action but without it the scene of your story is absent.

There are a few things to remember when writing description:

1. Speed/Pacing

Description changes the speed of a scene. It you spend a long part of your scene describing the surrounding scenery your story slows down whereas limited or brief description can speed up or dismiss the extra details. Neither technique is wrong. Just take care that the description is necessary and not excessive.

Town Sign of Speed, Victoria, Australia

Image via Wikipedia

Tip – Sometimes slowing down an action scene with description actually heightens the drama instead of impedes it. This can create a sense of timelessness in an extreme plot situation. The key word here is context. There is no rule to say that an action scene must be fast or that a conversation scene must be slow.

Example 1 – `She couldn’t see through the surrounding mists , the sounds of clashing swords only a distant note, muffled by the claustrophobic hills. An arrow struck her left shoulder forcing her back with the impact and she fell in what seemed like slow motion to the ground.’

The above example could be written in either a descriptive or sparse form. If you want this to appear as happening very quickly you could write:

Example 2 – `She couldn’t see anything for the mist. In the distance swords clanged and clashed with fury but before she could do anything an arrow hit her in the shoulder and knocked her down to the ground.

This is a faster version which tells, rather than shows the impact but sometimes they are sufficient to get across the speed. Short sentences and listed sequences tend to help speed whereas added description and long sentences tend to slow the action.

2. Passive vs Active

One thing you’ll undoubtedly come across when reading about creative writing is the notion of always using the active voice.

English: Megaphone Polski: Megafon na stacji k...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a strong debate for always using the active voice. On the whole it does tend to work better as it creates a stronger sense of protagonist and action, but I wouldn’t rule out the passive voice altogether. There may be some times when it works with the type of scene you are creating, particularly if you want to describe something as `being done’ to someone rather than someone `doing’ something.

This could particularly work when trying to depict someone as a victim of something so  never rule it completely out!

3 – Dialogue and description

English: Actors in the makeup process of a Koo...

Image via Wikipedia

Dialogue and description is a particularly tricky area. You want to create a sense of character and add description of settings and movement but you don’t want it to seem forced or excessive. Do too much description of movements in-between dialogue and it seems as if your character is fidgeting all the time, too little and they are like a statue. The best rule here is less is more. Try to keep this to only what you feel is necessary, sometimes you’ll have to rewrite to reposition or rethink the positioning of you characters during dialogue.

Example 1
She shifted over to the kitchen counter, placing her drink down.
“Hello,” she said, picking her drink back up again and motioning towards him.
“Hiya,” he replied, taking his coat off and hanging it up on the back of the kitchen door.

The above example has an odd pace. If you read it aloud it sounds more like a sports or news commentary. There is too much movement. This could be condensed to:

Example 2

“Hello,” she said.
She moved over to the kitchen counter, picking up her drink and motioning towards him.“Hiya.”
He took off his coat and hung it up on the back of the kitchen door.

The second example is far from perfect and more detail could be added in but you’ll often have to choose which actions you think are actually needed and resist the urge to add in too many movements in between dialogue.

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