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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.


  1. Janet
    April 23, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Great snippet from Mary Stewart, Jennie. I loved the images she created (especially the sound comparison …the rustling of a woman’s dress, or a curtain stirring in the draught.

    Another reminder to go and check my descriptive writing in Lady Bells. I think I have a couple of places where Lady Bells arrives in her new home and basically describes the courtyard in a clockwise fashion – very medieval grocery list-like 🙂

  2. Jennie Marsland
    April 23, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Hi Janet! Have you read Mary Stewart's romance, Thornyhold? It's a beautiful story. I love her writing.

    I fall victim to the grocery-list trap myself. Now when my edits of Heart come back, I'm going to have to go through it and make sure I havent.

  3. Sarah Butland
    April 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    My hands reach down to touch roughness of bark, finding smoothness in the spots it's been whittled away. A friend led me here, sat me down and said she left but her presence lingers. She doesn't realize that just because my eyes don't see I can't visualize all around me.

    The wind flutters my hair, burns the tip of my nose. Winter is coming, leaves fall around me and I shiver. I tilt my head to the sky feeling its warmth wanting to escape but knowing clouds block its path. My feet hang, not touching a thing but when I hear a dog bark close by it's accompanied by the crunch of pine needles long dead being cracked by the shoes of my friend.

    I'm left alone, to sense my way back to civilization and yet I wait for the dark to unfold.

  4. Jennie Marsland
    April 24, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Great images,Sarah. Thanks for dropping by! I like the friend saying she's leaving, but not doing it. She should know better.

  5. Michelle Helliwell
    April 24, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Great exercise Jennie – I'm going to have to try it. I struggle with description – I think it's my weakest element as a writer…maybe because I'm not visual. Using your exercise is a perfect way to describe without relying on how something "looks" – definitely have to try it!

  6. Jennie Marsland
    April 24, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Hi Michelle! I find it really interesting how putting restrictions on yourself can really free your creativity. If you want to share what you come up with, I'd love to see it!