Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Setting and Description

Most writers have a basic visual in their minds of the story's setting and the main characters. Case in point, this picture is the hero in one of my manuscripts (rugged-looking, isn't he?). :-)

The challenge is translating what we see in our minds and displaying it for the reader to see as well. When editing my scenes, I ask myself four key questions related to description.

1) Have I grounded the reader in the setting? At the beginning of a scene, do they know where they're at? Do I have my characters interact with the setting, so that the setting is a natural part of the story (versus a paragraph of description separated from the action)?

2) Do I give at least a snapshot description of new characters when they're first introduced in the story? If they're important characters, do I provide more than just a snapshot?

3) Do I filter in character descriptions throughout the manuscript in a way that distinguishes each character and avoids cliches? Jody Hedlund wrote an awesome post on this topic. You can read her article here.

4) Have I written too much description? Is it written in a way that is non-dynamic? The key with description is sprinkling it naturally throughout the scene. Fuse it with action and senses to make it more fluid and dynamic. For instance, instead of having your character run across a room, you can say, "Her heels click-clacked on the wood floor as she ran after him." We get a two-for-one out of this type of sentence. We see that she's wearing heels, and we see that the room has a wood floor. Not only that, but we hear what the heels sound like on the wood floor while getting a sense of the physical action.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it: Study the introduction of each of your scenes and each character and determine whether you've given them the appropriate level of description. If you have a stagnant descriptive sentence, rewrite it in a way that fuses it with senses, action, or emotion. And be sure to read Jody's post for some super tips.

So let's talk. Do you always have a strong visual of what your setting and your characters look like? Do you tend to write too much description or too little? Any other tips you can add to my list?

This post is part of the Self-Editing Checklist series. For the rest of the series, click here.

*Floor photo by suphakit73 /


Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how grateful I am for your tips. You actually make me want to edit. A feat I thought no one could accomplish!

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Journey! So glad to convert you. Sometimes just having a game plan makes things more appealing. :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

That was one area I really needed to grow in...grounding the reader. I used to write as though they already knew what was going on and I've had to take a few steps back and really think that one through on numerous occasions.
~ Wendy

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Sarah, and I'm on my way over to check out Jody Hedlund's post. I am descriptive, almost too much so. I am re-writing a scene trying to tone down the "purple." So I have a question for you. Is it better to write in description as you're writing, or to write it as it comes to mind while writing a scene, but focus on getting the scene on the screen and then add in description later? Trying to work through this one. :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

Appreciate the practical "think about this" tips. I can tend to skip over storyworld (It's a room. It' has four walls, a ceiling and a floor.) and characterization. It's the journalist in me: Write tight! But I'm learning--and this kind of post helps.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I am terrible at description. I tend to forget about incorporating the senses. I am working on it, but I have a long way to go.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I'm in the same boat with you all. Two crit partners of mine reminded me to enhance the description. Well, duh...I know where my characters are unfortunately my readers don't. To help me with my struggle, I sat for a few moments on my couch, closed my eyes and put myself in my charaters setting. I asked me, what do you see, what do you feel, what do you smell, hear, maybe taste. Wow...that helped. Then after writing those pieces into my WIP I tested myself--next I'll present it back to those critters. :) Hopefully it will be good.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wendy - Glad to know I'm not the only one who doesn't do this naturally. :)

Jeanne - That's a great question! When you're writing a draft, I believe it's best to just write what comes to mind, whether you're an over-describer or an under-describer. Then when you go back through to edit, you can pull out this list and either scale back or pump up the description accordingly. :)

Beth - I'm a chronic description skipper too. :)

Sherrinda - You raise a good point...Senses are somewhat separate from setting, but oh boy can they enhance it!

Mary - Excellent suggestion! In fact, I just read similar advice from James Scott Bell in one of his books. :)

Jan Drexler said...

Thanks for the checklist!

I tend to be a description skipper - at least in the first draft.

But then I go back and do what Mary Vee mentioned. I spend some time visualizing what the whole scene looks, sounds and smells like, and then work those things into the writing during the editing phase.

Some days it works better than others, though!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jan - I love your quote, "Some days it works better than others, though!" The key is that at least you're showing up! Eventually something will stick, right? :)

Pepper said...

Great post, Sarah.
I get so into the story that I feel like I don't always do a good picture of the 'world' of the story.

or I find myself trying to figure out ways to describe my POV character's appearance in a natural way. I don't think about what color my hair or eyes are unless I look in a mirror - ya know.

Great tips.
See ya soon!

Sarah Forgrave said...

I'm with ya, Pep. My first drafts tend to be dialogue and action-heavy. Then I have to layer in description and internalization later. :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

This is something I'm working on, too. Great checklist, I need to go back and check out the intro of each of my characters.

Tracy Krauss said...

Excellent tips. it's a great reminder that we can see in our minds eye is not necessarily what the reader sees.Conversely, too much describing gets in the way and readers tune out.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Julia, Happy intro hunting! :)

Tracy, It's a fine balance, isn't it? Maybe someday we'll get it all figured out. :)

Angie Dicken said...

Ah, description...I have a love/hate relationship...LOVE to write it, HATE to cut it down, but so need to sometimes! I could describe all day long. I love how you said to fuse it with action and senses, and sprinkle it naturally in a scene. Such a fine balance!
Can't wait to see you!