When you’ve been writing fiction for many years, one would think it all becomes second nature after a time. And some of it does. But there are still things that require effort and retraining over and over again with the start of each new story. Some writers claim they avoid adding detailed character descriptions at the onset, opting for place holders until the ride really gets going, then go back to fill in the more colorful, defining details later. I’m not one of those people, I need to have my characters fully fleshed out before I can maneuver them. For me, it’s the dreaded SETTING that has me banging my head against the wall. No matter how many stories I write, each time I start a new one I have to refresh myself on all I’ve learned about setting over the years, remember what works and what doesn’t, and put in a concentrated effort. And it’s setting that I end up putting place holders on, opting to go back later and add paint and color.
When I first started writing I only knew that setting had to be a balancing act. Looking at is as a reader, I knew I hated long, drawn out, five page descriptions of a place before the action started in the scene. Because of this I tended to keep my own setting details minimal. But I initially lost something by doing this. My scene setting was not as vivid as it could have been, not as alive and tactile as other books I’d read. So I looked at the books and authors that to me struck that balance between long-winded descriptions and too little detail. They all had one thing in common. These authors chose the right details to maximize the effort. They’d clearly chosen carefully what they would include in each setting they presented, a few, well-placed images that would allow the reader to fill in the blanks. Less is more, but only if the images you choose have a powerful impact.
Looking at the work of an author I admire, I took note of how he crafted his settings. He’s got a character moving down a street in a run down part of town, and wanted to get across the devolved state of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. In reading what was no more than a paragraph of description, he got this across in a way that I, the reader, could visualize completely, could feel, smell, taste. And he only used maybe four images. The grayish color everything seemed to be, a small, dirty child sitting on the side of the road playing with a hammer, a dog with a diaper in its mouth as it ran down an alleyway, a mattress leaned against a graffiti covered dumpster.
Those few details gave me an image of this neighborhood without an extensive geography lesson or providing every last pebble on the road or how many houses occupied the street and their architectural histories. I believe this is the way to set a scene, not with a complete description of everything that could possibly be seen there, but with the splash of a foot on a puddle or the scent of a nearby sausage vendor. The little things can go a long way to giving your reader enough imagery so they can fill in the blanks without feeling cheated, or like they’re getting a boring description dump.
This is not something that comes easily to me, and I have to put a lot of thought into it each time I set a scene. But this is part of developing our craft, to learn from others, so look into ourselves and ask what appeals to us as a reader, and then apply those things while discarding practices that don’t. We’ve always got to put our reader-self first while writing, and ask ‘If this wasn’t my book, would I feel this scene? Would I be bored? Would I need more description? Less?’
Getting the setting right can be work, but it’s worth the extra time and effort. So this is what I’ve learned, and have to re-teach myself over and over. Less is more, when it comes to descriptions of the place and scenery. But make those few carefully chosen details count.