I just finished reading a novel where every single scene followed a formula: a few lines of dialogue, followed by a paragraph describing the history of the building the conversation was taking place in, then some back story, then back to the conversation.
So it was something like this:
“What are you doing?” Hubby asked.
“Writing a blog about how to kill action dead,” Katrina replied.
They were sitting in their flat, in a brick building in East London. The building was in the Docklands area, which was redeveloped in the 1990s. The redevelopment was controversial and erased much of the area’s traditional character.
So far this morning, Katrina and Hubby had woken up, argued over who should make the coffee today, and spent the morning reading.
“So tell me,” Hubby said, “how do you kill action dead?”
“Haven’t you figured it out yet? I just showed you,” Katrina replied.
Pretty annoying, huh? Well, I can’t criticize the author too much, because it’s something my crit partner Suzanne pointed out that I did in one of my manuscripts. Fortunately, that manuscript was a draft, and I was expecting her to find things like that.
Looking at what this author did, and at my own ms, I realized we both wanted our reader to connect with the special location our story was set in. I made poor Suzanne read several pages of my heroine walking through Wapping in East London, just because I got carried away with my love for the place.
The description of Wapping was book-ended with my heroine preparing to meet my hero, and then actually meeting him. The Big Meet – not one you want to interrupt for several pages of guide-book-style description.
Instead of killing the action, here are some ways of working a description into a scene without getting in the way of your story:
1. Bring it out through dialogue.
Your characters should notice the setting they’re in and will probably have strong feelings about it. The comments they make about it could draw them closer together or create conflict between them. More than anything, you can give us insight into the characters’ dreams and backstory by what they say about their surroundings.
For example, history is very important to my heroine. In fact, she’s been running from her personal history for years. My hero lives in a converted warehouse, so it makes sense for them to talk a little about what may have happened in that warehouse over the centuries. It’s a shared interest that they bond over, but it also foreshadows the difficulties they face thanks to my heroine’s past.
2. Describe it in internal monologue.
Give us your character’s voice, not yours. It’s difficult for a narrator not to sound like a tourist board when describing a place. How many descriptions have you read of azure oceans, tranquil winds, swaying palms, and other phrases stolen from a Club Med brochure?
If you stay deep in your hero/heroine’s point of view, you can portray not just what they’re seeing but also their judgment on what they’re seeing. When was the last time you walked into your home and thought, “My house is tastefully decorated with varying shades of ecru”? You’re more likely to walk in and think “I’m freakin’ sick of beige – beige walls, beige carpet, beige job, beige boyfriend.”
3. Keep it short.
The best thing about doing the first two things on this list is that you’re unlikely to sustain them over several pages. It just doesn’t feel natural for your characters to talk about their surroundings for several paragraphs.
Enough from me. Do you have any other tips for describing setting without interrupting action?