Drowning in Detail

The problem with introducing a new setting is that it can be easy to try and describe everything in one go. This can be useful in a first draft where you’re working it all out yourself but for a reader it can slow the story too much or tell them things they don’t need to know, or simply seem to passive and static. This isn’t to say it can’t be done and can’t be done well but when we’re editing we need to consider when and where description needs to be. For example, do we want a break in dialogue for a description of setting? In a quick back and forth this may be detrimental, but if there was an awkward pause it may be advantageous.

Description of setting doesn’t have to be passive, it can also have an active purpose too. As mentioned in the midst of a quick conversation a break for description would break up the dialogue, which you might not what at that point, but when you want there to be a pause in the dialogue description can be used to create it. This avoids often using phrases such as ‘there was an awkward pause’ or ‘they were silent’ and so forth.

Description can also be different lengths creating different length pauses. There may be a brief moment where one character pauses to consider something and rubs their thumb over the rough table top. Alternatively, there may be a long pause, perhaps the character looks around and describes what they see until someone interrupts them with a comment. This is something that also happens in real life when people talk, sometimes they fall silent and they don’t always sit staring at the table top. They look around and consider that they aren’t fond of that green wallpaper, they may notice a proudly displayed collection of Royal Dalton pottery, or wonder where the chairs were brought.

What a character describes might also tell the reader about that character: Do they tend to focus on the knick-knacks in a scene? Are they judgemental of furniture? Are they creeped out by garden gnomes? Emphasis was put on this technique in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Cards On the Table where characters were asked to describe the same room and Poirot used it to analyse them. The thief noticed the small expensive things, the character with an interest in furniture noticed the furniture, another was cursive in her description of the room but remembered the game of bridge precisely. Using such a technique in prose can really make the scenery work for you.

This doesn’t mean you can only describe one collection of things in the room and stick to it throughout the book because real people are rarely consistent. It can be about balance, perhaps your character does notice the furniture but they have a tendency to lean towards the knick-knacks. Or, if they’re the reverse, they may offer a cursive opinion of the knick-knacks, perhaps they think there’s too many or they’re ugly or expensive. Your description doesn’t have to be a straightforward, ‘there was this, this and this in the room’. You might have a character observe the wall colour and think they’ve always liked that colour, or the floor is wood where they would prefer carpet, or the room is too big and they’d prefer smaller rooms. This can suggest not only the personality of the observing character but suggest the potential for conflict with other characters. If they’re tastes are radically different will they get along? Or will they get along because they’re so different?

The setting can be distinctive and interesting without a complete thorough description of everything or long paragraphs of description. Sometimes the best method in scenes can be a little spread around.

Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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