If you are introducing a new character and a new location, both are going to be involved for a while, which description should I put first?
The character becomes close friends with the protagonist and is significant throughout, the room is where the main characters spend a lot of time throughout.

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    Which of them will be noticed first by the protagonist? – celtschk Apr 19 at 9:47
  • I don't know if you can answer this really. What's wrong with writing both ways, picking out what you like the best about each one, and on the next rewrite (or right away, who knows) merge the two? It's not like there's a "Person First Lobby" that's going to get your book thrown out because you described the person first. – corsiKa Apr 19 at 13:54
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    My GM has this issue. He will describe a room for 5 minutes, and then mention that 90% of it is taken up by a dragon – Andrey Apr 19 at 13:56

Setting is character. Where you meet someone tells you something about them. It may tell you a lot or it may tell you a little. It may tell you the most significant thing you need to know about them or it may tell you trivial things about them.

It is either the space they designed or the space they chose (unless they are a prisoner) and so it tells you something about who they are (especially if they are a prisoner).

Unless particular features matter for the physical action of the scene, therefore, the place is about who the people are and when it comes to describing people you choose the most telling details, the details, whether of location or appearance that will call them to life most readily.

I walked through the swinging half doors of the saloon, pausing to let my eyes adjust from the harsh desert glare to the gloom within. The piano player stopped playing mid phrase. The man stood at the bar, one foot on the brass rail, a half bottle of whiskey on the bar beside him.

At this point you have already seen the spurs, the six shooters, and the ten gallon hats. (At least, I hope you have.) A man in this place, our cultural conditioning tells us, can only be one sort of man.

So, give the most telling details first. If the most telling details are setting, give those first. If the most telling details are character, give those first.

If the physical details of a scene matter for an action sequence, try to establish them earlier in the novel. If you are leading up to an action scene your story should be in a state of tension and you probably don't want to pause at that point to set up trapdoors and chandeliers to swing on. Bernard Cornwell calls this putting doors in walls. If your hero is going to escape from a dire situation on page 96 by going through a door in an ally, he must already have gone through that door for some other reason on page 35, or the reader is going to feel cheated. So when you come to page 96 and need that door, go back to page 35 and introduce it there.

So, if you are doing scene setting for an action scene, describe the setting first, but long before, not immediately before.

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    Good answer. I've heard this called compression or "double duty". If I had to tl;Dr the whole thing, do both by describing the scene as the characters experience it and connect to the space. – Kirk Apr 19 at 11:15
  • Fantastic answer. Would there be an exception to that rule if the action sequence was entirely reactionary? For example, the character is panicked and fleeing, searching desperately for an escape. – thanby Apr 19 at 13:00
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    @thanby The rule that matters here is the rule of merit. The hero must merit their escape from a sticky situation or their escape is not satisfying to the reader. If they run down an alley and, purely by chance, there is an open door through which they can escape, that is luck, not merit. But if they went through that door 40 pages ago, then they remembered it and went down the alley because they remembered it was there, that is presence of mind, which is a virtue, and therefore the escape was merited. – Mark Baker Apr 19 at 14:39

The answer, as always, will depend on

  • the personality of your viewpoint character,
  • the current emotional state they are in, and
  • what is happening.

When the viewpoint character enters a room and is immediately attacked by the person who was waiting inside for him, then he will be preoccupied with fending his opponent off and not notice the room.

When the viewpoint character is nervous about the date they are going to meet, they will be in tunnel vision mode and not note their surroundings.

If the viewpoint character is a psychopath obsessed with manipulating people, he will focus all his attention on the person he will be working his skills on.

But if you think of how we generally move through life, we will usually perceive the most prominent features of a room first, to orient ourselves, before we look more closely at a person who, before we interact with him, is in fact a part of the environment. But when we have oriented ourselves, we usually assess the people that we encounter, before we take in the details of the room.

So the common order of perception is:

  1. most prominent features of the space we enter
  2. assessment of the people in it
  3. details of the room or people, depending on the situation and our intention (shopping in a supermarket, we will quickly shift to the details of the room; entering an office for a job interview, our attention will stay with the HR manager)

If you face a situation like this in your writing, I recommend that you recreate that experience for yourself. Go to the library, a supermarket, or to work (whatever is similar to the situation you write about), and observe your own perceptions. Take note of what you perceive first, and when and how your attention shifts between the environment and the people in the environment.

Finally, there is no right or wrong about this. People (including writers) are different, and if you want to direct the attention of your readers to the room first, then that is your narrative style and perfectly fine.

Most of the time you will want to set the scene first

In general you will want to describe whatever is stationary first so that the readers mind will be focused on whatever is supposed to be important in the following paragraphs. Most of the time you will want to describe the room first, then things that are in the room and then characters in the room.

As an example from playing a game with a few friends: when I am describing a room full with monsters and I start with

There are three Orcs standing around a short table-

most people will immediately ask questions about the creatures: How big are they? What weapons do they have? What are they talking about? ... The problem with this is that their minds are completely occupied by the monsters and there is no room to explain to them how the room looks like. How big the room is, what inventory there is, whether there are relevant exits, ...

When starting with the more mundane stuff like describing a room you can set the scene and then populate it with the things that are relevant to the next interactions. You show your readers how the room looks like and then you proceed to explain the person that your character will interact with.

There will probably be a situation where you have the chance to explore the room in greater detail if it's such an important room that will be visited throughout the story. But for the first introduction you will just want to point out some magnificent or important things. Maybe a sentence or two about beautiful paintings on the walls or big doors on all sides? Then you will switch to describing the person, going through the dialogue and later you can explore the beautiful paintings in greater detail by describing how your character inspects the room that reveals paintings of the Great King II - something that the character couldn't possibly realize from a distance and in the short time they had to inspect the room before talking with the person.

It's the same thing as if you are walking into a new room with new people in reality. You have maybe a few seconds of walking through the room or taking a quick look around to understand the most important things about your surroundings before the humans you are supposed to talk with demand your undivided attention. Later, or maybe throughout the dialogue, you can then explore the room in greater detail - maybe someone offers you water and brings you across the room to a long stretched table with a few bottles of water on it. While drinking you then have a few seconds again to marvel at the size of the room.

  • Within an RPG setting the opposite can happen as well... describing the cavern in great detail, all the statues, golden ornaments, majestic pillars... and forgetting to mention the dragon in the center of it before the party spreads out to search for loot. – vsz Apr 19 at 20:48
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    @vsz If your DM forgets the dragon in the room you have a big problem - but at least not for long, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup – Secespitus Apr 19 at 20:49
  • @Secespitus I find burnt treasure hunters better with mustard – Redwolf Programs Apr 20 at 0:43
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    That's why I like to use Mimics. You can describe the setting and the monsters at the same time – Thomo Apr 20 at 4:24

I would do the room first.

This is a matter of your style. I personally write with very spare descriptions of what people LOOK like, and focus almost entirely on what they feel (or how my POV character reacts to them). I ONLY describe features that will have an impact at some point on the story. As the narrator I would never tell a reader "Julie is beautiful," if that is the case then her beauty will have some impact on other characters. One of THEM might mention to her she is beautiful, one of her friends might be jealous of it, but as the narrator I won't just say so.

In order to describe a room, my POV character must be seeing it. As Mark says (+1) the room is character; rooms serve particular purposes, be they a bar, a store, a bedroom, a bathroom, a hotel or surgery. The warden's office in a prison. The people in it are there for a reason; the character arrives in it for a reason. This tells us something about the character and the occupants.

Your setting can be used as a kind of foreshadowing, it can reflect what is about to happen, or make what is about to happen more likely or less likely (for contrast). To be over the top, it is unlikely to meet your true love over a dead body in the morgue (although that works in many criminal detective stories). Less likely in a raucous drunken bar, more likely in a relatively quiet and safe place where several conversations (or long conversations) can be had, like a workplace, or randomly seated beside each other on a 12 hour flight.

Julia Roberts (as a famous actress) meets Hugh Grant (as a commoner) in the little English bookstore he owns, with no other patrons there. (Edit: I should have detailed why this is a great setting for this love story: Their roles as customer & clerk give them reason to interact; and we learn later her main thing is finding a life outside the spotlight, a quiet bookstore is a great metaphor this.)

As a rule of thumb (and this is my style, you can choose differently) use your setting to "fit" the story you will tell there, and only describe your characters to the extent needed to justify what they will be doing in the story, and if possible drip even that out somewhat slowly. First impressions of a person are brief prominent characteristics; I do not get into details.

Remember that whatever you say about a person is something you are asking the reader to memorize, and if at all possible it is better to not "tell" them a characteristic but to "show" them the characteristic by using it or it having an effect on action or on somebody else. (If it doesn't, it probably is not really necessary.) The caveat to this is avoiding a 'deus ex machina', i.e. you can't finally mention your character is seven feet tall halfway through the story and that is why he can do X. Certainly an unusual feature like that must be noticed or mentioned by some other character pretty early in the book. But whether a guy is six feet or five-ten or six-one is unlikely to play any role in the plot or reactions of others.

Treat both the room and the actors within it, as characters.

Then describe the most important character in the scene first. The room might be the largest character, with major descriptive facts. Or, one of the actors might be the dominating force, followed by the room, then maybe a few minor actors.

Just a short and simple rule I've used often.

This is mostly dependent upon your character:

Has your character seen this room before?

I know you say it is a new location, but is that just to the reader or to the reader and character?

If this is a familiar place that the main character loves, they are going to describe the room first to show the importance of it to them.

If it isn't a familiar place, the room might be described first still. However, what is more interesting, what stands out more to your character? That's what they are going to talk about first. Does this new character have purple hair and they are sitting in a fancy restaurant. The person with purple hair is what you'd see first. But if it's a student lounge and a person has purple hair, they aren't going to stand out as much against the bustle of people and likely other interesting looking people.

So to reiterate the two parts and things to think about:

Does the location mean anything to your character?

If yes, describe location first.

If no:

Does the location or the character stand out more?

If character, describe them first, if location describe them first.

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