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Pairing Description with Action

science fiction painting
Image copyright James Gurney

How can you describe the setting of your story without it reading like a dry litany of told facts? How can you keep this exposition centered firmly around the main character to keep it grounded in the narrative’s flow of time?

Action is a natural complement to early descriptions of the setting. Leanne Frahm’s The Wood for the Trees offers us a first-rate example of description done well. The opening of the story includes plenty of exposition, but it breaks that up with action to keep the writing interesting. Here is that opening in full:

He rode to the suburb from the north. To his left, dawn was breaking, sending the first pearl-coloured streaks into the sky. He had been travelling through the night, following the freeway, but it had ended abruptly, buried under an old landslide. He had turned aside to pick his way through the thin patch of scrubby bush.

He knew he had reached the suburb when the vegetation gave way suddenly to the stubborn concrete of a shopping center’s parking lot. It stretched ahead of him, an immense open space. Nothing moved. He turned his attention to the remaining giant letters above him. Once they had made up part of the center’s name. Now they hung askew, their bolts corroded through.

He pulled out one of his street maps, and opened it. The position was marked. He checked the nearby street names, then carefully folded the tattered paper and replaced it in his pack. With a low clicking of his tongue he urged the tired horse on, toward the center of the suburb.

His mount picked its way carefully over the cracked concrete while he studied his surroundings.

A rusted shopping cart lay to one side, stripped of its wheels. Small arcades branched off from the main building. Most windows were broken, the shelves emptied of useful items. A china shop stood undamaged; its painted plates and figurines glittering richly in the rays of the rising sun, while next door a furniture shop still boasted a discount on the deflated water bed in the window.

Silence hung over the morning. The birds were learning not to sing.

The bounty hunter turned his gaze toward the approaching streets and houses. Grass and weed clogged the gutters, and broke up the bitumen. Where street signs remained, they were barely legible; in some places, they were missing completely. The houses were unoccupied; engulfed in flowering bushes, roofs sagging. He expected that. They mostly clustered in the centers of the suburbs now, close to the government supplies.

A sudden movement sent his hand darting for the rifle slung over his shoulder. In a flurry of ruffled feathers and frightened peeping, a wild duck and two ducklings burst from the grass onto the open road.

This opening creates a vivid world without devoting six paragraphs to dry, stale descriptions. How? By injecting action into the exposition.

The first three paragraphs are action-heavy with few snippets of description. They provide only a half-formed picture of the setting. Frahm uses the fourth paragraph as a transition point:

His mount picked its way carefully over the cracked concrete while he studied his surroundings.

The character is studying his surroundings, so it’s only natural that the reader expects to see what the character sees. This makes for a great transition and is crafted to hold the reader’s attention.

What comes next is two visually descriptive paragraphs. This section, in particular, stands out:

A china shop stood undamaged; its painted plates and figurines glittering richly in the rays of the rising sun, while next door a furniture shop still boasted a discount on the deflated water bed in the window.

The full block of description is long. Long enough that it’s a small relief when Frahm adds a sentence of action:

The bounty hunter turned his gaze toward the approaching streets and houses.

Again, Frahm tells shows us the bounty hunter looking at something before she described it. This is important. Repetition can build a sense of clarity. These long blocks of visual description paint a clear picture. But if it went on too long, the painting would begin to feel one-dimensional, or immutable. That’s why Frahm lets loose a lightning bolt of action near the end:

A sudden movement sent his hand darting for the rifle slung over his shoulder. In a flurry of ruffled feathers and frightened peeping, a wild duck and two ducklings burst from the grass onto the open road.

Something from the painting jumps into action. As before, that action is tethered to the main character. Unlike before, the action is deliberately jarring. That is because it marks the end of the descriptive section and transitions the reader back into the normal flow of the narrative.