When building a scene at the beginning of a chapter for instance, before character interactions take place, what are the important elements to consider, and how long should the description be, before getting on with the narration?
what are the important elements to consider, and how long should the description be, before getting on with the narration?
The most important element to consider is why the reader is reading it.
Presuming you are writing a novel, and it is supposed to be entertaining. Your goal is to keep a reader interested in what you are presenting. Readers are not that interested in description for its own sake, they expect it to lead somewhere, in some sense they want this description to matter.
When they are reading a description, say of a landscape, they are trying to imagine "Events Taking Place" there, or trying to imagine themselves there and what they'd do, or trying to imagine life there and what people do with these resources. Why is it idyllic? Why is it awful and deserted? Is it somebody's version of heaven, or hell, or a fantastic place to live, or a soul crushing prison? Where are the dangers here? Where are the resources?
How would it affect people?
The number one rule of writing a novel is you don't want the reader to get bored. You need to imagine what real people do when exploring a new landscape, and we are appropriately self-absorbed in surviving such an exploration, and possibly thriving. To survive we look for dangers, shelter, food, water, resources, competition, to thrive we look for other resources to do more than survive. If you think about why one lush oasis landscape is inviting to most people, and a hot rocky desert is foreboding, you will realize the lush landscape looks pretty easy to live in, and the hot rocky desert looks very difficult to live in.
How long should description be?
As long as you can keep it interesting and seemingly relevant to past or future activity upon it. If the landscape is very unusual, this is easier. A fantasy world, a scifi world, our distant past or future.
The same goes for other descriptions; of characters, or clothing, or culture. The reader wants your descriptions of these things to make a difference in the story; you are making them imagine something and they want there to be a reason for it.
In the very beginning, readers give you more leeway to describe things in detail, they are accustomed to stories needing a "set up", so they are willing to invest some time and learn some things that will matter. They are trusting that you are telling them things that are necessary and will matter to characters later, but even so will quickly get bored if what you describe doesn't seem interesting or possibly relevant. e.g. If I spend half a page describing a toaster, what possible use could that detailed description have?
The reader (of a novel) isn't there to take a tour of an art museum, they want to see a character encounter trouble and struggle to solve it.
Later (after Chapter 1) they grow less tolerant, but still give you more leeway at the beginning of chapters than in the middle.
They grow less tolerant because after about 10% or 15% of the story, they feel like they've made their investment in understanding the novel's world, and don't like being "hit up" for more investment after that. But they do understand, beginning a new chapter, a new setting will take some describing.
I suggest you pick a novel you really like from your shelf, and see roughly what percentage of paragraphs in Chapter 1 are primarily there for setting description, as opposed to describing character actions or dialogue.
But do the same for a chapter in the middle, and the end. And see how it is for the first few pages of a chapter in the middle, versus the last few pages.
As a rule of thumb, throughout the book I'd expect an overall level of description to progress from high to relatively low. Within a chapter I'd expect the same, more at the beginning, less at the end. And to some extent the same applies within a scene.
This is just because a story / chapter / scene that is not anchored in a setting is difficult to imagine for a reader, and we are there to assist their imagination. But of course that pattern is not absolute, there are high points in a story, often fate-changing points, where something wondrous or epic takes place and demands a lot of description, the description becomes the point of the story and excites the imagination. The explorers discover the cave of treasures, or the time travelers see dinosaurs for the first time. Or somebody comes to see the Grand Canyon for the first time.
Keep your reader in mind. The entertainment value in a novel is identifying with characters, and in projecting themselves into the story as a kind of invisible observer. It is more difficult for them to do that before any characters are described, which is why typically authors get TO the characters and action very quickly, and fit descriptions in between actions and dialogue, when they are necessary to anchor what is going on and why.
For me, the first sentence of my stories always describes my main character doing something, I'll describe the setting along with that, or in the next sentence. Even just something like "Alice woke up."
If you need the description for the first character actions to make sense, I think you can usually get that done in a few hundred words.
Each chapter will open on something that sets the scene to come.
A descriptive paragraph (or other length) that focuses on the setting is a perfectly legitimate way to do this, but it's not required. You can also open with dialogue, or character thoughts, or an action, for example.
If you have multiple POVs, you may wish to start each chapter with something that makes it obvious which character's head the reader is in this time.
If you have multiple settings, let the reader know where they are physically.
If you have more than one time stream (either because of actual time travel or due to flashbacks or historical scenes or stories within a story) make sure the reader knows when they are.
Length of the chapter opening can vary depending on what you need. It can be pretty much nothing, just straight into it. It can be a sentence. Or it can be a few paragraphs (generally for a major change in setting and such).
It's too short if the reader is confused.
It's too long if the reader is bored and wants to get on with the story.
If you aren't sure if you've gotten these things right, ask your critique group or beta readers. You know where and when you are so having fresh eyes on it is important.
What you are really doing with scene setting is contextualizing the reader, not just in terms of physical place, but also history, attitudes, mood, relationships, and much much more. Given that, there are no hard-and-fast rules for how much is too little and how much is more than enough. What you don't --typically! --want is for the reader to be free-floating mentally in a formless void, with dialog or non-situated actions flying at them from nowhere.
If you've already set the scene earlier, you may not need to revisit it at all, or only to note briefly what is different. If it is a strange, unfamiliar place, a new location, or has been greatly transformed, you might want to spend more time on the description. But in no case should the description be a flat catalogue of physical details. Your descriptions can potentially convey:
- History: "That dark little niche in the stone wall was where I first kissed my first girlfriend --the experiment was not a notable success."
- Mood: "The cloudless sky was a pitiless blue that somehow made her feel claustrophobic, for all its wide expanse."
- Attitude: "There he was, with that stupid little mustache that turned up at the ends."
- Micro-stories: "The trees were an army after a battle --some still proud, upright soldiers, and others wounded or fallen."
- Relationships: "The house bound us together. We still couldn't escape from its neatly tuckpointed yellow brick walls --for all that we were grown adults, scattered across the four corners of the globe."
- Character/personality: "The plates were all spaced precisely 12 inches apart --you could have laid a ruler exactly between them, although of course, she never needed one."
- Symbolism: "The pool was warm and dark and comforting. She felt as if she never wanted to leave it, never wanted to be thrust out into the bright confusing world beyond."
In addition to setting the scene, be certain that as the scene unfolds the goal of the scene (shorthand for the goal of the main character) is clear.
In a good scene, there will probably be some form of conflict. Stakes should also be clear. What will it cost the character if they don't reach their goal?
At times, goals and stakes are muted, and at times as big as the great outdoors. But the characters should have some skin in the game, and at the end of a good scene, a reader walks away better for having read it. This often means readers feel the plot has advanced. Not all books/genres/categories require every scene to advance plot, but it's a good idea to be able to think in these terms so you can use the tool at will.
So I personally find it helpful to look at examples of literature that I like, and one of the best authors I know for drawing you immediately into a scene is Roger Zelazny.
If you try to dissect his technique then I would say that he tries to build two or three scenes into every chapter, so every chapter contains some sort of action or movement from one place to another. Then within those scenes, there may be a paragraph of description, usually short (~50 words), occasionally longer (~150 words). This is seldom the first paragraph in the scene, usually there is some sort of action leading into the scene, then this description comes out of it, and then there is some immediate response to the change-in-scene from the characters.
Two examples of those principles
So for example in The Courts of Chaos chapter 4, there is a conversation between the narrator and his brother which ends on a very negative and threatening note, then his brother fades away and the narrator spends the second half of the chapter racing into different worlds in the multiverse. Finally he gets tired and pauses to sleep in a cave where hopefully his brother cannot murder him in his sleep.
As chapter 5 begins, there is indeed a short period setting the scene, but it is interleaved with dialogue and action:
I was awakened by a sense of presence. Or maybe it was a noise and a sense of presence. Whatever, I was awake and I was certain that I was not alone. I tightened my grip on Grayswandir [his sword] and opened my eyes. Beyond that, I did not move.
A soft light, like moonlight, came in through the cavemouth. There was a figure, possibly human, standing just inside. The lighting was such that I could not tell whether it faced me or faced outward. But then it took a step toward me.
I was on my feet, the point of my blade toward its breast. It halted.
“Peace,” said a man’s voice, in Thari. “I have but taken refuge from the storm. May I share your cave?”
“What storm?” I asked.
As if in answer, there came a roll of thunder followed by a gust of wind with the smell of rain within it.
In some sense, Zelazny doesn’t draw a distinction between “jumping straight into the action” and “setting the scene.” The opening paragraph does not end without the narrator reacting to the thing that he is seeing, but then a new paragraph sets a little more of the scene, and then a new paragraph of his reaction to the scene, some dialogue, and then even more description of the scene.
So he makes the scene setup interactive with the characters so as not to lose focus. We see some new details and then we see people responding to those details and then we see more details. Zelazny could have put the soft light and rain into the very first sentence, but neither goes there. He wants to start the chapter with immediate action, where something threatening is happening and some conflict is created. But then he backs off of that into some description.
The next big scene in that chapter begins with a slightly more longwinded description as there is more to convey.
So: the narrator makes peace with the stranger, discovers that his horse is missing, sets out of the cave into the rain, which gives us a micro-scene where he traverses the rocks, finds some humanoid shapes moving behind a hidden rock door in the cliffside, busts open the rocky door to enter. Then comes the second major scene of this chapter, which is introduced like so:
Light . . . There was illumination beyond . . . From little lamps depending from hooks along the wall . . . Beside the stairway . . . Going down . . . To a place of greater light and some sounds . . . Like music . . .
There was no one in sight. I would have thought that the godawful din I had raised would have caught someone’s attention, but the music continued. Either the sound—somehow—had not carried, or they did not give a damn. Either way . . .
I rose and stepped over the threshold. My foot struck against a metal object. I picked it up and examined it. A twisted bolt. They had barred the door after themselves. I tossed it back over my shoulder and started down the stair.
The music—fiddles and pipes—grew louder as I advanced. From the breaking of the light, I could see that there was some sort of hall off to my right, from the foot of the stair. They were small steps and there were a lot of them. I did not bother with stealth, but hurried down to the landing.
When I turned and looked into the hall, I beheld a scene out of some drunken Irishman’s dream. In a smoky, torchlit hall, hordes of meter-high people, red-faced and green clad, were dancing to the music or quaffing what appeared to be mugs of ale while stamping their feet, slapping tabletops and each other, grinning, laughing and shouting. Huge kegs lined one wall, and a number of the revelers were queued up before the one which had been tapped. An enormous fire blazed in a pit at the far end of the room, its smoke being sucked back through a crevice in the rock wall, above a pair of cavemouths running anywhere. Star [his horse] was tethered to a ring in the wall beside that pit, and a husky little man in a leather apron was grinding and honing some suspicious-looking instruments.
Several faces turned in my direction, there were shouts and suddenly the music stopped. The silence was almost complete.
I raised my blade to an overhand, épée en garde position, pointed across the room toward Star. All faces were turned in my direction by then.
“I have come for my horse,” I said. ”Either you bring him to me or I come and get him. There will be a lot more blood the second way.”
Here we finally get a full longer paragraph of pure exposition. The length of that paragraph is very important because it demonstrates a literary technique of lingering—he could have said “I was shocked to find that a tavern of leprechauns had captured my horse, and was preparing to eat it!” and communicated something similar, but Zelazny is I think purposely taking time to give a different mental image: that this is a really bizarre spectacle that took the narrator a bit of time to wrap his own head around.
Similarly there is some art to the prior paragraphs: Zelazny does not just tell you “the reason it was so hard to break open the door in the last mini-scene was that they had bolted it shut behind them;” he has the narrator pick up a piece of metal and come to that conclusion himself. He has a little bit of a plot hole in that “if the narrator worked this hard to bust a door open why do we get the following revelry and celebration at the party?” but rather than leaving it as a plot hole he hangs a lampshade on it, calls explicit attention to it, and it overall helps to make the following scene even more unsettling.
But in this case there is a bunch of action just to get to the scene-setting paragraph and immediately afterwards there is action as the party immediately stops and the narrator immediately reacts to the stopping of the party with a dramatic flourish.
I think that my first take-home principle from this is that setup is more natural when interleaved into the story rather than forced into the beginning. I hope I have already talked enough about that.
My second is that speed is golden. Ira Glass puts it this way,
One thing that you should know is that all video production is trying to be crap. Like, in fact all radio production is trying to be crap. Basically it’s like the laws of entropy—you know that thing where all the energy in the universe is dissipating and all the atoms are getting lower and lower in energy?—Well basically anything that you put on tape, from the moment that you put it on tape, basically it’s trying to be really bad. It’s trying to be unstructured, it’s trying to be pointless, it’s trying to be boring, it’s trying to be digressive, much like these sentences that I’m saying right here.
And pretty much you have to prop it up aggressively at every stage of the way if it’s going to be any good. You have to be really a killer about getting rid of the boring parts and going right to the parts that get into your heart. You just have to be ruthless if anything is going to be good. Things that are really good are good because people are being really, really tough.
Distilling down that first description to ~50 words is hard. It’s hard because if it were me, there would be a temptation for a whole description, “There was a man staring back through the darkness. He wore ragged clothes, blue and gray, under a dark wool cloak clasped with a lion at his right shoulder. He was tough, muscular, but given that he was of Shadow I did not think he would be any match for me. I did not see any weapons but I could not rule out a dagger or two. His beard was unkempt, suggesting perhaps a homelessness or wandering. ‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘My name is Phineas Bundersnundle,’ he said. ‘I worked as a blacksmith in the town of Tysomere, near here, until my son Farrago passed away. Now I wander the cliffs and reconsider my life choices.’ His tone sounded earnest, sad even.”
And that’s why Zelazny is the master and I am a chump.
The man never has a name. He is neither young nor old. His clothing is not described. Why would he? He is utterly thrown away after this scene, it would be a waste to get you interested in his ultimate fate when he will not be joining you for the rest of the book. His purpose for the whole novel is to establish that the narrator, Corwin, has been prophecied since long before these recent events to come through this random part of the multiverse; it is to raise some greater cosmic questions as well as to set up the following scene by giving a conversational partner to indicate that a visible storm of Chaos has started to follow Corwin on his journey across the multiverse: but alas Corwin’s horse has gone missing.
Zelazny omits almost every detail about this man except that he is a man, and yet through their encounter I gobble up pages and pages of narrative without those details. My brain just fills it in. I do not need much detail in order to continue reading with great pleasure, my brain is happy to operate without all of this detail.
My third take-away is that longer descriptions slow the pace of the story. When Zelazny lapses into details it is because he wants me to linger on a point, to take my time, to fully experience something. In the first case it’s “OK there is a man and he is not a threat and they are talking,” in the second it’s “I busted open the door, I looked around, it was really strange, I walked down the stairs, still really strange, I got to the bottom and turned at the bottom, saw very strange sights, called out a threat,” lingering on each of these details as a Descent into the Unfamiliar. It should not surprise you that Corwin then gets drunk with the leprechauns and the horse wakes him up with a loud whinny only for him to discover that they are all descending upon him with knives in his sleep. This is not a “heaven” to be in, but a “hell”, and his unfamiliarity with the situation causes him to make unwise choices which cause trouble for him.
And then there’s the question of why the leprechaun encounter happened at all: presumably Zelazny could have cut it, but wanted it in there to serve a real, deeper point. Apparently running straight through the multiverse as fast as one can go is a very dangerous and strange/unexpected road. One discovers that one passes through parts of the multiverse through which one was prophecied to pass long ago, parts that perhaps are itching to descend upon you with knives if you do not keep your wits about you. Lingering in this place by losing your horse serves a greater purpose of raising these questions about free-will and fate and giving a sense that this is a really dangerous journey that the character is engaged in. (It also serves in a more roundabout way to introduce some more of the powers of an artifact that the main character is carrying, which we have only ever seen doing some relatively menial things to do with controlling the weather but which we know is capable of doing more.)
So there is a lingering even in the choice to keep these scenes, and that is done with some express purpose for the reader; and in some cases the descriptions of the events contain a lingering, and that is done with a slightly different express purpose. But overall the descriptions are a lot shorter than I expect them to be and there is a great trust from Zelazny-as-author that this will make the experience more nimble and entertaining for me-the-reader.
If you're consistently beginning every scene you write with a description, you're running the risk of losing the reader. Beginning a scene by describing the location where the scene takes place, or of a person central to the scene, or of an object that is significant to the scene--this is a valid way to begin a scene. but there are other opening techniques, and it's important that you use a variety.
I can't name all the possible ways one can open a scene. I don't know them all. I've certainly forgotten a few. But here are a few suggestions:
Interiority. Begin with your POV character's inner thoughts. have her thinking about what disaster will befall her if she fails to obtain her goal or desire in the scene. Have her think an opinion she wouldn't dare say out loud. portray your POV character's state of mind.
Chain the beginning of this scene to the ending of the previous scene. Here's an example: if the previous scene ended with someone setting down an object to as a symbol that refused or rejected the previous POV character's goal/desire, think about a way you can use that same object type to carry the mood of the new scene.
With a physical action. If you've been writing a lot of scenes where a pov character walks into a room, describes it, and then has a conversation with the occupant of that room, and then leaves, it might be time to remember that a character in motion is pretty interesting. It could be time to think about what action will carry a symbolic message to the reader, helping to deepen their experience of the story.
Hopefully, these will help.