Appendix C—Rules for Writers and Writing

I’m not going to spew a bunch of extra stuff here. It should go without saying that I believe the “rules” in this appendix are good ones to follow. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have included them.

One note—please don’t be so closed minded that you see (for example) Robert Heinlein’s name and automatically assume the rules that follow apply only to science fiction. They don’t.

I’m not joking.

Seriously, if that’s who you are, please put down this book NOW and back away slowly so you don’t get a paper cut. Yes, even if you’re reading it on your computer or as an ebook.

All right. Without further ado, here are Rules for Writers and Writing from people who know: long-term professional fiction writers.

Heinlein’s Business Rules of Writing

These were originally published almost as an afterthought in an essay in 1948 when what we think of today as “traditional publishing” was just beginning to come into its own.

I have updated these for the new world of self-publishing. What follows each rule is my addendum.

1. You must write.

Writers write. Thinking about writing is not writing. Revising, critiquing, rewriting, researching, and attending conferences or seminars is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Only putting new words on the page is writing. Writers write.

2. You must finish what you write.

This doesn’t mean you have to go back and dig up all those things you started and didn’t finish. But it DOES mean beginning today, Finish What You Write.

3. You must not rewrite.

Period. After you’ve finished a story or novel, follow your process. I recommend giving it to a trusted First Reader (trusted meaning s/he will tell you the truth) and ask that person to read naturally and point out anything that distracts him or her. Again, when you get it back, correct any distractions and then send it out (submit, publish, etc.). Then write the next story (see Rule 1).

4. You must publish your work so readers can buy it.

This actually goes to marketing. The cover and opening of your story sells that story. The ending of you story sells your next story. The best thing you can do to market your work is write another story. Then write another one. Then another one.

5. You must keep your work published so more readers can buy it.

If you need to update the cover as you become more adept at cover design, that’s fine. But once a story is published, leave it up.

Ray Bradbury’s 7 Rules for Writers

  1. Write with gusto.
  2. In quickness is truth.
  3. Write who you are.
  4. Don’t write for money or fame.
  5. Feed the muse daily.
  6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic.
  7. Surprise yourself.

Ernest Hemingway’s Rules for Writers

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

There are exceptions to all rules (except, in my opinion, Heinlein’s). Hemingway’s short story “After the Storm” begins with this, in direct violation of Rules 1, 2 & 4:

It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose.

The point is, Write.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

And just like that, we’re at the end of the book. Thanks for coming along on this ride. I hope you picked up some things you can use.

No, that isn’t right. I KNOW there are things here you can use. Let me rephrase that.

I hope you have picked up some things you WILL use.

I hope you will become a Heinlein’s Rules adherent as I and so many others are. Nothing can match the joy of making stuff up for a living. Seriously.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 7 — Writing the Ending

Many writers believe the ending of the story is the big, massive climax.

  • The former Texas Ranger transports the body of his friend and colleague from Wyoming back to the southern tip of Texas because he gave his word, and his word actually means something.
  • A magic ring is returned inadvertently to its rightful owner, who had agonized for years over its loss, as both he and the ring plunge into the fires of Mordor, effectively ending a war.
  • The Death Star explodes because someone forgot to install a screen over what amounts to a vent that just happens to run directly to the reactor core. Or something.

Those are all big climaxes. But none of those is the ending.

The ending comes after the climax. It’s what many call the resolution or the validation.

  • It’s the former Texas Ranger dismissing a reporter because there’s no possible way the reporter could ever understand.
  • It’s the Ring Bearer accompanying others as they board boats to pass from Middle Earth forever because their time is now past.
  • It’s a walking shag rug and others, amidst much cheering, being rewarded medals and money during a grand celebration, the whole of which takes place on the steps out front. Because seriously, who wants a walking shag rug inside the palace.

The ending in a film is a satisfactory conclusion. It gives the viewers a warm fuzzy feeling and tells them the story is over. That it’s all right to get out of their chairs and go home.

The ending in a novel or short story is a satisfactory conclusion as well, one that subliminally signals to the reader the story has ended.

In both cases, the keyword is “satisfactory.”

Just as a valid climax should cause the reader to slap himself on the forehead and say, “Of course!” so should the ending (resolution, validation) make the reader feel good about the protagonist or the situation or both.

And a satisfactory ending isn’t important just to keep the reader from throwing things.

Remember, the hook and opening sell the reader on the current book.

But the ending of the current book sells the reader on the next book. That’s how important it is.

Tricks for Endings

One common technique is to jump ahead to a new scene after the climax.

The Lonesome Dove series resolution above obviously took place at least a few days later when Captain Call had time to rest and clean up and heal from his injuries and exhaustion. Notice we feel a kinship with Captain Call despite his flaws.

The Lord of the Rings wrap-up likewise took place a few days or perhaps even weeks later. It’s difficult to tell, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we feel the passing of the age as strongly as the characters do.

And in the Star Wars resolution, again it might be a week or longer. We assume they needed time to bury their dead (the ones who weren’t vaporized) and maybe to clear the chunks of buildings out of the streets.

But whatever the reason for the jump, it’s all right. We don’t wonder what happened during the missing time. We simply accept it and go on.

So you don’t have to provide a reason for the gap when you jump ahead. Again, just write a quick scene to tie up any final loose ends and close things out.

If you do feel a need to provide an explanation for the gap, do so with a very brief narrative or a brief bit of dialogue between characters.

Sometimes writers will maintain a single POV character throughout the story. If you do that, be sure to use the same POV character in the resolution. In other words, don’t switch POV after the jump ahead unless it’s a multiple POV story.

Watch Your Pacing

In the big climax, sentences and paragraphs generally are shorter and more terse. Things happen quickly. Narrative is sparse and even any dialogue is short and tense. Everything is frantic.

When you jump to the ending, slow things down. Use neater sentences, calmer syntax and words. In other words, you want to write a much more relaxed scene. That’s how you ease the reader out of the story after the high-tension climax..

Finally, you want to be sure you bring the story full circle. In a stand-alone story, be sure you don’t have any unwrapped threads still out there. Make sure you resolve all open matters that were not resolved earlier in the story.

Watch for the Ending

Most often, even in a novel, you can feel it coming when you’re within a few thousand words.

When that happens, just keep writing. Keep letting the story happen.

But if the writing begins to grind to a halt, there’s a chance you’ve written past the ending.

I first heard of this from Dean Wesley Smith, but it’s happened to me a couple of times too.

In my first novel, I sensed the ending was coming up. I just kept writing the next sentence, writing the next sentence, and suddenly there were no more sentences to write. That didn’t feel right. I knew there wasn’t another scene yet to go.

So I backtracked. Sure enough, I had written past the ending by about 200 words. That wound up being the first book in a nine-book series, but the “extra” I wrote beyond the ending of the first book didn’t make it into the second one.

If that happens to you, it’s all right. Just backtrack and look for the great line or situation that ends the story satisfactorily. Then allow the characters to talk through the resolution.

What Makes a Good Ending?

It seems appropriate to end a book titled Writing the Character-Driven Story with this.

Good endings are always endings about the character. They leave the reader feeling good about the protagonist.

A good ending might contain an air of nostalgia. For an excellent example, see the end of Lonesome Dove with the images of fallen comrades filing by as Captain Call said, bitterly and with sarcasm, “Yeah. One hell of a vision.”

It often contains an emotional attachment to another character or characters. This emotional attachment might be one-sided. You’ll see this in almost any western in which the hero rides off into the sunset alone while the wistful female lead watches him go.

The emotional attachment can also be mutual, whether a personal romantic attachment between characters or a professional bond among characters who have shared a unique experience in a team setting (especially combat).

And of course there are a host of others. Study endings in real life, and then adapt those in your books.

One example Dean used with me was a time jump to funeral. They didn’t show the actual funeral (remember, this is the ending, the validation) but used the funeral to set the mood for the scene. Then they showed the characters walking away from the funeral, talking about what’s coming next for each of them (a great lead-in to the next book in a series), getting on with life, and so on.

Appendix B—The Two Most Important Writing Exercises You Will Ever Do

What follows are two of the more important writing exercises I have ever learned or taught. I hope you will take advantage of them.

First, an exercise to get you started actually writing.

1. On a sheet of paper, write down three character names. They can be full names or first names or last names or nicknames. Whatever comes to mind is fine.

But nothing else, just names. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

2. On the same sheet of paper, write down three problems. These can be any little problems.

For example,

  • maybe the character just realized he has a sticker in his foot or a hangnail, or
  • maybe he just remembered today is his anniversary, or
  • maybe he just remembered he was supposed to meet a friend ten minutes ago for dinner, or
  • maybe he just opened a bad email or letter, or
  • maybe his computer screen just went black, or
  • the elevator stopped between floors, or
  • he just realized the door he thought he propped open behind him s closed and locked.

This problem does not have to be important, and it does not have to be “the” problem or conflict of the story. This is just something for the character to solve to get you into the story.

So nothing else, just write three problems. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

3. On the same sheet of paper, write down three settings.

For example,

  • a haymow, or
  • the passenger seat of a ’57 Chevy, or
  • the first-class compartment aboard a jetliner, or
  • the interior of a freight car, or
  • the interior of an environmental suit, or
  • the bridge of a space ship, or
  • a cubicle in an office building, or
  • the top of a skyscraper.

Nothing else, just write three settings. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

Now I’m going to show you how easy it is to be an actual writer.

To write an opening, you need only three things: a character, a problem, and a setting. Period. Nothing else. So do this.

  • Sit down at your computer.
  • Select a character name from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.
  • Select a problem from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.
  • Select a setting from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.

Now put your fingers on the keyboard and write whatever comes to mind regarding your character and his or her problem in the setting you chose.

Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. That really is all there is to it.

Some Notes

As you do this exercise, Don’t Worry about where the story is going. Don’t Worry about what will happen next. It’s just a character with a problem in a setting. That’s all.

This is no big deal. It’s nothing earth shakingly important. You’re just telling a story. That’s all.

Whatever the character does and says to solve or alleviate the problem will flow out through your fingers.

Whatever comes through your fingertips and the keyboard onto the page is the character speaking.

The character is the one who is in the story. The character is the one who is living it. He or she knows what’s going on in the story.

  • Don’t edit what the character wants to say or do, no matter what it is.
  • Don’t allow your conscious mind try to “fix” anything.
  • Don’t try to think it through and figure it out.
  • Just write it. You’re a writer. Just write it.

The idea here is to practice trusting your subconscious to tell the story. This is how Bradbury wrote. This is how most long-term professional fiction writers wrote back in the day, and this is how most of them write today.

When you’ve done this exercise a few times, you will come to realize how truly freeing this technique is.

You will learn to release the need to be the “almighty writer on high,” and the responsibility for directing everything that happens.

You will learn instead to drop down into the story with the characters and just have fun.

Instead of planning every move from some lofty perch above the story, you will learn to run through the story with the characters—your friends—and simply write down what they say and do.

Now for the Five Senses Exercise, with my personal thanks to Jack Williamson, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, each of whom helped enhance my understanding of this exercise and its importance.

The Five Senses Exercise

In this exercise, you’ll write five separate paragraphs. Each paragraph should stand on its own. In other words, no one paragraph should be related or attached in any way to any other paragraph. Each should be a few sentences in length.

To get the most out of this exercise, I suggest you do it once wherever you happen to be right now. Then move to a new location and do it again. Then move again to a new location and repeat the exercise. I suggest you continue until you feel comfortable with it.

If you’re in your office, do it there. Then walk into the back yard and do it there. Then go into your kitchen and do it there. Go to the local coffee shop and do it there. Go sit in your car and do it there. You get the idea.

Remember that the goal here isn’t to describe the place. The goal is to describe a moment in time from your perspective. It might include the place or it might not. It certainly should include your opinions.

For example, if an aroma of roses wafts past your nose and you enjoy that, you might mention you caught the scent or aroma of roses. If you don’t like it, you might say you were unable to avoid the stench of roses. Opinions matter.

The point is to be aware of your physical senses and your surroundings, and to extend your senses consciously. In other words, you want to notice things that you normally wouldn’t notice. If you do this exercise in your office or your home or your car, you probably are used to the space. But the character isn’t and the reader isn’t.

As you go through these exercises, try not to use the words see, hear, smell, taste or feel or any of their derivatives (saw, could see, heard, could hear, smelled, could smell, etc.). Remember to extend yourself through your senses.

To help you along with the first one, I’ve provided an example of what I might write for the paragraph about what I see here in my office.

One: Write a paragraph about what you see. (A bright yellow baseball cap is dangling from a hook on the wall. On the front of the cap is an embroidered red Zia sun symbol. The wall is a burnt orange and the hook is brushed chrome. To the left, a dark-maple bookshelf dominates the wall. The top shelf is filled with various multicolored bottles of spirits. To the right is the open door. The opening is not trimmed and reminds me of a lipless creature.)

Two: Write a paragraph about what you smell.

Three: Write a paragraph about what you taste.

Four: Write a paragraph about what you feel, physically.

Five: Write a paragraph about what you hear. You should notice and include any ambient sounds you normally would take for granted.

Now write a sixth paragraph. Use one sentence from each of the previous five to create a sensory experience for the reader.

Most professional writers suggest you include this sort of sensory information in your writing at least in every scene, or as every major character enters a scene. This is what brings your writing to life for the reader. The sensory information comes from inside the POV of the character.

Most writers use only the sense of sight. That’s why much writing lacks the verisimilitude, the layering on of intimate detail, that gives it depth and lends it a sense of reality.

Go back to a story or chapter you’ve written and use this technique. See whether it improves the scene.

Best of all, like most of the techniques I teach, now that you are aware of it, you’ll have to think consciously about this only a few times before it becomes part of your subconscious.

That’s it for this time. Up next, Chapter 7: Writing the Ending.

‘Til then, happy writing!


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 6—Writing Setting, and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part II

Just a quick announcement—I’m restarting my business as a copyeditor, ebook formatter and cover designer. I’ll take on only a few clients. If you’re interested in any of the above, even if not right at the moment, please let me know that via email. Details to come soon on my website under Writer Services.

Now to continue with Chapter Six. If you missed the previous post or would like a refresher, you can find Chapter Six, Part I on the website under the tab labeled Writing the Character-Driven Story.

The Minor Setting and the Transitional Setting

If the scene takes place in a minor or transitional setting, the description matters a lot less or not at all, depending. On what? In my case, it depends on what my POV character notices that is relevant to the story.

And that’s actually a trick statement. If the POV character notices it, it is relevant to the story. At least the story he’s telling.

Most of the time, in an action scene, the setting will be minor at best, or even transitional.

Perhaps something like this.

Whenever Denny chanced a glance out a side window, buildings and windows and people flashed past, blurred into streaks of black and grey. Dismal.

And that smell. That filthy, stale steam stench that emanates from manhole covers. But maybe that was only his own frustration and fear.

He glanced at the rearview mirror. Damn cops were relentless. His back window flashed eerily, blue, red, blue. The sirens all but punctured his ears.

He shifted his attention back to the front, back to the hope that he would escape.

As if that was going to happen.

He glanced back again and—

And then he moves into another scene. But this one is major so everything matters again. Everything necessarily slows down. And notice that the character focuses more on smaller, tighter, more specific details.

Remember to describe only what the POV character, in his current frame of mind and condition, would notice.

A volcano of massive confusing sounds, and then something hit his jaw and tore it sideways. Did it rip completely off? And in the second half of that instant the top of his head slammed into stars.

And silence.

Only his breathing. Alive. He was alive.

And a quiet hissing. He knew that sound. He frowned. What was it?

That same stale steam still permeated the humid air. Air so thick it was running alongside his face.

He wanted to wipe it away but something. He tugged. Something trapped his right arm.

He reached with his left. Got it. Wiped again.

The stuff was like thin, warm glue. He wanted to taste it but he didn’t want to taste it.

And that hissing. What in the world was that hissing? He knew that sound.

Something familiar. Something real.

The lawnmower. That’s all it was.

Halfway through mowing the yard, the lawnmower sputtered. It was almost out of gas, so he shut it down.

He pushed it to the shed and opened the gas cap. That thing was so stiff. And sharp. The part that stuck up in the center for a screwdriver gouged his palm.

But he had to finish the lawn. He took the cap off the spout, and the can sucked air for a second. Mary left the vent valve closed again.

He put the spout at the opening of the gas tank and turned up the can but it slipped. That’s what it was. And some gas spilled on the hot manifold and—

His eyes grew wide. Oh god no! No! Oh damn! Oh, no, it can’t—

And the world exploded, and a microsecond out, it flashed to black.

So that would be a minor setting slamming into a major setting. Both are in the car, but in the first, the setting is flashing past. In the second, it’s stock still.

In a purely transitional setting, you can get away with very little or no description. Transitional settings can be anywhere. The hallway in the mansion was a transitional setting. If the character is getting out of a car and nothing of note happened in the car, the car is a transitional setting. If the character is crossing a sidewalk or a lobby and nothing happens on the sidewalk or in the lobby, those are transitional settings.

The point is, as your POV character moves from one setting to another, it’s your job as the writer to enable your readers to see, hear, smell, taste and feel what your POV character is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling.

As necessary.

Focusing Down to the Unique

Again, the more specific the description of the setting, more engaged your readers will be with the scene.

It’s all right to say of an office that there was a bookshelf in one corner and a desk and chair in another. But if something happened in that office, focus down and describe that part of the office in greater detail.

Is there a body lying on the rug in front of the desk? What does the rug look like? If there’s a wound, what is the pattern of the wound? If there’s blood, what is the pattern of the blood? Is there a pool of blood? Spatter?

If there’s spatter on the desk, what does the front of the desk look like? Is the desk oak? Maple? Does the grain run vertically? Horizontally? Is there a lip where the top overlaps the front?

If your character (detective, perpetrator, maid or butler with a secret) is going to sit down and go through the desk, again, focus down.

What items are on the desk, at least in the vicinity of the character’s hand? Does he open a drawer? What’s the drawer pull look like? Run of the mill round or unique? If unique, how? Does it look like leaves overlapping? Is it brass? Bronze? Wood?

Is the edge of the desk or the edge of a drawer chipped? What if the desk wasn’t broken into? Does a chip on the edge of the drawer still matter? Yes. It focuses the reader down into the scene. It can also provide misdirection.

Notes on Writing the Scene

I originally was going to devote an entire separate chapter to Writing the Scene. But that is not necessary, and doing so would be repetitive.

Chapter 4, Writing the Opening, combined with the Writing Setting part of this chapter and the examples in this chapter, form a crash course on writing the scene. Here are just a few more notes to help you along in that regard.

Remember that the story is the character’s story to tell. The story is broken into scenes.

The scene is centered around a single major event. It is the vehicle by which the characters interact and advance the story from its beginning to its conclusion.

A very short story might have only one scene that moves through only one or two or three major settings.

The Length of Scenes

In his Master Plot Formula, Lester Dent recommended a 90,000 word novel be broken into thirds. Each 30,000 word section would then be divided into five 6,000 word chapters. Each 6,000 word chapter would be divided into four 1500 word scenes.

But the length of the scene is up to you. When students ask me how long a scene should be, I tell them to write until they’ve covered the single event for which that scene exists.For some that will take 800 to 1000 words, about an hour’s work. For others it might take 1500 words or 2000 words. Much depends on what is going on in the scene, how many characters are involved, and whether it contains sub-scenes.

I know one major author who writes one scene per chapter. I know another who writes 10-11 page (2500 to 2750 word) chapters regardless of how many scenes are included. I recommend you apply your own numbers to suit the average length of your scenes.

If it helps, you may treat a scene as a story within a story. For example, in a multiple viewpoint novel, you can switch POV characters at the beginning of a scene. You can also do a cliffhanger or bit of suspense at the end of each scene. Some genres practically require it. Others, not so much.

For me, the most important thing about the scene is that once it begins to unfold, I can “see” pretty much the whole thing in my head. Most of the time it’s all I can do to type fast enough to get it down. And I am eternally grateful for every second of frantic typing.


This chapter was long, so I thought a summary might be a good idea. Here you go:

  • The setting is the location in which the scene takes place.
  • You must ground the reader in the setting so he can experience the scene with the character.
  • To ground the reader in the setting, allow your character to descend into the setting himself.
  • Major settings, those in which scenes actually take place, need more description.
  • It’s all right to begin with general descriptions in major settings, but it’s important to focus down quickly to the details that matter. Focusing down to those details ground the reader more firmly in the setting.
  • Minor or transitional settings require little or no description.
  • Most writers use only the sense of sight. Use as many of the five senses as possible at the beginning of every scene to ground the reader in the scene and make the story more real.

Next up, Chapter 7—Writing the Ending and the Resolution.

‘Til then, happy writing!


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.—

Chapter 6 — Writing Setting, and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part I

As I mentioned in the Introduction, the setting is the location in which the scene takes place.

Simple, right?

Not really. The inability to write the setting is where a lot of writers lose readers, and even the readers don’t know why. If nothing in the first few hundred words pulls them down into the story, they simply drift away.

Readers must be grounded in the setting. The more firmly they are grounded in the setting, the more invested they are in the story. It’s harder for them to put it down and find something else to do.

To ground your readers in the setting, your characters must exist down in the setting.

As they walk into a new setting, every person (and every character) will sense different things or get a different sensory impression of those things. All of that will depend on his or her baggage, experiences (good and bad), personal beliefs, and so on.

As you describe a scene through the physical senses of your POV character, his or her opinions of that setting will reveal much about who the character is.

And everything you write should be through the senses of your POV character.

Types of Settings

There are varied takes on how much description is too much or too little.

Various genres require more or less description in general. You can find more information than you wanted to know by reading a few books on writing specific genres.

For our purposes, I’ll deal with the level of description I recommend for various types of settings.

The major setting is one in which a scene takes place. This is where characters interact, where the majority of the story is acted out. This one requires, in my opinion, in-depth description. It also requires focusing down with your description to firmly ground the character.

The minor setting is one in which, usually, a partial scene takes place. Perhaps a hit man quickly reviewing information about his target while riding up in an elevator. This might also be a character involved in a high-speed car chase during the brief time leading up to the crash. This one usually has less description and perhaps more hastily and vaguely delivered. The focus here is on the information or the action rather than the description.

The transitional setting is just that. Transitional. You don’t want to have a car pull up to the curb, zero transition, and suddenly the characters who were in the car are in an office suite on the 23rd floor discussing a situation. They have to cross the sidewalk. They have to cross the lobby. They have to ride up in an elevator or take the stairs. Transitional scenes. These require little or no description.

The Major Setting

If the scene is taking place in a major setting—for example, a library where the characters will spend a considerable amount of time during an interview—the description should leave nothing to the reader’s imagination.

Let’s say you currently have three characters. One is Norman Silver, a hapless reporter who can’t believe his own good fortune.

He has asked for and been granted an interview with your second character, Charlie Task, a self-described professional psychopath. In his professional life, Charlie offers Real-Time Solutions to Real-World Situations.

This example is adapted from my novel Confessions of a Professional Psychopath and my short story, “A View to the Curious.”

The butler led me along a hallway. It was lighted, but just dark enough that it was difficult to make out what was in the frames on the walls. Didn’t matter anyway. I just wanted to get to the interview.

We stopped before ornately carved mahogany doors. I tell you, I was some kind of impressed. The butler must’ve seen the look on my face, because he smiled.

“Ah, the doors. Yes. Those came from Milan. Mr. Task had them hand carved there and then shipped to an artist friend in St. Petersburg, Russia. The artist there created those oversized crystal door knobs. They too are one of a kind. Then he shipped them, doors and all, here. Ready, then?”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

He smiled, turned both door knobs and stepped aside as the doors swung open.

I walked though, and he closed the doors behind me. The click was ominous somehow.

The polished hardwood floor was dotted here and there with white fur rugs. The air in the room was slightly warmer than it was in the hallway, and so was the lighting. Thanks to wall sconces evenly spaced on the— Well, they were book shelf sconces I guess. They were attached directly to the front of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves at regular intervals around the room.

The light was almost comforting, but not overpowering either. It wasn’t bright. And there was a light, pleasant scent of leather and cherry pipe tobacco. Nice. A calm, quiet humming came from somewhere. All around me, really. Probably some sort of air circulation device. Maybe humidity control too.

I think I’d never seen so many books in one room. From behind me next to the door frame, they covered all four walls, all the way around, except for a narrow regular door in the left wall and the corner to my left front. That corner was filled with a nice fireplace. No fire, but still.

It was faced with a kind of lava rock or something. You know that sort of black rock? It’s really rugged looking, and it puts off kind of a reddish black sheen. And then a white marble mantle set the whole thing off with a nice contrast.

A broad desk was set several feet to the right of the fireplace, facing me. It looked like mahogany too, maybe, but not rough like the doors. Really polished.

And between me and the desk was a sitting area. Three wingback chairs facing me, then a cast-iron and glass cocktail table, and then what looked like the back on one of those old antique settees. It was that rich green brocade fabric over dark oak. I think it was oak. Very nice.

I glanced at the desk. There was no guest chair, so I assumed maybe we’d do the interview in the sitting area.

I looked at the wingbacks again. Two were upholstered in a fine, light-brown leather. The upholstery on the third was even lighter, and a different texture. It seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my mind around it.

“Welcome,” he said, quietly. Boris Karloff? “Sorry for the slight delay.”

I started a bit, then glanced to my left. Not Boris Karloff. Mr. Task had just come through the narrow door. “Hello, Mr. Task.”

Okay, you’re the reader right now. Are you grounded in the setting? Can you see, feel, hear and smell the setting? Are you living in the scene with the character?

You’ll notice too, the character who was describing the setting offered his opinion of it.

Think about it. If five different characters walked into that library, each one would see, hear, smell and otherwise sense things differently. But only the POV character’s opinion matters.

Note: Remember, these are not YOUR (the writer’s) opinions. They are the opinions of the POV character.

In the scene above, the POV character describes the click of the door closing behind him as “ominous.” The air and the lighting as “warmer” and “comforting.” He describes the “pleasant” scents of leather and cherry pipe tobacco. And he talks about a “calm, quiet” humming.

Some characters wouldn’t notice the click of the latch at all. Some would think the lighting felt cold. Some would believe the smell of any kind of tobacco was a stench, and some would comment negatively about the leather. Some might call the humming sound annoying or even wonder whether something was broken.

The POV character leads the reader through the scene. Everything depends on the POV character.

Using the Five Senses

When describing setting, most writers use only the sense of sight.

To make the scene come alive, and to get your POV character down into the setting, use as many of the character’s five senses as possible, and express those through the character’s opinion.

I recommend using the character’s five senses every time a major setting opens, and definitely every time you begin a new chapter.

You will find The Five Senses Exercise, which I learned from Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Appendix B.

(Note: In these posts, next week will be Part II of this chapter, and the following week will be Appendix B.)

Focusing Down from General to Specific

In a major setting, the description should focus down from general to specific. The more specific the setting, the more grounded your reader is in the scene. (Witness the loose stair board in the popular sitcom Modern Family.)

For instance, as the scene in the library example unfolds, perhaps

Mr. Task invites Mr. Silver to sit, but says he should take one of the darker wingbacks. The lighter one is his favorite chair.

Perhaps during the interview, Mr. Silver is occasionally distracted as Mr. Task traces an particular pattern with his index finger on the right armrest of the chair.

Mr. Silver looks more closely and notices an odd, very shallow ripple in the leather there. Finally he can’t put off his curiosity anymore. “I notice your chair is upholstered slightly differently. If you don’t mind my asking, what sort of leather is that?”

Mr. Task smiles wanly, almost as if a regret is forthcoming. “Human, actually.” He traces the pattern again with his index finger. “This was the last place the whip struck her body.”

I’ll write a little more about this later.

Next up, Chapter 6: Writing Setting and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part II.

‘Til then, happy writing!


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

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