As a writer I need to know where my characters are, how they interact with the surroundings, what it means to them. As a reader I want to be able to jump right in with them and experience what they experience, whether it be Vatican or ranch, desert isle or Tokyo.
We’re told not to put in long descriptions. Readers are impatient. They tell us they skip over long paragraphs of description, so how do we do it? How do you let your reader know where the heck they are? And how they got where they are on the opening page?
If we wrote screenplays we could just say:
Scene: EXT/MANHATTAN/MORNING RUSH HOUR
People rush across East Side business district street
The whole story can be set up in the opening credits . . . with music. Check out Confessions of a Shopaholic. We know where we are, what time of day it is, feel the energy as people rush along the streets. We see Isla Fisher, her hair color, how tall she is and see her in her “ordinary life”—all the while music is playing and the actors names are popping up on the screen. The story hasn’t even begun and the set up is complete.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It would take about that many (approximately 4 manuscript pages) to describe all that is happening on the screen, but few readers would stick with us for that long.
However . . . There’s a reason movie trailers say “coming at ‘cha.” Film does tend to come at you, loud and bright with quick edits. If something is too gruesome to watch, you close your eyes. Too emotionally intense? Count the arm rests you can see from the spilling light until it’s over.
Books draw you in, demand that you take an active part. Reading is more intimate than a film. But we don’t have much patience. So what to do authors do when there are no opening credits?
Here’s one of the tools I use to keep setting moving along.
POV character as camera. What does he see, hear, smell, etc? This way the setting is disclosed in personal tidbits instead of multiple paragraphs.
Description can’t just be a laundry list of physical objects, odors, temperature. Make your setting interactive as opposed to static. Have the heroine or hero have a personal relationship with their setting. Does she hate living at home, afraid of this strange forest? The more your POV character is emotionally involved, the more important setting becomes.
This was what I tried to do in my women’s fiction novel BEACH COLORS.
The opening of the first chapter.
Margaux Sullivan stood unmoving and listened to the echoes of her failure. Only a week ago, her Manhattan loft had been thrumming with energy, excitement, and caffeine, as twenty-five pattern cutters, drapers, and seamstresses worked around the clock to prepare M Atelier’s latest collection for the even of the year. New York City’s Fashion Week.
Now it was just an empty space.”
Hopefully this opening paragraph fulfills certain necessities.
1.Who is the protagonist? Margaux Sullivan. She’s successful, enough to be in fashion week, and to hire a staff.
2,Where is she? Her loft in NYC.
3.What does it look like? Here is where a lot of us get into trouble. We see the richness of the space, the brick walls, the old wooden floor, the crowded desks, people bent over their worktables, fabric everywhere, empty deli coffee cups, the sound of sewing machines and steamers. Shall I go on? That’s what I saw when I was writing the scene, but I didn’t want to take the chance of having the reader skip that part. So I shaved it down to one sentence, contrasting the busy caffeinated past with the empty present and I’m relying on the reader to fill in with their own imaginations.
I take another paragraph to describe the loft, not from how it looks but by what had been taken away. Hopefully enough of a twist, that the reader won’t think, “Oh no, not more description.”
Once you have your framework, you can flesh it out by slipping in details in relation to the protagonist’s actions. Be frugal, remember POV as camera. Pick what’s importance and resist the urge to put in everything. The tall, thin, blonde-haired woman crossed the plush carpet and took the small jelly glass from the big round table.
Okay major exaggeration, but you get the point right?
Two pages later Margaux leaves the loft for the last time.
She walked across the long expanse of wooden floor to the elevator, her heels tapping in the deserted room.” The description continues to create an atmosphere of dejection. The sense of loss.
Then out on the street . . .
The air was thick with car fumes and the noise of living. Handcarts filled with goods rattled up the sidewalk. Garbage bags lined the curb. Men late for appointments shouldered past slower pedestrians. An old woman stuck her mittened hand out at Margaux. “Help an old lady?”
Margaux couldn’t even help herself.
Six sentences. A whole paragraph of description. Is it too much? I took a chance, because I wanted to show the energy, the season, the people she was about to leave behind, and her sense of defeat. And especially to make us wonder about what had happened to Margaux and how she’s going to recover. Description in motion.
The more you can make your characters interact with their setting, the better it will read and the more likely it will keep the readers attention and enrich their reading experience. By focusing on details instead of a complete canvas, you should be able to add dimension rather than bogging down the flow of the scene.
William Morrow - June 2012
While Margaux Sullivan was presenting her highly praised M Atelier collection at New York City’s Fashion Week, her husband of thirteen years cleaned out their bank account and disappeared. A week later the bank foreclosed on her apartment and business. Suddenly broke, betrayed, and humiliated, Margaux returns home to the small, coastal town of Crescent Cove, CT, where she once knew love, joy and family, three things she’s lost on her climb to fame.
BEACH COLORS is a story about broken dreams and new beginnings and the power of love to transform what we might have been into what we can become.
Shelley Noble is the pseudonym of mystery writer, Shelley Freydont. She loves to discover secluded beaches and vintage carousels and incorporate them into her novels. BEACH COLORS (William Morrow-June 2012) is the story of a Manhattan fashion designer known for black, cutting-edge designs who returns to the Connecticut shore to rediscover color, joy and love, three things she’s lost on her climb to fame. STARGAZEY POINT, will be released in the summer of 2013. A former professional dancer and choreographer, she most recently worked on the films Mona Lisa Smile and The Game Plan.
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*