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Jennie Marsland

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My Take on Description 2: Setting
4/25/2010 1:21:50 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

Blog post from

April 22, 2010

My Take on Description 2: Setting

Greetings.” The whisper came straight back at me in an echo so quick that I knew I was very near the wall of the cave, then it lost itself, hissing, in the roof.

There was movement there – at first, I thought, only an intensifying of the echo’s whisper, then the rustling grew and grew like the rustling of a woman’s dress, or a curtain stirring in the draught.

Something went past my cheek, with a shrill, bloodless cry just on the edge of sound. Another followed, and after them flake after flake of shrill shadow, pouring down from the roof like leaves down a stream of wind, or fish down a fall. It was the bats, disturbed from their lodging in the top of the cave, streaming out now into the daylight valley. They would be pouring out of the low archway like a plume of smoke.

Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which I read when it came out in the seventies and still re-read every few years. One of the main reasons these books are keepers for me is Stewart’s gift for setting.

When writing setting, I’m always tempted to focus too much on what’s visible. The true art of describing setting is in using as many of the five senses as possible, and I’m trying to get better at that. One of the reasons I chose the above example is that there’s very little use of sight here.

For me, the magic in this description comes from Stewart’s choice of words. ‘a shrill, bloodless cry.’ ‘flake after flake of shrill shadow.’ ‘like leaves down a stream, or fish down a fall.’ Knowing we are in a cave, we don’t need the author to tell us what’s happening. With the line ‘something went past my cheek’, we immediately think ‘bats’. The visual references given are imagined, not actually seen.

How much setting is too much? For me, it’s too much when it slows down the story. When it starts to read like a grocery list. When I sense that the author is trying too hard. If a character is going from point A to point B, with nothing important happening plotwise in between, I don’t need to see everything they pass along the way.

It’s interesting how strong characters tend to make for strong description. If a character is well-developed, I tend to see through their eyes and feel like I’m right there, even if the author hasn’t spent a lot of words on setting. What’s important in the setting is what’s important to the character, and that’s all we really need to see.

Here’s a fun writing exercise I once had to do at a workshop. Choose a familiar setting – your backyard, your bedroom, any place you know really well, and describe it from the point of view of a blind character. Does the afternoon sun come in the window, heating a patch on the bed? Is there a transition from pavement to grass? What can you hear? Smell? Try it, and if you feel like posting the result here that would be great. Or, post an example of a description of setting that you admire, yours or someone else’s.

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More Blogs by Jennie Marsland
• Music is the food of love - Monday, February 14, 2011
• This Weird and Wonderful Language - Friday, January 21, 2011
• News Flash! - Thursday, January 13, 2011
• New Year's Musings - Monday, January 03, 2011
• McShannon's Heart Holiday Contest - Friday, December 17, 2010
• McShannon's Heart is Available! - Wednesday, December 15, 2010
• Dialogue and Layering and Stuff - Wednesday, October 27, 2010
• Folk Friday - Wild Women and Inspiration - Sunday, October 24, 2010
• Fall Flavours - Tuesday, September 28, 2010
• Folk Friday and thoughts on Canine Grammar - Sunday, September 26, 2010
• A Few Days Out of Time - Thursday, September 02, 2010
• Some Thoughts on Dialogue - Tuesday, August 10, 2010
• Folk Friday #2 - Friday, July 30, 2010
• Tragedy in Romance - Sunday, July 25, 2010
• A shattered City - Wednesday, July 21, 2010
• Folk Friday #1 - Friday, July 09, 2010
• McShannon's Heart Update - Tuesday, July 06, 2010
• A Different Flavour - Thursday, July 01, 2010
• Echo's Excellent Adventure - Monday, June 21, 2010
• Summertime, and the livin' is easy - Friday, June 11, 2010
• A Visit with Trey McShannon - Thursday, June 10, 2010
• A Musical Push - Tuesday, June 08, 2010
• Review: Naked Edge by Pamela Clare - Friday, May 28, 2010
• Words and Music - Thursday, May 20, 2010
• Revisions, revisions - Wednesday, May 12, 2010
• Review: Highland Rebel by Judith James - Thursday, May 06, 2010
• What's In a Name? - Friday, April 30, 2010
•  My Take on Description 2: Setting - Sunday, April 25, 2010  
• MyTake on Character Description - Saturday, April 24, 2010
• Contest Time! - Saturday, April 24, 2010
• A Family Divided - Saturday, April 24, 2010
• Second Book Syndrome - Saturday, April 24, 2010

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