Author(s): Ron Rozelle
Year Published: 2005
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books – Write Great Fiction Series
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to write a term paper in my English class where I had to compare and contrast two Nathaniel Hawthorne novels: The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.
I started reading those books and knew I had found a cure for insomnia. I hated Hawthorne and the long, tedious descriptions, and if I could, I would bring him back to life so I could kill him myself. I was able to B.S. my way to a decent grade without resorting to Cliff’s Notes, but don’t ask me anything specific about those novels because I’ve blotted them from memory. GIGO.
Fast forward a few decades, and contrary to Victorian authors, the trend in writing today is to be concise and to “write tight.” As a result, I believe lot of writers have lost the ability to write description and setting, or they don’t know how to create a balance that works within their writing.
One thing I tell some of my editing clients is that they need to “set the scene.” What I mean by this is that they need to give their reader some clue as to where they are and what it looks like. They don’t have to info dump paragraphs of description (e. g. “Pull a Hawthorne”) but a few short sentences can do the trick. I say this so authors don’t freak out . But having adequate, memorable descriptions and settings can take more effort—and words.
Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle is part of the Write Great Fiction Series by Writer’s Digest Books. Some authors turn their noses up at WD’s books. They believe that these books are for amateurs and wannabes—not true, literary artistes. These people are self-proclaimed know-it-alls. Color me unimpressed. The smart person knows there is always something new to learn.
Rozelle provides a lot of insight and tips to many of the same things I tell my clients. “Chapter Four: Showing, Telling, and Combining the Two” is worth the cost of the book alone.
“Showing rather than telling is part of the magic that you have to work as a writer; in fact, it is one of the most vital parts.”
Feeling versus reporting—that is the key. But when do you show and when do you tell?
“Deciding when to show and when to tell will become an instinctive process if it hasn’t already for you.”
Rozelle will guide you with examples and exercises to help you build your instinctive process. Writing is just like playing a musical instrument. It takes practice and the more you do, the more comfortable and competent you become, and soon, you’ll be creating your own riffs in your own style.
Incorporating all of the senses is another area that falls to the wayside in fiction writing. Writers tend to limit description mostly to sight and sound, but rarely do they include smell and taste.
Feeling—the sense of touch—is sometimes maligned because often writers tell what the character is feeling rather than show it by way of description. And let’s not forget how we all get slammed for telling the reader how a character feels (emotionally).
Rozelle takes it a step further with The Sixth Sense when a character senses
“Something not concrete at all. You’ve had intuitive feelings…So your characters will have those feelings too.”
But learning how to write description and setting is useless unless you learn how to pay attention. This skill is one Rozelle coaches on early in the book.
“To be a good writer, you have to be a persistent and meticulous harvester of detail. To put it less politely, you have to be a thief, pure and outright.”
What does he mean by being a thief? He means taking that snippet of overheard conversation and using it in the context of your story. He means carrying that little notebook you hear speakers advise at all those writing conferences you attend. There’s a reason for it. It works.
Take notice of the “fresh little details” that fill your life: the way a person enters a room or stands on a bus; how a dog scratches its ear. Pay attention. Look at what is being done and how it is being done—and describe it. Soon, you’ll be able to make mundane actions sound extraordinary.
When it comes to settings, the easiest way is to describe places you are familiar with, but once you become an “outright” thief of detail, describing a new place you’ve never been to should be second nature.
Other tips and tools to help describe settings include drawing a map or a floor plan. One thing I love about Agatha Christie books is how some of them have floor plans of the crime scene. You don’t have to illustrate your work, but having it in your notes for reference won’t hurt.
After you read Description & Setting, you will find ways to incorporate these oft-overlooked elements of writing into your work. You may even find yourself revising your WIP to take advantage of the creativity and depth your writing could have.
But don’t feel obligated to go overboard. You can let Nathaniel Hawthorne stay in the nineteenth century.