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 author, blogger, copyeditor, and writing coach. She has taught thousands of writers how to improve their craft through her blog, Live Write Thrive, and her online school. She is the author of the Writer’s Toolbox series of books on novel writing and does more than two hundred manuscript critiques a year.
You can find all her online courses for fiction writers at Writing for Life Workshops on teachable.
Interested in posting at Writers Helping Writers? Review our content guidelines to see what we’re looking for and how to pitch us your ideas.
Annabelle Franklin says
Great article. I write kids’ books and kids don’t want to wade through paragraphs of dense description. Neither do I, if it comes to that!
Raymond Walker says
I enjoyed the article and whilst it made some sense to me, I could not silence the voices in my head. Hermann Hesse, JP Sartre, FMA De Voltaire and Marcel Proust were all yelling “NO”. Loudly with a cacophony of voices (often Greek and Roman) chiming in. Cicero, Pliny, Socrates, Plato, Sophocles and so many more, murmuring in the background.
But these are old voices from a time before now. What do the successful authors of today think?
Mr. Stephen King thinks that setting is as Important as characterization. Clive Barker and John Connolly suggest it is paramount and Dan Simmons has authored books where the weather is the essence of the book.
I did enjoy the article and perhaps you suggest that readers today are “thick as a brick” but I really do not think that they are. I suspect that many of those who read your books could survive a short descriptive passage without throwing the book onto an open fire. I am, perhaps, being harsh here. I expect that you will all think so. Rather, I am trying to suggest that Mindy, Viv, Elias, Jan and Gifford are all smart enough to understand a setting for a book. I know that you are too so why suggest such trivialities.
This Idea is not completely silly for we must all trim and hone our tales. Hey, but you all are better than this look into “novels with no gravitas”.
I enjoy C.S. Lakins comments and am often a fan. I am sorry that I disagree. But I think on this occasion she is wrong, you seek sales rather than a good book.
I am a reader and readers enjoy a good book, something all writers hope to create. Cicero wrote good books, Dan Simmons wites, goog books. None follow these rules.
C. S. Lakin says
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m not sure what you are disagreeing with, though. Maybe you could explain that and I’ll be happy to respond. It’s not about “seeking sales” but engaging today’s readers with vivid, personal sensory description.
Rajesh Chandra Pandey says
That was a gem of a post on how to do wonders with setting. When I started reading ICON by Frederick Forsyth, I came back to the start after the 5th line and read these 5 lines 4-5 times. It started something like, ‘ IT WAS THE SUMMER WHEN THE PRICE OF A SMALL LOAF OF bread topped a million rubles….’ That’s the beauty of writing a good setting.
Thanks a lot
Gifford MacShane says
Thanks so much for this article. I’m also a big fan of Zane Grey for his characterization as well as his descriptions. I have my father’s collection of his novels and re-read them to this day. He was a big part of the inspiration for my Western-set stories as well.
C. S. Lakin says
Nice to hear that!
Jan Sikes says
This is such great advice, Suzanne! The examples drive the point home. Thank you for sharing!
Excellent points. Early-on I wrote my descriptives a lot like Robert B. Parker—who was obsessed with minutiea. Instead of giving a fast/loose outline of a house or room, I’d end up writing something better suited to a real estate listing than a setting for a scene. I love the tips for balance.
V.M. Sang says
Thank you for this. It’s so difficult to get it absolutely right. The examples are great. (I wish I could write like that.)
C. S. Lakin says
You can write like that! It just takes practice!
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for this wonderful post. I especially love the writing exercise and can’t wait to try it on my WIP. 🙂
C. S. Lakin says
Thank you! Hope this is helpful to everyone!