I’ll start by sharing the notion that you can have too much setting.
Stephen King is a writer that likes the idea of giving the reader the bare minimum in terms of description. He feels that too much and you force the reader to see your characters and settings in your way.
He wants the reader to ‘own’ the description – thus making the story specific to them.
The key here is, ‘the bare minimum.’ Stephen King is a master at knowing what is too much and what is too little. Sadly we are not all as blessed as Mr. King, so…
Until you become an expert, you will have to follow the trusted steps of trial and error. The rule mentioned last week of one line per new place is a good starting point.
The more important a place is, the more you describe – but remember, you don’t have to reveal it all at once. Revisits or subsequent posts can be used to flesh out more and more. But it’s fair to say that more than a few lines to describe the setting and you’d better have a good reason for it.
Which leads on to…using the right words
If you have a habit of overstating the scenery, work on the words you use. Use language that doesn’t just describe in a flat way. Use alliteration and very specific descriptors to sharpen your descriptions. A word like ‘gloomy’ suggests both the state of the weather and of the mood. The better your vocabulary, the better your settings will work.
And don’t forget you have five senses. A well known agent has said they don’t even consider a writer if they don’t evoke at least three on the opening page of a novel submission. OK, this is writing for a hobby, but good practice is – well good practice. The five senses are not anything mystical. They are on the other hand, extremely powerful when it comes to creating a setting.
Little else sparks the imagination like an appropriately used sense
There is, as ever, a balancing act. If the sense used is too obscure, you won’t engage the readers – and they’ll spend so much time trying to work out what you meant that they’d miss the next few words. On the other hand, making it too hackneyed doesn’t really add any value. Try to avoid the tried and tested if you can. Be original without being alien.
As a writer, we typically spend 99% of the time talking about what characters can see and only use the other 1% when the input is exceptional – a loud noise or a pungent smell.
In real life the mix of sensory perception is never this heavily weighted in favour of sight. Why should your post be any different?
Which leads to emotions. Emotions aren’t senses of course, but they are a powerful link to getting a reader to understand the setting very quickly. If you can combine senses and emotion you will really hook the reader quickly – and that’s why I have linked them here.
Describing an inanimate object by using an emotion on the face of it seems odd, but it can convey in a couple of words what could take a five minutes to explain.
Which I suspect needs an explanation. If your character comes to a ‘lonely house’ or enters a ‘confused room’ then you have started to evoke multiple images in the other writers’ minds – and only a small amount more description will enable the readers to fully understand what you mean.
OK, a crash course on using words that resemble things. The definitions are for academics, but the different ways of using the writing tool is useful. Because the subtlest way to describe is to say how the setting resembles something the readers know well (or the other way around). Each serves its own purpose but writers regularly confuse their uses.
a. Metaphors
This is an implication. There is no statement that there is a link; we simply use the resemblance.
‘Corvus walked catlike across the roof of the villa.’
Nobody expects the character to have fur and a tail. If ‘she’ was a cat, we would say she simply walked – cats, by definition, walk catlike.
This one word suggests she walks assuredly, softly, secretively and no doubt evokes the image of a cat burglar. The readers will probably already suspect that she is up to no good.
b. Similes
Here we add the prefix ‘like’ or ‘as’ and therefore by definition create more of a signpost to the link.
‘Corvus walked across the villa’s roof like a cat.’
The same result but a different and less subtle route.
c. Analogies
This is the least subtle option as we tell the player that something was like something else and include a comparison.
‘Corvus’ journey across the roof of the villa was like a cat stalking its next meal as she made every effort to make no sound and reacted instinctively to every small movement around her.’
d. Allusions
Here you make reference to someone or something famous.
‘Corvus the burglar. The wonderful, wonderful burglar.’
I chose this on purpose – and if you didn’t understand it, I’ve proved my point.
If you’ve never seen or heard of Felix the Cat, the allusion is wasted. Worse still, the readers would wonder what on earth the words mean. If they do get it, they feel pleased with themselves.
(If you still don’t get it, ask someone older than you to sing the ‘Felix the Cat’ song (or YouTube it). Then you’ll get it).
Allusions are dangerous ground – especially in a sci-fi setting. Pop culture references are part of our every-day language but wouldn’t exist in the Star Wars universe.
e. Personification
This is a variation, where an inanimate object (or sometimes flora or fauna) is given a human trait.
‘The fog hugged Corvus’ body as she sat on the villa’s roof.’
And on that note, next time I’ll talk about the use of nature in setting.