Thursday, July 25, 2013


Your characters are obviously more important than their settings, but there is a critical and creative synergy between character and setting--a synergy that takes place in the reader’s brain.

The late, great John D. MacDonald codified it this way: "When the environment is less real, the people you put into that environment become less believable, and less interesting."

He illustrated his point with two descriptive passages. Here is the first:

“The air conditioning unit in the motel room window was old and somewhat noisy.” MacDonald called this an image cut out of gray paper. It triggers no vivid visual image.

By contrast, see what happens in the imagination while reading this passage:

"The air conditioning unit in the motel room had a final fraction of its name left, an 'aire' in silver plastic, so loose that when it resonated to the coughing thud of the compressor, it would blur. A rusty water stain on the green wall under the unit was shaped like the bottom half of Texas. From the stained grid, the air conditioner exhaled its stale and icy breath into the room, redolent of chemicals and of someone burning garbage far, far away."

From these close-up clues, MacDonald said, you the reader can construct the rest of the room--bed, carpeting, shower, with vivid pictures from your own experience.
The trick is how much to describe--the telling detail--and what to leave out. Too much detail and you turn the reader into a spectator, no longer part of the creative partnership whereby the reader fills in the rest of the scene out of experience and imagination.

“No two readers will see exactly the same motel room,” he added. But “the pictures you have composed in your head are more vivid than the ones I would try to describe.”

Note that MacDonald did not label the air conditioner as old or noisy or battered or cheap. Those are all subjective words, evaluations that the reader should make. “Do not say a man looks seedy. That is a judgment, not a description. All over the world, millions of men look seedy, each one in his own fashion. Describe a cracked lens on his glasses, a bow fixed with stained tape, an odor of old laundry.”

Note also that MacDonald is using sensory cues in his quick sketch of the air conditioner. You not only see the bottom half of Texas, you smell the burning garbage, you hear the coughing thud.

There are many masters of detailed description. One that comes to mind is the late Joseph Hansen, author of the David Brandstetter mysteries. Here is an example, picked almost at random from his 1973 novel, Death Claims:

“…The front wall was glass for the view of the bay. It was salt-misted, but it let him see the room. Neglected. Dust blurred the spooled maple of furniture that was old but used to better care. The faded chintz slipcovers needed straightening. Threads of cobwebs spanned lapshades. And on a coffee table stood plates soiled from a meal eaten days ago—canned roast-beef hash, ketchup—dregs of coffee in a cup, half a glass of dead, varnish liquid…”

It’s clearly of a piece with MacDonald’s example. But Hansen, a poet as well as novelist, seems to describe everything, every setting, every character, with such laser-like attention to detail, while MacDonald picks his spots. For me as a reader, exhaustive detail is exhausting.

There are celebrated passages, of course, where an author intends to glut the reader with overflowing detail. A famous example occurs in Gustave Flaubert’s descriptions of Madame Bovary’s wedding, in which every costume and every menu course is lavished with loving prose:

“Upon [the table] there stood four sirloins, six dishes of hashed chicken, stewed veal, three legs of mutton and, in the centre, a comely roast sucking-pig flanked with four hogs-puddings garnished with sorrel. At each corner was a decanter filled with spirits. Sweet cider in bottles was fizzling out round the corks, and every glass had already been charged with wine to the brim. Yellow custard in great dishes, which would undulate at the slightest jog of the table, displayed on its smooth surface the initials of the wedded pair in arabesques of candied peel…”

MacDonald cites another exception to the less-is-more dictum: “In one of the Franny and Zooey stories, [J.D.] Salinger describes the contents of a medicine cabinet shelf by shelf in such infinite detail that finally a curious monumentality is achieved…”



  1. I'm commenting on my own post with a postscript, courtesy of fellow thriller writer Seb Kirby. Here is his Tweet of a great Chekov quote:

    ‏@Seb_Kirby 2m
    Anton Chekhov: Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

  2. Hi Dan, I don't often click on links in twitter, but this time I did, and I'm glad that I did. Interesting and entertaining post. Thanks.

  3. You are feeding my muse as I sit here sipping scotch with the ghost of John D. MacDonald by the moonlight reflecting off the Intercoastal waterway on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale. Mr. E.A. Poe is expected to join us with a jug of malmsey. We shall toast to you.

  4. What a wonderfull example you give of how to entice a reader into a scene. This is just what I needed. I'm inclined to give too many character actions instead of allowing the reader's imagination to work.

  5. Macdonald’s example is well chosen, his point well made, and he establishes a target for any serious writer to aim at. But we are not all Macdonalds, Hansens, Salingers or Chekhovs, and thank God for that, because if everyone was capable of writing in that way their genius would no longer be genius, but just run-of-the-mill.
    When I first read this piece, my initial reaction was to feel depressed, because, although I would love to be able to write in that way, I know very well that I couldn’t. Well, perhaps if I had started writing fiction at a younger age… I mean, I could show you a piece of writing by Flaubert, a short story called Rage et Impuissance, which is so badly written there are places where it literally does not make sense, and there is very little that suggests that the writer would one day be renowned for his polished style. But he was only 15 when he wrote it, and perhaps there is a clue in the fact that it was not even discovered until after Flaubert’s death!
    I would not quarrel with Macdonald’s notion of a creative partnership, but I would suggest that such a partnership can operate in a number of different ways. A character’s reaction in a particular situation, for instance, even when factually described, obliges the reader to reach conclusions about the person and to make conjectures about his future moves. What’s more, the really clever writer can evoke reactions of his own choice in a reader, while at the same time making the reader think that he himself is being rather smart and that he is himself participating in the creative process.
    I only started writing fiction when I was 77, and my first novel was published when I was 79, this after thirty years of writing academic textbooks in which the ultimate aim was clarity. As a result, I was constantly aware of “Time’s winged chariot drawing near”. But I also knew what reactions I wanted to evoke in the reader and I used the means which I knew I had. I have read novels – who hasn’t? – in which style has taken such precedence over substance that it gets in the way. I’m sure that if I lived long enough I could eventually produce something along the lines suggested by Macdonald, but if I had done that, then Before the Swallow Dares and The Heat of the Kitchen would have remained unwritten – it’s for readers, not for me, to suggest that that would be a pity!
    What is important, I think, is for a writer – of any kind – to write with integrity; to be ever aware of his readers and the effect he wishes to have on them, and to achieve that without straying into what I would consider the cardinal sin of a writer: pretentiousness. In other words, there is plenty of room for writers of all manner of different skills – there exist, after all, many ways of evoking delight…

  6. Tony, thanks for the rich and well-thought-out posting. Indeed, it's a separate post quite equal to the original, and I wouldn't argue with anything you said. Some of my favorite writers were and are capable of writing far less than their best, at times, and it is the story teller, and her or his beguiling voice that carry the day, ultimately, not style. A friend of mine arranged the hierarchy of importance in writing this way: 1. WHO is writing (or telling the story). 2: WHAT is being said... and, finally, 3> HOW it is said.

    I have your website marked out, and hope to be have time to read some of your stuff!

  7. Great post, Dan, it's my first time here and I'm enjoying it thoroughly, including Tony Whelpton's excellent comment. Indeed, we cannot all be great writers but surely we can improve and your advice is soung, it shows a simple way to improve! I confess that as a reader I've always disliked descriptions while as a writer I've always felt obliged to make them.

    I believe there's a trick to achieve a striking description that will enchant the reader rather than slow down the reading. That's what I do because I haven't yet found a better way to do it. And it's simply this: sit back and visualize the scene then write as much as you can about the setting (color, smell, light, sound etc) and the look of the characters (tall, short, manly, female, angry, smiling etc), then cut back on everything that looks banal or cliché. But cut back with a vengeance. Don't spare anything. Ten lines can be reduced to one. It usually works (though not always, LOL!)

    Of course, it's just a trick for those of us who are not Master Writers!

  8. Claude, I love your "trick" and aim to try it. I'm not great at visualization -- a horrible confession to have to make, because many of my favorite authors are masters of this. But maybe this will stimulate me. And then cutting with a vengeance is good, because it will be a refining process too. A writer I admire greatly, Jonathan Kellerman, I swear describes every stitch of clothing for the characters Alex Delaware comes upon in the course of his investigation. He must enjoy it. Romance and historical novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, who once upon a time wrote a syndicated interior design newspaper column (which I edited), trowels on lengthy descriptions of decor.

  9. Excellent post. I think some writers are more talented than others when it comes to describing things. Some make it boring while others make it a fine work of art. After reading this, I'm going back and checking my details. Thanks!

  10. Impressive comments all around! Obviously a provocative topic for writers. Such a challenge, describing stuff. And perhaps that first task given man, as God told Adam to name all the critters in critterdom.

  11. "For me as a reader, exhaustive detail is exhausting." A quote to be shared on my blog. My thanks. Insightful (pun not intended, really) piece!

  12. Dan, great blog post to read while I'm working on the first drafts of two WIPs. I'm already thinking about how I can improve my setting descriptions on the next round of drafting, whilst ensuring I don't overload my readers with details. Interesting how it's often books that are now some 30 years old which have the best descriptive passages, isn't it?

  13. Rachel, thank you! I'm happy that the post help stir you creative juices. I reread some of these same quotes often to help inspire me to delve deeper into my material. I have to see it and believe it if I expect readers to do so.

  14. Excellent post and comments. Description helps when one is a long time artist. I have to be careful not to over describe my images. Cheryl, in a writing group I found that only one person in eight did not like my descriptive prose.
    Happy writing to all. Dan, I'm glad I found your cite.

  15. John D, MacDonald was a true master of the craft. I feel like I become a better writer with every MacDonald novel that I read.