If you’re a fiction writer, it’s your responsibility to develop vivid, evocative surroundings for your characters to inhabit.
Any seasoned fiction writer will tell you that the trick is to strike the right balance between over- and under-depicting, between vividly describing the environment with sensory details and succinctly summarizing.
It’s preferable to use a “Goldilocks” strategy while writing fiction—not too much, not too little.
However, how do we locate the location where the level of description is “just right”?
Sol Stein, a well-known writing instructor, wrote:
“Fictitious writing requires a precise balance.
On the one hand, generalizations plague a lot of novice writing.
One of the greatest pleasures of reading—using one’s imagination—is taken away when a novice writer provides the reader with specifics about characters, attire, surroundings, and actions.
To strike a balance, I would advise erring on the side of too little rather than too much.
Less is more in the reader’s imagination.
It takes time, effort, and research to learn how to strike the right balance between too little and too much detail.
Studying how skilled best-selling authors in your particular genre utilize description to take readers into the creative world created without experiencing boredom, aggravation, or misunderstanding is how you will discover the great techniques, making the study the most crucial of the three elements.
How to Find the Balance
How can authors practically understand the adage “less is more”?
Find the setting of a book you enjoy (that fits your genre).
(Although it’s helpful, it’s actually not crucial when it comes to writing a superb location description to look at the current top sellers.
When I write my historical Westerns, I try to replicate the sensory qualities that Zane Grey so expertly captured in his magnificent setting descriptions from the early 20th century.)
Frequently, just 3–4 sensory cues are sufficient to evoke a sense of location.
However, every detail must pass through the senses of the POV character.
What she perceives of her surroundings—what she sees, feels, hears, or experiences—must be something she would notice at that precise moment for it to be credible.
Additionally, the few words of description must capture her attitude and mindset.
This is important.
It’s excessive when the setting is described without using the proper POV or tone (and, often, just plain weak writing).
Why is it excessive?
because rarely everyone takes the time to scan their surroundings and make a mental inventory of everything they can see.
All of this means that you must be certain of the thoughts and emotions that your character is experiencing at all times.
And when thinking about how to depict the setting, keep the goal of your scene front and center in your mind.
A few years ago, I attended a master class at Thrillerfest, and I still remember my instructor talking enviously about how another author managed to sum up New York City in just one sentence.
On garbage pickup days, the fictitious character noticed the overstuffed black trash bags spilling out the corners of the streets before dawn and observed how the sacks wiggled as the rats inside rummaged for food.
It was the ideal, evocative depiction of the scene in his opinion.
Here are some examples of setting up a sense of place with just a few specific, carefully chosen sensory details (in POV):
The attic had a wonderful pine odor and temperature.
In the cooler months, the resin droplets that had been pushed from the rough floors by years of summer heat solidified into tiny amber marbles that dispersed everywhere as we moved trunks and cardboard boxes.
The pungent resin scent and the distinct amber rattle, which sounds like ball bearings moving around in a box, are imprinted on my memories of that afternoon.
It’s amazing how much recollection is made up of details that were forgotten at the time.
(From Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams)
I had always heard that angel tears were the early morning moisture that shone off the mound of bike parts across the yard.
The wide eyes of a few of the sprockets were rimmed with metal eyelashes as they glared at me.
It might have been a piece of postmodern art.
I said, “In New York you’d fetch large dollars.”
Walking would warm me. I crossed the rickety bridge that spanned the creek and started off toward the road to town. I pumped my arms, striding briskly along the rutted lane, were evergreens, withered and skeletal, blended into the gray-green of the sage. Tiny had said the trees were infested with a kind of beetle, killing them an inch at a time. This saddened me and I walked faster. (The Fence My Father Built, Linda S. Clare)
I walked back out to my car. The scrub oak on the rim of the hills looked like stenciled black scars against the molten sun. I started the car engine, then turned it off and got back out and slammed the door. (Bitterroot, James Lee Burke)
I hope you noticed how personal these descriptions are, the setting telling something about the POV character and not just blandly presenting a laundry list of adjectives and nouns.
The context is established in the final example through straightforward action—the protagonist walks to his car, gets inside, starts and shuts off the engine, then exits.
The choice of verbs and adjectives makes it obvious what the character’s mood and mindset are even without knowing anything about this particular point in the story.
Burke also employs a simile to express that atmosphere, which is a powerful way to emphasize emotion.
He doesn’t go overboard with verbose, in-depth descriptions of the character’s emotions.
The man doesn’t kick his feet and walks irately to his car.
He simply takes a moment to reflect while gazing out towards the horizon.
He seemed to be debating whether to stay or leave.
He doesn’t rev the engine and grinds his teeth while holding the steering wheel with whitened knuckles.
He doesn’t mention the inside temperature, the appearance of the road, or the exhaust odor.
Yes, Burke could have written a few more lines, intensified the atmosphere, and slowed the action down some more, and it would have worked.
Less is more, though.
You can see from this that less produces good pacing, keeping the action moving without boring readers.
First, consider the purpose of the scene. Why your character is in this particular place and what she is doing there. What mood is she in and why? Write about the setting from her POV and in her mood. Make sure every noun, verb, and adjective reflects her mood. Fill a whole page with all kinds of sensory details.
Now, select just three or four phrases, sentences, or similes that really nail the setting in her POV. If you do this every time you sit down to write a new scene or put your character in a new place, you’ll get the hang of “less is more.” And your writing will greatly improve.
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