It’s sometimes said that reading a novel is superior to watching a movie because the pictures are better. However, one of the most common complaints levelled at novice writers is that they’re spending too much time “world building” and this gets in the way of the story. So how do we reconcile these two, seemingly contradictory, demands?
As a writer you can clearly see the scene in your head and you want your reader to picture it in the same way that you do. When your story is set in a well known location that’s not too much of a problem. If you set a scene at, say, the Statue of Liberty, you can be pretty confident that your readers, even if they’ve never been there, have a pretty good idea of what it looks like.
But if your setting is more obscure, or completely fictional, you’re going to need to describe it. This is where things get tricky. Although you want the reader to see the scene you have in your head, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever picture it in quite the same way.
As humans we picture things based on our own experiences. We all know what a garden is for example, but my mental image of one is almost certainly different from yours. Our brains are also predisposed to try to fill in gaps, to “join the dots” in order to make sense of things.
Armed with that little bit of psychology we can use the reader’s own experience to help build a scene. If we need our characters to have a conversation in a garden we only need to sketch in the essentials. By having our protagonists cross a lawn dotted with fallen blossoms, to sit on a bench beneath a cherry tree, we’ve set the location and the season. We can rely on the mind of the reader to sketch in the rest.
You also don’t need to describe everything up front, another common novice error. Once we have our characters in the garden we can punctuate the conversation with other bits of scene setting. Birdsong perhaps, a scampering squirrel, a bloom at the other side of the lawn that catches the eye. Not only does this expand the picture it also helps to pace the writing.
You can describe through action too. Having a character running a finger through the dust on a tabletop is much more effective than simply saying that the room was dusty. This has the added benefit of using an extra sense, touch, the dust might be gritty or soft, the table smooth or pitted. Remember you’re not only describing how things look; taste, smell, sound and touch can all add extra depth to your picture.
Another novice error is stating the obvious. He crossed the room to the fireplace and threw an extra log on the fire. Do we really need to be told about the fireplace? He crossed the room and threw an extra log on the fire will do the job just as well. Unless there’s something quite unusual happening here—like an arsonist at work—the readers will assume there’s a fireplace involved based on their own world knowledge.
Finally, remember why you’re describing in the first place. Yes, you want to paint a picture for the reader, but your description also needs to contribute to plot and character. A room can tell you about the person who lives or works in it, their tastes and their habits. Objects in a location might be important to events later in the book—remember the hiding in plain sight technique that I talked about a few weeks ago in relation to minor characters (here)?
Description is an important part of writing fiction, but it’s a supporting tool, it’s seldom an end in itself. Describe the things that are important but leave your readers free to fill in the spaces between based on their own knowledge, that way they’ll see a clearer picture.
Ian Barker is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read his complete bio here.