I am writing a story about a character that travels as an ESL teacher and am wondering how you can explain scenery without getting to much into it.


4 Answers 4


Explaining the scenery without verbosity can be done by creating reader inferences. Thoughts and feelings can be used as a heuristics for the general setting.

You can use a first-person narrative to accomplish having a general feeling as heuristic for the setting. The reader should have a general idea about the character's personality before it's is possible to draw inferences from his or her feelings.

"I entered the gate of the new school I was supposed to teach at. There were trees everywhere, and the air smelled crisp and clean. As I walked to the entrance I met one of my new colleagues."

You can also use dialogue:

"Don't you love this place? Man, you can even hear the birds chirping!"

You can leave it to the reader what the scenery looks like. Also, you can prime the reader to associate a specific element with a certain scenery. If the main character brutally murdered his parents and buried them in the forest while hearing birds chirping, the above excerpt might be interpreted differently by the reader. This technique might be useful to create suspense.


Describing scenery is much like describing people. IRL we never (effectively never) go through a long litany of what we see, not scenery, people, buildings or cars or interiors.

Instead we get a general impression (one or two sentences) and then focus on one or two details that are the "most important" or carry the whole feeling (another one or two sentences).

Here is an excerpt from Harry Potter, the Wand Shop from first sight:

The last shop was narrow and shabby. Peeling gold letters over the door read 'Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. A single wand lay on faded purple cushion in the dusty window.
[so far six details in three sentences: 'narrow and shabby', 'Peeling gold letters', '382 B.C.' (indirect age), 'single wand', 'faded purple cushion', 'dusty window']
A tinkling bell rang somewhere in the depths of the shop as they stepped inside. It was a tiny space, empty except for a single, spindly chair that Hagrid sat on to wait. Harry felt strangely as though he had entered a very strict library; he swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the thousands of narrow boxes piled nearly right up to the ceiling.
[5 more details in three more sentences: 'tinkling bell', 'tiny space', 'spindly chair', 'strict library', 'thousands of narrow boxes'.]

Now I don't think Rowling is the best author, but all the better: I use her first book as an example of what an unknown can publish. Notice how individually these details seem insufficient, but together they are what Harry notices (or anybody should notice) and convey the atmosphere and feeling of being in the Wand shop. They go from general (size and shape) to specific details. She appeals to more than sight (the sound of the bell) and adds an emotional reaction.

Scenery is done the same way. I think when you say "without getting too much into it", you mean you don't want to write pages on it. You do that this way: The big picture, then nothing in the middle, pick tiny details that would stick in your characters mind, I like to think of it as what she will remember about this scenery a week later. The one oddly fat mountain, the plain of grass that looks like a green ocean, the one moose that seemed to stand as king of it all. One or two sounds (not all of them).

Try to make an emotional connection, such as an unexpected emotional metaphor or memory (Harry's 'strict library'). Perhaps a feeling of trespass into a virgin realm. Perhaps the vastness and majesty of it reminds her how easy it is for her to believe in God when she is free and outdoors, and how difficult it is to believe when she is confined to her usual basement classrooms with her desperate students trying to find a new life.


In addition to character thoughts (Boondoggle's answer was a good one), you could relate the landscape to plot :

He could see a figure making its way along a track where the forest gave way to open moorland.

But if you're doing that, the figure (or the track) should reappear in the story - the reader will be expecting them.


Short Answer

The short answer is:

Write what your character(s) see and interact with.

In your question you have indicated that you recognize that reading descriptions of scenery can be tedious for readers :

"...explain scenery without getting to[sic] much into it."

Modern readers generally do not want to read long descriptions of scenery they've seen numerous times before. That provides a valuable clue to what you should write.

The Longer Answer

The longer answer is:

  1. describe enough that the reader understands where / when the scene is taking place
  2. describe what is important to the scene and the book
  3. describe what has an impact on the character
  4. describe what has an impact on the story itself

Important : Describe nothing more than that.

There is just one more thing which will help guide you to determine how much description to provide about setting.

Consider Your Overall Setting

If you're writing a sci-fi novel based on the planet Fizzil which has two red suns and the ground is purple then you'll need to describe more to help your readers see it.

However, in your case you are writing a novel set in contemporary times on earth.

Readers are smart and can imagine the setting themselves.
So, you can probably describe things very quickly and simply by writing things like:

January 18, 2018 London, England
Fred pushed the door open to The Mayflower Pub and stepped in.

Hidden Messages Sent By Authors

Keep in mind that anything an author includes / describes which seems out of the ordinary may send a signal to the reader that the thing is somehow important.

If you add something like the following to the previous description, you change the story, even if you didn't mean to:

As the doors closed behind Fred, awareness struck that everyone at the bar was staring at him.
His eyes raced over the faces, searching.

Fred cleared his throat and looked left toward some empty tables? "Do I just find a seat for myself?" he asked no one specifically.

A man standing behind the bar yelled out, "Sure, Yank. Take a seat anywhere." Fred took a seat and then slowly raised his head trying to get a look at the man's face. The man had long bangs hanging down into his face, but Fred thought he could see part of a hidden scar.

The Problem

Now a writer may be just trying to set a feeling for the characters and bartender in the bar, but somehow the author has made us focus on the fact that Fred is so interested in faces that we now believe he is searching for someone. It seems to become a salient plot point when in fact the author was just trying to set up some description.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.