Writing Excuses 10.26: Q&A on Scenes and Descriptions
Q: I recently got feedback show, don’t tell from a publisher in regard to describing a character’s internal thoughts while moving through a scene. How can I show these sorts of things?
A: Give the character something to do while thinking. Physical reactions, and make sure you have internal thought process, not just a label. Use external observations to show internal state. Cut the navel-gazing.
Q: When introducing a new POV character, how can you describe their appearance through their own POV in a way that doesn’t feel forced? (I.e., how do you avoid looking in a mirror?)
A: Use comparisons with other people. Slip them in, instead of infodumping. Focus on the important detail, not overall appearance. Don’t overdo the specific description.
Q: Can you explain the difference between scene and setting?
A: Setting is the scenic location, the physical environment. A scene is designed to contain the plot.
Q: How does your environment affect your writing? Could writing in different places change the tone of your scenes?
A: Yes. Sometimes pieces creep into the story. Use music to block.
Q: How do I paint an evocative fantasy landscape quickly as in a short story?
A: The idea that epic fantasy can’t be done in a short form is a fallacy. Best is suggestion, the small telling detail that does double duty. Be very specific about the details you do include, and use them more than once. Don’t take things for granted, give them context.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Scenes and Descriptions.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have questions. Starting with a question from Pixie. “I recently got feedback show, don’t tell from a publisher in regard to describing a character’s internal thoughts while moving through a scene. How can I show these sorts of things?” Good question. We talked about show versus tell quite a bit, but it can be harder when you’re having the character think about stuff.
[Dan] With internal thoughts, I find that giving the scene context so that they’re doing something while thinking gives me an opportunity to… If they’re frustrated, they’re going to start doing it a little more roughly. If they’re happy, they might start singing while they do it. Little things like this that can add some flavor and some emotion.
[Mary] A lot of times, for me, it’s the physical reactions of the character? Sometimes if they’re saying show don’t tell in this context… And it’s hard to say without actually seeing the thing, but it might be that what you have is “I feel really angry about this thing.” Whereas what you want to do is have more of an internal thought process.
[Dan] More of a “How dare he!”
[Mary] How dare he.
[Brandon] Right. Too on-the-nose can be a big problem with this.
[Howard] I’ve used this example before, the walking into a messy kitchen example, where I can talk about my mood and say that I’m really grumpy, I’m really exhausted, or I’m really enthusiastic. If I walk into the kitchen and am suddenly… The desc… My… The point of your character’s description of the kitchen. “It’s a wreck. There’s things piled everywhere. You can’t find a thing.” Versus “The kitchen needs a good cleaning and picks up a dish and gets started.” Those are two different mental states. But, yeah, like you said, without knowing… Without seeing the passage in question, I don’t know what the fix is.
[Brandon] One other piece of advice on this that Harriet McDougall gave me, the editor of the Wheel of Time books. Just cut more here than you think you need to. If you’re spending a lot of time in what we call navelgazing, which I tend to do… I’m an egregious navelgazer. This is one of those places where you often can get away with three paragraphs where you had seven that get across the same concept.
[Mary] I have a cutting technique that I will give to my students. So there is the 10% solution, which is that you cut 10%. The other one, if you have a big chunk which is all navelgazing or a big chunk of exposition… And this is… Don’t do this in every single time, for the love of whatever you hold holy. But it’s a useful one. Is to look through… Go through and identify the core concepts that you have to convey. Then you are allowed no more than that number of sentences.
[Brandon] There you are.
[Brandon] All right. Evan asks, “When introducing a new POV character, how can you describe their appearance through their own POV in a way that doesn’t feel forced?” This is a classic question, because one of the clichés of writing is the person looks at themselves in a mirror and describes themselves. You will find examples of this in all kinds of books. You can probably find examples of it in our books because it’s so easy.
[Brandon] But it’s become a cliché for that very reason. Any hints? Tips? For Evan on how to do this.
[Mary] The thing is that when we’re… When you think about yourself, you’re always comparing yourself to other people. So that’s a very easy way to do that. Looking at someone else and going, “Oh, I wish I were that slender,” or “Good heavens, if I had shoulders like that.” So you can do a little bit of defining the opposite. But the catch is that our perceptions of ourselves are not particularly accurate. I actually think that it’s totally okay to do things like, “She pushed her red hair back from her face.”
[Brandon] You kind of have to do that sometimes. Just slip them in here and there. One of a recent experience I had, so I can just show you one thing that I ended up doing, is I wrote a short story, Perfect State, where the main character has a very regal beard. He’s… Epic fantasy Emperor with a nice beard. People kept, in the alpha reads, not being able to imagine him with a beard. So I’m like, “I need to get this in earlier. The sooner the better, because if I don’t stick it in the early, they’re going to form an image of the head.” So I gave him the ability to look over… He was doing paperwork to approve the royal portrait. It’s basically looking at yourself in a mirror, but all I did, I didn’t describe anything else, I just said, “They got the beard wrong.”
[Brandon] And he made notes about they got the beard wrong. So rather than sit and describe himself, I was able to be like, “This guy’s got a beard.” That was the whole purpose of that scene. The look in the mirror to say, “Ah. The kids sat on my glasses and now they’re skewwumpus” to just say this person wears glasses might be what you’re looking for.
[Howard] The flipside of that is that when we read fiction, as readers, part of what we do is put ourselves into these characters. We see ourselves as these people. The more specific you get with the description, the more likely you are to push some readers out of that. So I like leaving some things open, so that you can just read.
[Brandon] Says the guy who draws pictures of his characters.
[Mary] I was going to say…
[Dan] Leaving things open…
[Howard] I’m not talking about the comic, but…
[Dan] In now, going on five books, I’ve never once ever described what John Cleaver looks like. There’s one line in one of the books that says he has dark hair. That’s it. That’s only when he’s talking about how he looks different from his sister, who is blonde.
[Brandon] There you go. You don’t even really need it.
[Brandon] “Can you explain the difference between scene and setting?” Daniel asks.
[Dan] Yes, I do.
[Brandon] Yes, you do?
[Brandon] Oh. Yeah. Okay, I have never in my life called you Daniel.
[Mary] Yeah, I was like, “Who?”
[Dan] Who? Daniel.
[Mary] Can we describe the difference between scene and setting? The way that we will usually use these, setting is the scenic location. It is the physical environment the place takes… The action takes place in. A scene is an artificial construction designed to contain the plot.
[Brandon] The beginning, middle, and end of a certain… In that scene. Imagine that with the director. “Okay, that’s a scene.” That’s what we mean by scene. Where setting is “All right. Bring the people in here to build our setting.”
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Dan, you are going to tell us about Perfume.
[Dan] Yes. Perfume by Patrick Suskind. He’s a German writer, this has been translated into English. It’s a brilliant translation. It is a historical fiction story about a man born with no emotions whatsoever and a superhuman sense of smell. He lives in France in the late Renaissance and becomes the apprentice of a perfume maker and learns how to extract scent from things. So he decides he wants to create the scent of perfect beauty, which of course requires him to go and track down beautiful women and kill them and steal their smell. It is gorgeously written. I cannot overstate this enough. Reading this book is the only time it has ever happened to me, and while reading it happened at least 20 times, when I could actually physically smell what he was describing, because he describes it so well. So if you want to learn about scenes and descriptions, read Perfume by Patrick Suskind, which is read by Sean Barrett. You can get a free copy of it on audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Get a 30-day free trial. You’ll thank me. It’s a wonderful story.
[Howard] Listen to the smell.
[Dan] You listen to the smell. The reader, Sean Barrett, is incredible. He’s one of the best narrators that I have heard an audiobook from.
[Brandon] How graphic is the content?
[Dan] The violence is not bad. I do not recommend it to watch the movie version, if you aren’t into our-rated content. But I don’t remember the book being particularly over-the-top.
[Mary] This is however, a recommendation coming to you from a man who writes about serial killers for a living. So keep that in mind.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go to new questions. How does your environment affect your writing? Could writing in different places change the tone of your scenes?
[Mary] Oh, yes.
[Brandon] I love this for scene as a question. It’s our scene, the scene that we are in. Yes. You both said yes. Talk to me. Howard?
[Howard] When I am working on the comic, I need a very controlled environment. In my studio with all my pieces there. When I’m writing stuff for the role-playing game, I need the laptop, I need to get out of the office, and I need to be looking at other things. I think that’s because the world of the comic is taking shape on the table in front of me, and I’m fine with that. But when I’m just writing things with words, I need the input of light and sound and smell and whatever else. Also, the Mexican restaurant down the road has a table just for me between two and five, and they will bring me ceviche and Diet Coke without me even asking. So if the Planet Mercenary game feels like Mexican food, there is a reason.
[Brandon] I’m going to expect…
[Dan] Had a lot spilled on it.
[Brandon] Us all to get Mexican food with our orders. That should be our next kick starter goal.
[Brandon] Mary, you were saying?
[Mary] [Laughter] Yes. Sorry. Ceviche shipped through the mail. Ha ha ha.
[Mary] Yeah. So, I have a really difficult time writing if there’s conversation happening around me.
[Brandon] Me too.
[Mary] Unless there’s so much of it that it turns into white noise. What I actually find… I had to train myself… Because I started writing when I was a touring puppeteer, in a lot of ways. So I had to train myself to be able to write in any environment. What affects me more than the location… Like I can write anywhere, but the location that I’m in, those details will creep in.
[Brandon] Okay. Interesting.
[Mary] Like if there’s a persistent rattle someplace, that will end up creeping into the story. Maybe not right in that moment, but later. Big open expanses… I am much more likely to write a scene that has a view.
[Brandon] Okay. Cool.
[Mary] It’s… Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes it’s not.
[Howard] I use music a lot, too.
[Mary] Yeah. But music doesn’t work for me.
[Brandon] I usually use music. For me, I can write basically anywhere and it doesn’t affect me unless I have auditory interference. Noise pollution. So if I have music, I can cancel that out.
[Mary] Now the big thing that changes the way I write is the tool that I’m writing with. But that is not the question that he asked.
[Brandon] Let’s go on to the next question. That one was from Andy, by the way. Joe asks, “How do I paint an evocative fantasy landscape quickly as in a short story?” Now we’ve just done a bunch on description, so hopefully that will be useful to you, but I wanted to ask this question because fantasy… You do see less epic fantasy and other world fantasy done as short fiction, and I think people are intimidated by this idea. That fantasy is the quote unquote whether it’s true or not… World building is such a big part of epic fantasy that you don’t feel like you can do that in a short form. Is that a fallacy or is that true?
[Mary] That’s completely not true. There’s a great anthology… There’s two great anthologies. One is called 20 Epics, which is all short fiction epics, and the other is an anthology called Epic, edited by John Joseph Adams, that is all short epic fiction.
[Brandon] I’m in that.
[Mary] Yes. As am I. So… As our token short story writer…
[Mary] The way you handle that kind of scenic description is basically the way you’re handling everything else in a short story. Which is that you do a lot of suggestion. The small telling detail that does double duty is going to serve you well. Like if I mention… You can create a sense of grandeur with things like the flag that he won at the Battle of the Red Armies.
[Brandon] Right. Suddenly you’ve got an epic past for this character.
[Brandon] But and now he’s using it as a dish rag. Suddenly you’ve got even more context.
[Mary] Yes. You don’t need a lot. But the key is to be really, really specific about those details that you put in so that it feels like there is a world around them. Also, if you can use a detail more than once, it will feel like it is integrated as opposed to being a one-off.
[Brandon] The more I have approached writing epic fantasy short fiction, and granted, I don’t do it very short, I found that the problem is not the description. You can totally set a scene quickly. I think of the opening scene from The Name of the Wind, which is in third person, before we get to the… It’s the frame story. It’s short. It’s probably like 2000, 3000 words. Gives a whole sense of multiple characters, an entire world, a beginning, middle, and end, could be published as a short story on its own. Pat does that in 3000 words. Yes, it’s part of a 400,000 word book. But… The fact that that can be done, the fact that George R Martin, any one of his chapters you can grab them and he’s setting things up so quickly, says you can do it. It’s totally viable.
[Howard] Just to rip the rug out from under this whole fallacy, in most of the common Western European style fantasy, our settings are things that you can go look at in a museum or on a field trip, that people have already seen and have experience with. Why would telling a science fiction short story with spaceships and robots and laser guns that people have never seen, why would that be easier?
[Brandon] I think that the assumption is that you can say spaceship and people know what it means. But you say sand master from fantasy and people don’t know what that means.
[Howard] But you say castle…
[Brandon] You say castle… It’s… It is a fallacy. I totally think that it is.
[Mary] Yes. It is. But I think part of what he’s also talking about is that genre expectations, we expect more lush description with epic fantasy.
[Brandon] There is that.
[Dan] Maybe one of the ways… We’ve talked a lot about how, yes, it’s totally possible. How do we actually do it? I would recommend for starters, don’t take anything for granted. Don’t just rely on your assumptions for what this world is going to look like. So when I say castle, I know that my readers are going to see the same castle that I am. Don’t rely on that. Make sure that you give a sense of place. That you know what these things look like, and what they’re used for, so that you can describe them properly in context.
[Brandon] The fact that people like Eric James Stone can write, and I’ve read them from him, epic fantasy flash fiction under 250 words, says to me that… Yeah. Anyway. This is totally doable, but you are going to have to practice, and see what type… Read some of them. See what types you like. See how they’re doing it that works for you. It is an excellent question, Joe, because for years I kind of struggled with the same concept.
[Brandon] We are out of time. So I am going to give you some homework. What I want you to do, we’re going to be moving into talking about the middle of your book next or your story that you’re working on. I want you to go and describe to a friend why the middle of your book is going to be awesome. Now, you can’t talk very much about the beginning or the ending. This is why the middle… What’s going to happen in the middle that’s going to make people excited to read your book. Now, we had some homework previously where you were going to identify scenes that were coming up that you were going to be working on. Describe those. Describe those to your friend in a way that’s going to make them excited to read your book.
[Howard] If you’ve done this right, you’ll also make yourself excited about writing them. In fact, I’d argue that if that doesn’t happen…
[Dan] Then you may need to rethink some things.
[Howard] You may have a problem.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.