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For instance I'm describing the park of an art museum in a foggy day. I'm not sure if I should start with the fog, wind, grass, threes, walking paths, buildings, stairs or something else. Is there a good order rule to describe a setting (so that the reader get a clear picture of the where the story is located)?

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5 Answers 5

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You almost certainly want to avoid a shopping list of details about the park. You're not describing the wind and the trees and the building and... You're describing one unified moment in space and time.

You want to focus on what the reader needs to know for the story to make sense (he needs to know the scene is in a park, and not in out of space; if there's going to be anything happening in or around the park's pond, you want the reader to be aware that the pond exists), and on what you can use to create atmosphere (this scene is going to be calm and serene, like the park; or: the park is wilting and poorly-kept, emphasizing the story's squalor and disorder).

There must be millions of ways to describe setting, but a simple one is this: start with an establishing shot; one or two clear sentences that tell the reader where the scene takes place, and maybe touches upon the mood. Then pick two or three details that are easiest for you to use for both of the goals I mentioned (e.g. you choose the pond because it's important to the location, and you describe it as being peaceful and smooth because that's the atmosphere you want to convey). Since the establishing shot has conveyed the most immediate and crucial information, these details won't be confusing, and can be mentioned in any order - unless one of those details is unusual ("the pond was smooth, the trees swayed in the wind, and the hieroglyphic-covered merry-go-round tinkled a jolly tune" - you want unusual details first, just as a person's attention would be drawn to them) or particularly important to the plot (in which case you want to prevent the reader from skimming over it).

Another way is to go the opposite route - focus on one small detail, and ripple outwards from there, explaining how that one detail ties in with important elements of the larger setting.

The important thing here is to understand there's no "right order," because you're not filling out a list. You're conveying an experience; the correct order is whatever conveys the experience best. That might be "the experience of entering the park and looking around," or it might be "the experience of looking for a restful spot away from that hideous museum," or "the experience of being chased through a museum by radioactive zombies". Each of these will describe the setting differently, focusing on different details, and in a different order. If you don't know what experience your description is trying to convey, then stop and figure it out - if you don't know why the reader should be interested in your description, then he probably won't be.

Edited to add: A helpful and easy exercise: choose a few setting descriptions in books you've enjoyed. See if you can list the "order" the author describes different details in, within each description. See if you understand the structure the author's chosen for that description - and why it's a good fit for that scene. I suspect you'll find some very interesting techniques.

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This is an excellent answer. Setting description is great for creating atmosphere. For example, say your character is happy. That description of setting might be vastly different than if your character was suicidal. (This also depends on the point of view of your narrator to some degree.) Your happy character might notice unseen birds chirping, but depressed guy might not notice anything but the fog. –  Lynn Beighley Apr 24 '11 at 13:33

I don't know if there's a rule, but I have a meta-rule: the description has to follow an eye-line. That is, everything is described in the order that a person might see it. So I might start with the sky, then the trees then the dirt; or the outside of the building, then the doorway, the foyer, the corridor, and then the room. Something to give the user a sense of movement.

I'm basically aping the camera motion from a movie, which may or may not be a good thing in itself, but at least it give me -- and maybe the reader -- some structure.

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Describe first whatever will pull the reader into the scene. Period. There is no canonical order you should follow. If there were such a thing, it would make for a lot of dull repetition, and even fewer books would get read than they do now.

Instead, try to find the detail that will pull the reader in: the telling detail that makes an emotional connection with what is about to be described. Who cares what the sky looks like if it has no bearing on what the scene is about?

For example, consider this paragraph about an escape:

A beam of light lanced through the darkness, immediately followed by the sound of dogs baying and snarling on a leash. Pain shot through his damaged ankle as he rose to his feet, and he squelched the scream of anguish that pushed into his throat. He peered through the murk, trying to judge how much free ground still lay between him and his pursuers. Stay or run? It was still an uphill mile, a treacherous scrabble over rocks like the one that had twisted his foot, till he could reach the border and safety. And they might even pursue him beyond, maybe for miles. How long could he keep going if they did?

Only the details essential to story are revealed, and the focus is on the details that are important to the character and, hence, the reader. It is that kind of detail that you must find and reveal.

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Excellent, insightful answer. –  Orbital Bundle Apr 29 '11 at 18:34

Why should your description of a scene occur at an instant in time, like a photo? I had written so much here yet felt this first paragraph from Rothschild's Fiddle by Anton Chekhov captures it best:

The town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying. In the hospital and in the prison fortress very few coffins were needed. In fact business was bad. If Yakov Ivanov had been an undertaker in the chief town of the province he would certainly have had a house of his own, and people would have addressed him as Yakov Matveyitch; here in this wretched little town people called him simply Yakov; his nickname in the street was for some reason Bronze, and he lived in a poor way like a humble peasant, in a little old hut in which there was only one room, and in this room he and Marfa, the stove, a double bed, the coffins, his bench, and all their belongings were crowded together.

Chekhov’s description ignores time and space, yet we get a clear sense of the town - it’s wretched and in the shadow of a fortress like prison. There’s nothing else we need to know about the town’s physical appearance to understand the scene. The same is true of Yakov’s home, a hut with just one room crowded with his and his wife’s belongings.

It’s tough to write like this, yet descriptions like this bring you and your readers much closer to the scene as you experience it.

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The way you choose to describe the setting depends entirely on what's at stake for the narrator. You are writing the story; the narrator is telling the story. It's important to understand the distinction.

  • Is your narrator a godlike character who sees all and knows all, including the private thoughts of all the characters, and details known only to narrator and reader but not the characters?
  • Is it someone more objective, who reports only on things that are directly observable, without access to anyone else's thoughts?
  • Is it an active participant in the story, who can observe and describe, but also articulates his own thoughts?
  • Do various characters take on the narrative role at different points in the story?
  • Does your story step into the land of metafiction and postmodermism, where the narrator expounds on the nature of fiction itself?

The narrator's role will help you choose which details to reveal when you describe the setting. With that, there are ways you, as the author, can have fun with your characters. For example, what your narrator fails to notice can be as interesting to your readers as what he does describe. A seemingly objective narrator can turn out to be unreliable, inducing the reader to reflect on the story so far, and work to uncover the actual truth.

So, there's no specific order, or list of items to include. Do what you need to do to build the necessary tension to advance the story, and reward the reader for sticking through to the end.

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