Graduate Essay: “Description through Character, into Setting, and Driving Action” by Scott Gray (Part 1 of 2)

Scott Gray is a passionate writer living in New Hampshire. He developed a love of stories as a young boy, especially those that transported him to other worlds. To this day, Anne McCaffrey’s dragon riders and J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits hold a special place in his heart.

His love of fantasy drove him to try his hand at writing. Scott discovered that the magic found in the reading of a great story also existed in its telling. Since then, he has written horror and fantasy-based short stories and is working on an epic fantasy series.

He is a graduate of the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop and a winner of the George R. R. Martin Miskatonic Scholarship. His current job titles include Loving Father (to two adult daughters), Supportive Husband, Patient Cat Dad, Impatient Adjunct Professor, and General Nerd.

Scott hopes that in the future, teenagers and adults get lost in the worlds that he creates.

The following essay was adapted from a lecture Scott did for the 2022 TNEO (aka The Never-Ending Odyssey), an invitation-only workshop exclusively for Odyssey graduates.


Introduction

A good writer identifies weaknesses in their craft and actively works to improve them—or so I’ve been told. With that mindset, last winter, I sat down at my desk with a warm cup of coffee and read through some recent critiques of my short stories, looking for any flaws. Great news, my writing had loads of shortcomings!

So, after going through a box of tissues and staring at myself in the mirror for an hour saying, “Who’s a good writer? You’re a good writer,” in my most soothing baby voice, I went back to the critiques to find a common weakness. I came across many comments like, “I am only saved from ‘white room syndrome’ by virtue of…” and “[how about] upping the vividity.”

Sprinkling a few more details in my writing sounded like an easy fix, and I imagined I could check this improvement off my list in a few weeks. Like Alice, who probably thought she would have a quick jaunt to see what that whimsical rabbit was up to, I soon realized I didn’t fully understand description. I knew descriptions should filter through character, but what did that genuinely mean when it comes to words on the page? The deeper I fell down the research rabbit hole, the more I realized how interconnected descriptions were between character, setting, and action. Specifically, I learned that solid character descriptions inform setting descriptions, and both are needed to describe compelling action scenes.

In this post, I will share what I learned about describing characters, how the POV character influences the description of the setting, and how a well-described character and setting are essential to crafting a compelling action scene.

Caveats, Resources, and Definitions

This post focuses on first-person and third-person limited point of views (POVs). These POV types are an inside-out descriptive style (i.e., how the POV character perceives the world), while other POVs (second and omniscient) are primarily an outside-in style (i.e., how an external narrator describes the world). Therefore, descriptions will be limited to what the POV character can experience.

There are exceptions to most of the items I cover in this post, so take this as a set of guidelines and break them when it serves your story. You may notice that some examples I use below break, or bend, a discussed approach. This is intentional and done to show that when something works, it works.  

While researching description, I found many great resources, but two (Monica Wood’s book Description and two of Timothy Hickson’s Hello Future Me YouTube channel videos) were instrumental in shaping this post. We’ll also look at some great examples of description in fiction, and I’ll use Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy to show how describing compelling action scenes requires clear setting descriptions filtered through a unique character POV. I’ve listed most resources mentioned at the end of this post.

Before we get started, let’s agree on a definition for description. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines description as “to picture in words.” I like the simplicity of that definition, though it isn’t very actionable. Oxford Languages has this definition: “a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event.” It is better, but I’m going to rewrite it a bit to read, “a narrative or expository account of a character, setting, or action.” Notice how this definition begins to align with the topic of this post.

Let’s dive into techniques for describing character, setting, and action, and then we’ll pull them together to show how they build upon each other.

Character Descriptions

When describing a character (or setting), you want to focus on a specific and significant detail. This is called the “telling detail” by many authors. Monica Wood tells us that the telling detail should be fresh, relevant, and specific. Writers should avoid easy abstractions and details that call to mind anybody (anything), but instead, use ones that call to mind somebody (something). Our aim shouldn’t be to make the reader cry but to make them remember.

A quote from a Stephen King interview in the May/June 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest sums up the idea of the telling detail: “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” I don’t know about you, but after reading this quote, I’ve thought about that tricycle more than once. King has made me remember that telling detail.

In a close, limited POV, descriptions should flow from the POV character’s perspective. In his excellent book, Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer reminds the reader that there is an instantaneous connection between our mind and body, thoughts and actions. Phrases that include filter words, like “She turned her eyes toward the window and saw the bird,” should be avoided. A slightly better version would be, “She looked out the window and saw the bird.” An even tighter revision might be, “A hummingbird alighted on the acacia outside the window.” Gone is any vestige of a narrator in the final version, and we are now in the POV character’s viewpoint, experiencing the world as they do.

Let your POV character guide you when trying to figure out what to describe. Wood suggests that we don’t focus on what our character is but on what they do. Any action takes energy, and we expel energy on important things. What a character does most of the time will shape their worldview. Of course, their history and relationships will also reflect their prejudices and biases. Hickson says the flaws one notices in others will often reveal something about the POV character. In George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, Catelyn Stark meets her eldest son Robb’s wife, Jeyne, for the first time. Notice what Catelyn focuses on:

[Jeyne to Catelyn] “Thank you, my lady. I shall be a good and true wife to Robb, I swear. And as wise a queen as I can.”

[Catelyn] Queen. Yes, this pretty little girl is a queen, I must remember that. She was pretty, undeniably, with her chestnut curls and heart-shaped face, and that shy smile. Slender, but with good hips, Catelyn noted. She should have no trouble bearing children, at least.

Catelyn focuses her description of Jeyne on two things: how pretty Jeyne is and, more importantly, how likely she is to bear children. Both tell us more about Catelyn than they do Jeyne. Jeyne’s beauty and youth may reflect how Catelyn thinks of herself, and having heirs is critical in a world that forges alliances through marriages. Notice that Martin doesn’t describe Jeyne’s height or her clothing. Those things aren’t relevant, and details such as height, or eye and hair color, are often forgotten by the reader.

Describing a character’s emotions can be challenging for many writers. I know it is for me. In “Description: To Picture In Words” (Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction, 2003), Chris Lombardi states that labeled emotions, like anger, are an idea, an abstract concept, a pointer to a feeling. Emotions are rendered more vividly when experienced through the senses. He goes on to point out that a character’s emotions and thoughts may color their description. For example, a person shopping for clothes to wear on an upcoming trip may focus on the store’s soft fabrics and muted tones. However, if they realize that their child, who was right next to them a moment ago, is now missing, their focus may shift to the cold, harsh lighting, the sharp corners of store shelves, and the jagged scar on the neck of a stranger who just walked out the door.

But be forewarned, too much description of emotions can quickly become sentimental and melodramatic drivel. Wood states that the prose preceding the emotional description will make it work. She describes an outside-in pattern that starts with an external image, moves to a character action, and ends with a direct thought. Once you know it is there, this pattern is easy to implement and recognize. Wood points us to this example from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. First, let me set the stage. Mr. Stevens is traveling the country and looking back on his life. He questions his life decisions, those of serving a “great gentleman” and letting his reserved nature drive away Miss Kenton, a housekeeper he had feelings for. He arrives at Miss Kenton’s house, and the dialogue is her speaking to him.

“But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions now and then—extremely desolate occasions—when you think to yourself: ‘What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.’ And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long—my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.”

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.

Why does this passage work? First, Miss Kenton paints a picture of a life that Mr. Stevens might have had with her and how that life is now closed to him. Next, Mr. Stevens doesn’t respond but takes time to digest the gravity of the words. Finally, we get his direct thoughts of having “a certain degree of sorrow” and “why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.” The scene moves from image to action and ends on direct thought—check, check, and check.

Another thing to note about this scene is how reserved Mr. Stevens is. His actions are constrained, precise, and proper, and the prose reflects that. The contrast between the prose, his emotions, and the elements that lead up to it makes the line, “my heart was breaking,” so impactful.

Describing other characters through a POV character is relatively straightforward once you know what to focus on. The George R. R. Martin example above does a good job of this. It puts important details in their own sentences so they are easier to remember, and it paints a picture of Jeyne while revealing Catelyn’s biases. But how do you describe the POV character when you are in their viewpoint?

First, let me tell you about when I woke up in an ice-filled bathtub in a strange hotel room. A note taped to my chest read, “A writer once got a story passed by an editor that had the POV character describe themselves by looking in a mirror.” Sounds a little farfetched, right? I thought so too. So, I crumpled the note, got out of the tub (my lower back was unusually sore), and immediately grabbed Wood’s book on Description to find out how to do this.

She advises: You can describe the POV character using three methods. First, you can have the character describe themselves outright if there is a logical reason they would do that, and it must be based on a tone that fits their personality. Second, they can describe themselves through association with another character (e.g., my mom’s smile always came easy to her, but the corners of my lips never moved more than a fingernail’s width). And third, you can describe them through the dialogue of an observant second party. Details should be parceled out and be relevant to the story.

Phew! That’s enough about describing characters. There is more I could discuss (like descriptions in dialogue), but let’s move on and build upon this information by jumping into setting descriptions.

Setting Descriptions

When describing a setting, it is essential to remember that the details should be (say it with me) filtered through a POV character, and the prose should evoke a tone. You can write descriptions through a combination of showing and telling. Wood states that “show, don’t tell” is a guideline and not a rule. They are equally powerful methods; too much showing can overwhelm a story, while too much telling will flatten it. When telling, though, make sure you choose verbs that not only show the action but also reveal something about the character (e.g., the thief may refer to a mouse moving along the floorboards as “sneaking,” while the harried salesperson may say it was “scurrying”).

A problem often faced by science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers is that we try to describe something that doesn’t exist. What style do we adopt when our POV character is foreign to our thinking? There is no quick answer to style, but Vandermeer and others suggest reading poetry for interesting descriptions. I would add that reading poetry out loud allows you to feel the texture of the words as you pronounce them. This approach will give you deeper insight into word choice. Lombardi recommends creating fresh images by using a description often associated with one sense and applying it to a different sense.

A more straightforward approach to this problem is simile and metaphor. By creating an association in the reader’s mind to something they likely know, their imagination will fill in the gaps for the description. Wood and others state that metaphors are stronger than similes, and the reader won’t soon forget a good metaphor (unlike a simile). Be careful of mixed metaphors (e.g., “that train has sailed,” Austin Powers) or using too many, as this will come off as amateurish. Vandermeer also cautions against similes and metaphors that are incongruent in tone and texture. He gives this example: “Her hair was white as milk.” This simile sounds wrong because the texture of her hair isn’t wet. But this one probably works better: “Her wet hair was white as milk.”

Vandermeer reinforces the importance of describing people, settings, and things in the correct progression. The order in which you describe things should follow a natural progression, and your POV character’s unique goals are a factor. A natural progression is to describe things along some axis. That could be near to far (e.g., a rusted railing, a waterfall flowing into a gorge, the gorge cutting through the forest toward the horizon), from bottom to top (e.g., shoes, pants, belt, shirt, etc.), or some other path that enables the reader to follow the description better. Your POV character’s goals should heavily influence the order in which you describe things. In an aristocrat’s bed chamber, the thief may first notice the expensive items on a bedside table, while the assassin will focus on the vein pulsing in the sleeper’s neck. Next, the thief may check to see if the noble is sleeping, while the assassin may look to the door to see if it is locked. Wherever they would look next, think about the path’s arc and describe what they experience as it happens. Of course, make exceptions for any obvious details (e.g., while the thief stares at the valuables, they don’t skip over the curtains burning behind the noble person).

Wood reminds her readers that a setting description shouldn’t provide general background or atmosphere but instead be specific. The setting should be integral to the plot and convey tone or mood, and it may foreshadow events or reveal a character’s motives or desires. The history of a location can illuminate the theme. If you are unsure where to start, ask yourself, “What does this setting mean to my POV character?”

Let’s look at an example of a setting description from Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. The scene is told through the POV of Lewis, who, along with his friends, is hunting elk in a location he shouldn’t be.

It was a steep hill, maybe half a mile in from the lake. The big snow was already crowding in, pushing the wind ahead. That’s the only thing Lewis has to explain how the elk didn’t hear Cass’s Chevy struggling through the snow. The squirrels had been chattering about it, the few birds that were still out were annoyed enough to glide to farther-and-farther-away trees, but the elk, maybe because of that wind in their faces, they were oblivious, just trying to chomp whatever they could, since it was all about to be buried.

Notice how this description evokes mood and possibly reveals the theme. Nobody wants Lewis and his friends to be there hunting. Not the chattering squirrels, the annoyed birds, the crowding snow, or the pushing wind. Notice how the different senses are involved in describing this scene. The sounds of the squirrels, the sight of birds gliding, and the physical pushing and crowding of the wind and snow.

Lombardi, Vandermeer, and others agree that you must examine all five senses when describing a setting and be specific. You don’t have to use all five in a scene, and you probably shouldn’t, but by examining the scene through all five senses, you can break out of the habit of defaulting to visual-only descriptions. Use the correct and specific names for nouns and adjectives, and avoid generalities. For example, choose a color name or describe it (e.g., indigo or “pale pink shading to white”) and use specific terms for things (e.g., instead of “tree,” maybe “sycamore”). The use of multiple senses and specificity leads to verisimilitude.

Wood points out that some senses, like sounds, present unique challenges when describing them. Her advice is to try and avoid common phrases for sounds (e.g., the rustling of leaves), as the reader will gloss over them. Instead, try to find unique descriptions that evoke the sound in the reader. You can use made-up words for sounds (e.g., “shuff” to describe the sound of a door opening over carpet), but only if the preceding prose supports it. Otherwise, it will come out of the blue and pull the reader out of the story. In general, though, use sound words sparingly. Sometimes, just describing the action (e.g., the cat walked over the gravel) may be enough to evoke a sound in the reader’s imagination. Even accessible sound words (e.g., the whispering of the door) can be effective description.

Let’s look at an example of description from Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. This example introduces the reader to Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, a man who was tortured in the past, and who now tortures others for a living. Notice how this brief passage effectively describes the setting, includes sounds, and reveals character. I used brackets to shorten the example.

Why would anyone want to do this? Glokta’s walking made a steady rhythm on the grimy tiles of the floor. First the confident click of his right heel, then the tap of his cane, then the endless sliding of his left foot, with the familiar stabbing pains in the ankle, knee, arse and back. Click, tap, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking.

The dirty monotony of the corridor was broken from time to time by a heavy door, bound and studded with pitted iron. [Glokta hears cries of torture and ponders what they might have done.] He didn’t wonder long though. He was interrupted by the steps.

If Glokta had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, any one at all, he would have surely chosen the inventor of steps.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the inventor of steps in this world.

We need to cover one last important concept on setting: how to describe sizes. You want to avoid (in most cases) descriptions using units of measure or generic terms. For example, you don’t want to say, “the ballroom was fifty feet wide and two hundred feet long,” unless your POV character is an engineer. Likewise, you don’t want to say, “the ballroom was big,” either. The first example pulls the reader out of the story (or puts them to sleep), and the second example is too vague for the reader to visualize the setting. Instead, you want to describe sizes relative to something else the POV character would think of and that the reader could picture. For example, if the POV character came from a small village and grew up in a hut that could sleep seven people on its one-room floor (something the reader could picture), then the ballroom may be described as a place that “could fit twenty-one of their huts, three deep and seven in a row.” Maybe not the best example, but let’s look at how a pro does it.  

In Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a factory uses megodonts (an animal like a wooly mammoth, but larger) to turn the machines that wind springs. Bacigalupi uses a combination of units of measure (fifteen feet, ten tons), relative details (eyes the size of dinner plates, level with the observation window (which we know looks down on the factory floor)), and even a generic term (cavernous) to describe the size of the creature and the threat it poses. I think this combination works in this scene.

Yellow eyes the size of dinner plates rise level with the observation window. The megodont is up on its hind legs, swaying. The beast’s four tusks have been sawn off for safety, but it is still a monster, fifteen feet at the shoulder, ten tons of muscle and rage, balanced on its hind legs. It pulls against the chains that bind it to the winding spindle. Its trunk lifts, exposing a cavernous maw. Anderson jams his hands over his ears.

Is anyone else ready to run to the fire escape? I call dibs!

Describing settings can be challenging. Having a firm grip on who your POV character is and how they view the world will guide the focus of your descriptions. Once you know that, finding the telling details and describing them using multiple senses will make the world come alive.


Here ends Part 1 of Scott Gray’s essay on description. In Part 2, which will be posted next Monday, Scott will talk about describing action and how character, setting, and action descriptions can work together to create a compelling action scene.

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