By C. S. Lakin
If you’re writing fiction, it’s your job to create rich, descriptive settings in which your characters live and breathe. The challenge—as any seasoned fiction writer can tell you—is how to find the proper balance between over- and under-describing, between extensively showing the setting with sensory details and briefly summarizing.
With fiction, it’s best to take a “Goldilocks” approach—not too much, not too little. But how can we find that place where the amount of description is “just right”?
Renown writing instructor Sol Stein wrote,
“Writing fiction is a delicate balance. On the one hand, so much inexperienced writing suffers from generalities. … When the inexperienced writer gives the reader detail on character, clothing, settings, and actions, he [robs] the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading: exercising the imagination. My advice on achieving a balance is to … err on the side of too little rather than too much. For the reader’s imagination, less is more.” (Stein on Writing)
Learning to find the balance between too little and too much description takes time, practice, and study.
Study is the most important of the three elements because that is how you will learn masterful technique—examining how expert best-selling authors in your specific genre wield description so that readers are transported into the imaginative world created without suffering from boredom, irritation, or confusion.
How to Find the Balance
How can writers understand the advice of “less is more” in a practical sense? Pull out a novel you love (in your genre) and find passages of setting. (Though it helps to look at current best sellers, it’s really not important when it comes to great setting description. I’ve found Zane Grey’s spectacular setting descriptions, written in the early 20th century, highly instructive for me when I write my historical Westerns, aiming to capture the sensory flavors that he did so masterfully.)
Often you’ll find that just 3-4 sensory details will convey a sense of place. But whatever detail is shown must be filtered through the POV character’s senses. To be believable, what she sees, feels, hears, or experiences of her surroundings must be things she would notice in that moment. And the few lines of description need to reflect her mood and mind-set.
This is critical. Any setting description out of POV and not in the right mood is too much (and, often, just plain weak writing). Why is it too much? Because hardly anyone ever looks around them and makes a mental list of every single thing they can see.
All this means you need to be clear on what your character is thinking and feeling at any given moment. And you need to keep the purpose of your scene at the forefront of your thoughts when considering how to describe setting.
I recall during a master class I took at Thrillerfest a few years back when my instructor spoke enviously about how another writer described New York City in one sentence. As the fictional character went out for his morning run, he passed the overstuffed black trash bags spilling off the corners of the streets at dawn on trash pickup days, noticing how the bags wiggled as the rats inside scrounged for food. To him, it was the perfect iconic description of setting in one line. Nothing else needed to be said to set the mood.
Here are some examples of setting up a sense of place with just a few specific, carefully chosen sensory details (in POV):
The attic was pleasantly chilly and smelled of pine. Decades of summer heat have forced droplets of resin out of the rough floorboards, which in cooler weather hardened to little amber marbles that scattered in all directions as we shifted trunks and cardboard boxes. The afternoon is fixed in my memory with the sharp smell of resin and that particular amber rattle, like the sound of ball bearings rolling around in a box. It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time. (Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver)
Across the yard the mound of bike parts glistened with the early morning wetness that I’d always heard was angel tears. Some of the sprockets stared at me, their gaping eyes rimmed with metal eyelashes. It could have been a postmodern sculpture. “In New York you’d fetch big bucks,” I told it.
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, where 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. (Bitteroot, 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.
With the last example, the setting comes through simple action—the character walks to his car, gets in, starts and cuts the engine, gets out. Without knowing anything about this moment in the story, it’s clear what the character’s mood and mind-set are by the choice of verbs and adjectives. Burke also uses a simile to convey that mood—a great technique to use to drive home emotion.
He doesn’t overdo it with lengthy, wordy descriptions of how the character is feeling. The man doesn’t stride angrily, stomping his feet as he goes to his car. He merely looks out at the horizon in a moment of contemplation. We sense he’s trying to decide whether to stay or go. He doesn’t rev the engine, grip the steering wheel with whitened knuckles as he grits his teeth. He doesn’t describe the temperature in the car, what the road looks like, or the smell of the exhaust.
Yes, Burke could have added a few more lines, deepened the mood, slowed things down further, and it would have been effective. But … less is more. And, as you can conclude, less results in strong pacing, keeping the action moving without dawdling and boring readers.
Take a moment and freewrite a setting your character finds herself in. If you can choose one from your current project, all the better.
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.
Want to master crafting powerful settings? Enroll in C. S. Lakin’s new online video course that will give you technique and exercises to evoke settings that will immerse your readers. Enroll before October 24, 2022 and get 30% off with coupon code EARLYBIRD.
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning blog for writers, Live Write Thrive, provides deep writing instruction and posts on industry trends. In addition to sixteen novels, Lakin also publishes writing craft books in the series The Writer’s Toolbox, and you can get a copy of Writing the Heart of Your Story and other free ebooks when you join her Novel Writing Fast Track email group.