Tuesday, May 3, 2022


Terry here. This week’s topic is of particular interest to me: The art of description. Too much, and readers skip over it. Too little, and the sense of place and mood aren’t adequately drawn. It interests me because I find descriptions hard. I'm always thrilled when someone says they love my descriptions, because I have to work hard to get them right. 

 I can’t let anyone read my first draft, even in a critique group. If I do, readers keeps saying, “Where is all this happening?” I write my first draft as if everyone is standing on air with a hazy background.

On the second draft I start filling in the descriptive details. Where are the characters? What’s going on around them? Is there anything unusual in the setting that one of the characters notices? I look for places where I’ve written dialogue and I haven’t sufficiently described the scene. 

 Here’s an example from Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek. In the scene, Samuel is a passenger in a car with a man who is driving him to the scene of a newly-discovered murder. He is asking the man questions about who discovered the body, etc. In the second draft, I realized that I was having the two men talk, but I hadn’t brought the scene to life. They could have been driving across a desert for all the reader knew. So I inserted descriptions like the following paragraph: 

 “Reinhardt is driving faster than he ought to. I watch houses slip by. In this bleak time a few weeks after Christmas, it’s hard to believe there will ever be green in the landscape again. Everything is gray and brown—the grass dead from nights of hard freeze, the post oaks and pecans bare of all except curled brown leaves. Even the houses look like they’ve gone gray.”

 When describing setting, what keeps the reader interested is much more engaging if it’s written through the eyes of the characters. In the foregoing paragraph you know that Samuel is mindful of the law---the man is driving too fast. He’s also feeling the effects of the season, that dreary time after Christmas when winter seems to go on forever. I could have just written: It was cold and dreary. That would have described the setting well enough, but it would have been generic and wouldn’t have told the reader much about Samuel’s state of mind or the season of the year. So description isn’t just where the action is taking place, but also the atmosphere and the character’s state of mind. 

 I once was asked to critique a story set in a European city. The protagonist visited some well-known cathedrals, which should have been interesting. But the writer had clearly taken descriptions straight out of a travel book. I wanted to know how her character responded to the things she was seeing. Was she religious, and moved by the religious art and artifacts? Was she interested in architecture, so that her response was to that? Did she respond to the history? Was she a neat freak and could only think of how hard it must be to keep it clean? The point is, the setting is intimately connected to the character in the setting. 

 An example from The Last Death of Jack Harbin: “It’s already a sultry day. Climbing into my truck I pause and look off to the west. A few puffy clouds are piling up on the horizon, as if deciding whether to collect into something more serious. We could use the rain and a break from the heat.”
I could have just written: “It’s hot and I hope it will rain.” But the description illustrates not just the impending weather, but that Samuel is the kind of person who pauses and checks out his surroundings. There’s always the threat of drought in his area of Texas and he’s mindful of the need for rain. A different kind of character may complain about how hot he is, and that he’s sweating and needs a shower. Yet another may have no interest in the weather and may only be concerned with the fact that it’s dusty. Another may hate rainy weather and be indifferent to the need for rain. 

 I sometimes ask myself what Samuel Craddock sees in a particular setting that someone else wouldn’t see; and vice versa, what does he miss that someone else might notice. One reason I introduced Maria Trevino into the series was to get a different perspective. Not only is Maria young, but she’s also a woman, and Hispanic. I’m writing the ninth book in the series and make a point of the fact that Craddock depends on her to see things closely that he might miss. When I’m doing a close edit, if I run into a place that seems dull, I invariably find that it’s because I have done a lazy job of describing the setting from Samuel’s point of view. 

In The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, something seemed off about a description of a house that Samuel entered, where the victim had been staying. Then, I added this: 

 “I can’t help wondering how they keep things intact with a five-year-old in the house. But then I see that one large corner of the room is given over to a play area—an elaborate train set is the centerpiece, with boxes of plastic building blocks and toys shoved up against the wall. There’s an entire bookcase filled with children’s books.” 

 There’s nothing particularly exciting about this description—except that before I added it, I merely described an opulent living room. It was okay, but the description felt generic to me. And then I realized that I hadn’t taken into account that there was a five-year-old boy living there. Describing the boy’s part of the room suddenly brought it more into focus. And it also was another example that Samuel notices things. 

We just moved. Here are some recent photos. How would you describe them?


Susan C Shea said...

Your descriptions of Texas land and people-scapes are the best - I linger over them not because they take me out of the story, but because they draw me deeper into it.

Josh Stallings said...

I have always been stunned by your ability to set a scene without taking me out of it. I see now it's because you use setting to show us more about your charactors. That it takes you acouple drafts to get this right makes me feel better.

Oh, and great post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Josh and Susan.

Anonymous said...

Your use of first person was one of the initial things I noticed about your writing style. Because I find it difficult to write from that POV, I am in awe of your skill to do so in such a natural and flowing way.