guest post by Kellee Kranendonk

From Rick:

Once again, I’m pleased to have Kellee Kranendonk as a guest on our blog. This time, Kellee provides us with a simply superb post on description wherein she answers the question, How much description do you really need?

My answer is that you need however much as it takes to inform your reader and keep him/her interested in reading the descriptions without wanting to skip over any. With that, let’s hear Kellee’s excellent advice along with her excellent examples.

NOTE: Kellee is Canadian, so some of her spelling and punctuation will be different from US conventions.

—Rick

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From Kellee:

I have trouble reading and writing settings. I’m fine with action and dialogue, but I usually have to remind myself to add more description as I revise and edit. But, how much is enough? Many writers struggle with this, and I’m not sure there’s any real black-and-white answer.

I think the problem I have writing scene setting is simply because, when I read, if there’s too much of it, I get bored and skim over it. Many other writers do as well:

“I skim and skip most of the settings. I find them a boring waste of my time.” – Marion Steiger, author of Cancer Times Two (currently unpublished).

“I don’t skim over scene settings, but often get bored reading them.” – Paul West, author of Vengeance and Vindication (currently unpublished).

Not everyone thinks the same, though. Sometimes authors like reading description. They read every word, trying to learn and take something away from it.

So, the question remains. The answer comes from that greyish area: just enough. And “just enough” is what it takes to get your point across. Focus on what’s important to that scene. Think about character description for a moment. If you were introducing a character in your story, how would you do it?

Driving through town, John saw Mr. Gerald Foxx walking down the sidewalk. Gerald had grey hair, a long white beard and a missing tooth in his dentures. He wore an old pair of work boots, dirty coveralls and a white T-shirt that had spaghetti stains on it. His fingernails were…

Hold on! Wait just a minute. Do I, the reader, need to know all that? Maybe, but certainly not at this moment. Think about what John is seeing as he drives past Mr. Foxx. That’s your focal point at this point in the story.

Scene setting is pretty much the same. You need a focal point. What’s important to move the story forward?

Marion, although she often skims settings, says, “Beautiful settings ground me, but they also hook me.”

That’s what settings do, or are supposed to do: ground you in the scene and allow you to get a sense of where the character is, how he or she is feeling, and what’s making him or her feel that way. But be careful about using “felt”. This word never works as well as describing the feeling does. Compare “I felt angry.” with “Rage bubbled within me.” Which one makes you feel more?

Noises are good to include, as well as the senses. Include as many as you can, but don’t overdo it.

Zippy stepped outside for a cigarette. The crisp fall air was chilly against his bare arms and carried the rustic smell of someone’s woodstove. Flicking the wheel of his blue Dollarama lighter, he noticed his neighbour had already brought out her 6-foot tall, plastic snowman. Great, he thought, I have to look at that thing for the next three months.

In this example I’ve included sight (the snowman), smell (woodstove) and touch (crisp, chilly air). There’s also emotion. Even though I haven’t mentioned a specific one, Zippy’s thought tells you what you need to know.

There’s no taste because there’s nothing for Zippy to taste, at least until he starts smoking. Even then, that’s going to depend on whether he’s a new smoker or has been smoking for years. Does it matter? Does it impact the story? If not, don’t worry about it. I also haven’t included sound, unless you count flicking the lighter. Do I need sound? That would depend on where I’m going with this scene. If it’s meant to describe Zippy’s lack of excitement over the plastic snowman, the scene has already done its job. If, on the other hand, the snowman is just adding to some other frustration, we could add a sound:

Zippy stepped outside for a cigarette. The crisp fall air was chilly against his bare arms, and carried the rustic smell of someone’s woodstove. Flicking the wheel of his blue Dollarama lighter, he noticed his neighbour had already brought out her 6-foot tall, plastic snowman. Great, he thought, I have to look at that thing for the next three months. As if that wasn’t enough, her son picked that moment to crank the Gangsta Rap on his stereo.

“Hey, kid, close your friggin’ window,” he muttered. Even if Zippy had screamed loud enough for the teen to hear, he either would have cranked the tune louder, or given Zippy the finger. Zippy couldn’t wait until the “For Sale” sign on his front lawn had a big red “SOLD” sticker across it.

Even though the above paragraphs aren’t great, they set the scene and show us Zippy’s frustration with his neighbours. Maybe we can even identify with them. Imagine the same paragraph with and without “just enough” description.

Zippy stepped outside for a cigarette. Flicking the wheel of his blue Dollarama lighter, he noticed his neighbour had already brought out her 6-foot tall, plastic snowman. Great, he thought. Zippy couldn’t wait until the “For Sale” sign on his front lawn had a big red “SOLD” sticker across it.

In this paragraph, the giant, plastic snowman might give you shivers, but there’s no sense of place. No chilly air or wood smoke smell. There’s very little emotion too. Why is Zippy so eager to get out of town? Does he hate giant snowmen? Is it too hot or cold where he is? Now look at too much scene setting:

Zippy stepped outside for a cigarette. He’d been smoking since he was thirteen years old. Although he regretted it, he didn’t have the stamina to quit. All his friends smoked so there was no one to encourage him not to. The crisp fall air chilled his bare arms and carried the rustic smell of someone’s woodstove. Probably old Mrs. Williams two houses down. She never seemed to be warm enough, not even in the middle of July. It wasn’t uncommon to see smoke curling out of her chimney on Canada Day.

A gentle breeze rustled some old dead leaves, and a squirrel chattered up in the leafless tree that stood on Mrs. Williams’ lawn. Zippy flicked the wheel of his blue Dollarama lighter and noticed his neighbour had already brought out her 6-foot tall, plastic snowman. Every year it was something different: Santa, the Grinch, Mickey Mouse Santa. And all of them giant-sized. Great, he thought, I have to look at that thing for the next three months. He hated snowmen. Big, cold balls of snow piled on top of one another… he didn’t see the appeal. For that matter, he didn’t even like Christmas. Too much commercialism. And the happy music, as if that would make the world’s problems go away! As if the snowman wasn’t enough, her son picked that moment to crank the Gangsta Rap on his stereo. Gangsta Rap! Zippy cringed at the sound of rock and heavy metal. This rap stuff was the worst.

“Hey, kid, close your friggin’ window,” he muttered. Even if Zippy had screamed loud enough for the teen to hear over the non-melodious music and the rapper’s raunchy vocals, he either would have cranked the tune louder, or given Zippy the finger. The kid had done it enough times before, even though his mother cracked him across the head every time she saw him do it. Zippy couldn’t wait until the “For Sale” sign on his front lawn had a big red “SOLD” sticker across it. He remembered when his father had sold his house. That had been a terrible fiasco, and Zippy still wore the emotional scars. He didn’t even know where his father was now. His mother, on the other hand, came over every Friday night with a pizza for them to share. Just thinking about it, he could smell the tomato sauce, pineapple, and that ham Americans called Canadian Bacon. His stomach growled.

Are you still reading? Did you skip over anything? Some of that might add to the appeal of these paragraphs, and if your name is Stephen King, you can even get away with it. But until you’re established, you need to write tight. Does it matter whose woodstove is burning? Do we need to know anything about Mrs. Williams? No, we don’t even need to know her name. My friend Marion (quoted above) said, “I don’t really care about Mrs. Williams, which makes her a distraction to me.” Distraction is good for magicians, not writers.

We don’t need to know about Zippy’s parents or the pizza. Not yet. None of this adds to the scene setting. The paragraph has now lost its focus and has become an info dump. The extra information might be pertinent elsewhere in the story, but not here. However, Marion did ask about Zippy’s age. That can be shown easily in this paragraph:

Zippy stepped outside for a cigarette. The crisp fall air chilled his old bones, and carried the rustic smell of someone’s woodstove.

Or, maybe Zippy’s a little younger:

Flicking the wheel of his blue Dollarama lighter, he noticed his neighbour had already brought out her 6-foot tall, plastic snowman. Great, he thought, I have to look at that thing for the next three months. Even at forty-five, snowmen instilled fear in him.

These edits give us a little bit more info on Zippy while not bogging the story down. Writing tight doesn’t mean trying to cram as much info as you can all at once into one paragraph. It means getting your point across smoothly with as few words as possible. It also means cutting when necessary. Use description to set your scene, to make your readers feel something, see something, or be somewhere, but don’t let them know you’re doing it. Keep your focus to ground them by using “just enough”.

—Kellee