How to Sneak in Scenic Description

2 Flares Filament.io 2 Flares ×
Photo by Tri Nguyen

Photo by Tri Nguyen

Setting is as necessary as plot and character, but only as far as it influences plot and character, the way the water-starved planet Arrakis affects everything that happens in Dune.

No one reads a book for the scenery; it’s a nice bonus if described artfully, but it’s not what makes us crack the pages.

Yet so many writers spend paragraphs painting a picture before even touching on the action. Many try a “zoom in” approach, first describing a wide shot, like a city, then zooming in on a particular street or building, then zooming in further to describe a character. Only after all that do they finally get around to the story.

At best, this approach is risky, especially on the first page, when you only have seconds to secure a reader’s attention. So instead of dedicating whole paragraphs to weather, scenery, and character appearance, try dispersing it throughout the action and dialogue.

As an experiment, I’ve written two different versions of the beginning of a story. See which one grabs your attention sooner. Maybe you’ll disagree with me. Let me know in the comments.

VERSION ONE

The city went on forever, a steel and glass jungle clogged with concrete and grime. Skyscrapers rubbed shoulders with factories; trains shoved aside shops and cafés, and crowds oozed through bottleneck alleys.

In the bustle at the station on the corner of 3rd and Main stood a man with a brown coat and hat; a static chocolate freckle in a surging confetti sea. His face was round and crinkled; his eyebrows spikey and gray. He had two fingers shoved in the little pocket where he kept his watch, feeling the tick tock in his fingertips like the pulse in his veins.

It seemed like it was slowing.

How many ticks did he have left before the train came? How many tocks before he stepped aboard for the last time? How many heartbeats before he flinched at the hiss of the air brakes, anticipating the final exhalation of his own rattling lungs?

And then suddenly it was before him, light strobing off its speeding windows, the tracks screeching with sparks. Slower and slower until it stopped, staring at him.

The train was on time. He was about to be late.

Done? Now pretend you’ve forgotten that and read this version:

VERSION TWO

He had two fingers shoved in the little pocket where he kept his watch, feeling the tick tock in his fingertips like the pulse in his veins.

It seemed like it was slowing.

His brown hat bowed as he squinted at the minute hand. How many ticks did he have left before the train came? How many tocks before he stepped aboard for the last time? How many heartbeats before he flinched at the hiss of the air brakes, anticipating the final exhalation of his own rattling lungs?

The endless city seemed to press down on him, a steel and glass jungle clogged with concrete and grime. But he stood frozen in the bustle, a static chocolate freckle in the surging confetti sea at the corner of 3rd and Main.

He could almost feel it scream closer, slipping beneath skyscrapers that rubbed shoulders with factories, squeezing past overflowing shops and cafes, shoving aside crowds that oozed through bottleneck alleys.

And then suddenly it was before him, light strobing off its speeding windows, the tracks screeching with sparks. Slower and slower until it stopped, staring at him.

The train was on time. He was about to be late.

Leave your verdict in the comments!

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
Bookmark the permalink.

8 Comments

  1. Have to choose the second, even if I get hooked on settings. Like the sense of time too. Time Exchange perhaps? 😉

    • Yep – number two. Immediately focussed on the man, already I want to know who, why. A pocket watch? what sort of man carries a pocket watch? Whats gonna happen? Oh, and that city he’s in is pretty rough.

      Kim

      • Excellent! Glad it worked. “What sort of a man carries a pocket watch?” A man with an awesome sense of style!

    • Yay! You agree. I confess the prompt was buzzing in my brain while I was writing it.

  2. Everyone should know I love scenic description. I do. What a chance to show off, what a chance to make words dance! Nothing like spinning up a landscape in someone’s head. I do overdo it sometimes, though. Anyone who wants to know how to write big, scenic descriptions should steer clear of Tolkien and instead pick up a copy of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station:

    “The sun shone through uneven cloud-cover with a bright grey light. Below the basket the stalls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

    The food stalls stretched the noisy length of Shadrach Street. Books and manuscripts and pictures filled up Selchit Pass, an avenue of desultory banyans and crumbling concrete a little way to the east. There were earthenware products spilling down the road to Barrackham in the south; engine parts to the west; toys down one side street; clothes between two more; and countless other goods filling all the alleys. The rows of merchandise converged crookedly on Aspic Hole like spokes on a broken wheel.

    In the Hole itself all distinctions broke down. In the shadow of old walls and unsafe towers were a pile of gears, a ramshackle table of broken crockery and crude clay ornaments, a case of mouldering textbooks. Antiques, sex, flea-powder. Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races bought peculiar things.”

    • This is quite a gorgeously-written (and smelly) description, but it would be better to mix it with action. I am impressed but not intrigued, and intrigue is what keeps me reading.

      I can’t recall reading anything of yours that was this description-heavy. You write it well and often, but it is always generously mixed with real story. That makes all the difference.

  3. I have to say that you lost me with the first sentence in version one (though admittedly my reading habits differ on blogs than in a printed novel); but you hooked me with version two… bravo!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *