Writing Excuses 10.26: Q&A on Scenes and Description

We close June’s Master Class episodes in the usual manner, with a Q&A from our listeners and followers on Twitter.

  • How do you “Show, don’t tell” a character’s thoughts?
  • How do you describe a character’s appearance when they’re in their own POV?
  • What’s the difference between scene and setting?
  • How does your writing environment affect the scene you’re writing?
  • Can an evocative fantasy setting be described effectively in a short story?



Next month’s episodes focus on middles. Go to a friend and describe to that friend why the middle of your book is going to be awesome. Not the beginning, not the ending… the middle.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, narrated by Sean Barrett

18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.26: Q&A on Scenes and Description”

  1. Interesting episode, though I found the scene vs setting concept might have been a tad limited. Setting is largely physical – t’s where your story takes place in general, and where events within the story take place. It’s the backdrop. To use a film analogy, it’s the set, the props, the lighting, etc. Scenes, on the other hand, are events. There’s no physical deliniation for them (though they often exist in unique settings if the character is in motion. A scene starts when something starts to happen and ends when it stops happening. A character making his way home during a blizzard, for instance, could be a possible setting. It starts when he leaves the building he was in, soaking wet and therefore in danger of freezing to death. It ends when he arrives at home, barely manages to get the door open, and collapses into his bed, passing out. The next scene starts when he wakes up again.

    Also, for Howard (or whoever handles the technical side of this site), there appears to be 2 in-browser players of the podcast. I haven’t listened to both all the way through, but they’re the same length and size, and all the audio snippets I checked were familiar.

  2. Great podcast.

    Dan, you /almost/ never described John Cleaver.

    In _Next of Kin_ (John Cleaver, #3.5), John is described with apparent age, sex, and two features, but I cannot say more without spoilers.

    It’s 44 pages. It’s not a big time commitment, and an excellent read. As soon as I finish _The Hero of Ages_ (I’m still catching up on everyone’s oeuvres), I’ll be reading _The Devil’s Only Friend_.

  3. I’m not sure if that last question was mine or if I only meant to ask that question and another, less forgetful Joe actually did it, but in either case thank you very much! I’ve been practicing short stories a lot recently and one thing I’ve been trying is to use implication rather than outright description. My mentality is “if somebody is reading fantasy then they probably want to use their imaginations anyway.”

    One example from my recent work is that I have a character journeying through a very bleak world following a giant that looks like a walking mountain with stars for eyes. I could describe the giant in detail (and I might for fun in a separate file anyway) but really, just mentioning that he has a craggy face, snowcapped shoulders and hardy trees growing between his toes is probably enough to get by and the reader can fill in the rest.

    Thanks again!

  4. I appreciated Howard’s comment about character description. As a reader, I like some details of how the character looks, but ultimately I will build my own image in my head based on those basic details mixed with their personality and voice. Being overly specific (unless it’s very important to the character or plot somehow) can be distracting sometimes, especially when it’s all thrown into one paragraph.

  5. Found it, but it’s not in the main feed. It pops up under Additional Writing Excuses Content.

  6. Show, don’t tell, thoughts? Mirror, mirror, on the wall? Is a setting painted on the walls, while a scene takes actors doing their thing? Does the sympathetic fallacy warp your writing? Can you squeeze an evocative, epic fantasy setting into a short story?

    The fantastic four take on these questions, and ponder the intricacies of scenes. Read all about it in the transcript, in the archives or over here


  7. To comment on the last question of the podcast, I think one could argue that the fantasy genre actually started with short form stories. Characters like Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric the Eternal Champion were displayed and revealed not in huge sweeping epic novels but in small short stories and novellas that were written for pulp magazines before Tolkien even penned The Hobbit. If you want to write short epic fantasy stories, you should to look to the fantasy forefathers. That’s where it started after all.

  8. This was one of the best episodes in this fantastic season!

    While it is acceptable to write: “she brushed her red curly hair” in 3rd person limited, it may be more difficult to pull off the same trick in 1st person without the reader noticing. I feel like the narrator should have a pretty good reason to say: “I blinked my deep blue eyes”. On the other hand, in 1st person narrative, it’s not necessarily too jarring if the POV character breaks momentarily the 4th wall, and describes herself to the ‘audience’.

  9. Howard, are you alright? You sound really off, even ill. Are you okay? Best wishes.

    1. 1) Thank you for your concern!
      2) We recorded this in February. I can’t remember whether or not I was sick. Regardless, it was a while ago. I’m fine now, though. Thank you!

  10. 1. If someone says that your main character is flat, and let’s assume that this is true, how can you fix that without drastically altering your plot?

    Example, my main character has an intense nightmare that is full of foreshadowing, constantly refers to a mysterious traumatic event in his past, has obvious romantic angst for a girl he cannot get, yearns to fit in, has psychological breakdowns, and is somewhat of a momma’s boy. Is it possible that he is still flat?

    2. Is it ok to have a cast that has several stereotypical supporting characters (jock, beauty queen, fat nerd) who seem flat at first but round out after about 70,000 words?

    1. 1) That’s two questions. The answer to the second one is “yes.” “Yearns to fit in” is the only real driver to DO things, and it’s not very specific. What does he do? Why? What questions do we have about him? How does he answer them with his behavior? Answer those questions, and that’s probably the very beginning to the answer of your first question.

      2) Probably not. I don’t have the patience to wait 70,000 years to find that a stereotype has some actual depth. I’ve never met any of the people you describe. Ever. I may have thought I saw them, once, but when I meet somebody and speak to them for 500 words, they’ve defied the stereotype by then.

      Sorry if this sounds harsh. It’s the way I read. YMMV.

  11. This episode doesn’t show up on my podcasts iphone app (which I believe is iTunes?). Anyway, looking forward to listening once it appears.

  12. The download link in the archive section for this episode seems to be broken. The download link on this page seems to be working fine. This might also be the cause of the feed issue noted above.

    (I apologize if this has already been spotted and or handled, just reporting something I noticed.)

  13. Another source for epic fantasy short fiction (sometimes anyway) is podcastle (podcastle.org), if anyone wants some inspiration.

  14. I loved the discussion on evocative fantasy settings in short stories, thanks for the “Epic” recommendations on where to find more examples.

    I wanted to share an example story I’d read recently from George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois’s Rogue’s Anthology: “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch. In 40 pages or less Scott creates an epic world of color and intrigue that I’d love to read a full novel about. All the while weaving a satisfying little heist along for the ride.

    Thanks for the podcasts, love the work you guys do!

  15. The bit about character description made good points. But one thing I read recently was about representation of diversity in literature. The point was basically this: because people tend to put themselves in the place of your MC, if your MC is a person of color, you should insert those descriptors early on, because otherwise, a white reader is going to picture your POC character as white.

    It’s basically the situation that Brandon found himself in with the character’s beard. His alpha readers kept picturing him without one because clean shaven is the default expectation of a male character. Readers–even some POC readers–are programmed to think the default is white. We as the authors have to combat this default setting early on and throughout.

    One last tip: avoid comparisons between skin color and food.

Comments are closed.