They say that God is in the details. So, too, is much of the work of a writer. Too little narrative leaves your character wandering through the equivalent of an empty stage. Too much, and you risk the tombstone effect – blocks of text that tempt the reader to keep skipping until they come to some action.
To set the stage properly, choose the most vivid details possible. Reveal the setting through motion. Let your description unfold as the character moves through the scene. Ask yourself which details your character should notice immediately and which might register more slowly. Let’s pretend your heroine, a secretary, has just entered the mansion of a millionaire. How would she react? She’d observe how soft the rich Persian carpets were underfoot; maybe recognise some of the famous artwork on the walls. Don’t tell the reader the sofa is soft until she sinks into it. Let her smell the fragrance of hothouse flowers filling a crystal vase on the table.
Use active verbs to set the scene, but use them wisely. Instead of explaining that light glittered from the crystal chandelier,, let your character blink, dazzled by the prismatic display. Break the descriptions into small nuggets and scatter them throughout the scene so the reader is not overwhelmed or bored. Remember that different characters will react in different ways … the haughty millionaire owner who takes luxury for granted; and the secretary who is overwhelmed by the magnificence.
You can also reveal setting through your character’s mood. This can profoundly influence what the reader “sees”. Different characters could perceive the same setting in opposite ways. For example, a motorist has strolled into a stretch of moorland. Across a stretch of gorse , she sees ruins of some ancient watchtower and sees it as just a jumble of stones. She hikes up the slope breathing the scent of grass and clover, and watches clouds drift overhead like fuzzy sheep herded by a gentle wind. What if your motorist is in a different mood? What if her car has broken down and she can’t find help. Though the sun is high, scudding clouds cast a pall over the landscape. The eerie cry of some bird reminds her how far she is from civilization. She wants to get out of this situation, while your reader is on the edge of his seat, expecting something worse than a ruined building on the character’s horizon.
Different sensory details evoke different reactions. We make decisions and take action based on what we see. Sounds can make us shudder or shiver – or relax and smile. Scenes that include sounds are effective in evoking an emotional response.
The goal of description is to design a setting that provides the perfect background for your characters; a setting that stays in the background without overwhelming the scene or interrupting the story. This is the way to have readers keep turning the pages, and not merely waiting for something to happen.
My latest novella “Searching for Sarah” is now available (my 13th book . For copies of this, or any of my other books, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org If you have any writing queries, I’ll be happy to help you.