03 October 2009

Keep Your Character in the Setting

by Linda Yezak

One of the common mistakes novice writers make is stopping the action to describe a scene, like this: 

 Margo entered the restaurant and searched for her sister and niece in the noon crowd. Plastic molded tables were filled with teenagers, mothers and blue-collar workers chatting over plastic food baskets. Above the cash register, a bright marquis presented the menu in vivid primary colors and tantalizing pictures of hamburgers, corn dogs and onion rings.  The young cash register attendants took orders from those waiting in long lines and called pick-up numbers over the intercom.

While that isn’t a bad description–it certainly evokes images–it stops the action and is overly descriptive of a place common to virtually everyone’s experience. If you keep the character in the setting instead of putting her on “hold” while you step in and describe it to your reader, you can keep the action going without missing a beat:

Margo opened the restaurant door and was blasted with chilled, grease-laden air. She paused only a moment before spotting her sister and niece waving from a yellow plastic booth under a sunny window in the corner. Weaving between tables of teenage girls giggling over strawberry sundaes and blue collar workers downing double meat hamburger supremes, she made her way back to her niece’s open arms and bent low for a French-fry kiss and a ketchup-coated hug.

In exactly the same amount of words, I described the scene through my character’s actions instead of stepping in as the author and describing it for her.

Sometimes, though, the setting is unfamiliar to your reader and it is necessary to describe it with more detail. When that’s the case, keep the description short, and keep the character out of it until you’re ready for action.

On the Circle Bar, the cattle chute between the working pens was similar to a rodeo chute. The tailgate allowed the animal in, and the headgate kept it there. Then there was the sidegate. From here, the animal–whether a bronc or a bull–could explode into the large working pen and put on a show. This gate, the least used on the chute, refused to open no matter how hard Talon tugged.

In this scene from Give the Lady a Ride, I had already described the ranch, and was describing just one small part of it. I didn’t need Talon until after I had given the reader a visual image.

When you’re writing your descriptions, put thought into what your character is doing while you’re scene-setting. Is she involved? Does she need to be? Or, have you set her aside and stepped into the scene?

Read more articles by Linda at AuthorCulture


  1. I really appreciate this article, because this is exactly the kind of information that I need to improve that this point in my fiction writing.


  2. I really enjoyed this article! Thanks a lot! This'll be extremely helpful. =)

  3. Wonderful article and very informative! This is a lesson I really need to learn...