From Tim Chapman. Read his bio here.
Some of the tools writers use to tell stories are Character, Dialogue, Voice, Point of View, Tense, Scene, and Plot. Writers hope their stories are so engaging that readers will be unaware of these tools and unaware of how the writer wrestled with them. My Blackbird peers are well versed in using the seven tools, but I have a question for them and for the readers of our stories—When it comes to setting a scene, how much description is enough?
Scene tells us Who, What, Where and When. It’s the same sort of information one gets from a photograph. The Why comes out through action and dialog. These Who/What/Where/When snapshots use descriptive language to set the scene. Descriptions can be complex and detailed or sparse. Like dialog, they help establish the mood of the story.
Descriptions use our five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. This opening from D.H. Lawrence’s story “The Odor of Chrysanthemums” appeals to four of the five. It helps us visualize the world in which the story takes place, and Lawrence’s word choices (stumbling, thumped heavily, inevitable, insignificantly trapped) evoke his desired atmosphere.“The small locomotive engine. Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full wagons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled out-distanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that ha already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass.”
Move It Along, Johnny
I was weaned on Hemingway, Chandler, and Hammett. They wrote spare prose that leaves much of the work to the reader’s imagination. Their plots zip along. Their stories are stripped down but are still loaded with atmosphere. Chandler was the king of metaphor and simile. In describing the expression of a woman who had been caught in a lie, he wrote, “—her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.” Obviously, a dated reference, but a good example of his shorthand style of description. Nineteenth-century authors (Austin, Bronte, James) often wrote elaborate descriptions. By today’s standards, their work might be considered overwritten, their descriptions slowing the story’s pace. In some cases, however, that slow pacing is integral to the scene’s atmosphere.
If I send my characters to the beach, how much information do my readers need? Suppose I write—Sean spent the day at the beach. The weather was perfect, and he had wonderful time.
What does the beach look like? Is it sandy or rocky? Are there dunes? Cliffs? Are there crashing waves? Squawking sea birds? Does it smell like dead fish? Coconut sunscreen? Is there a cool breeze? In this example, readers’ prior beach-going experiences will determine how they visualize this beach. And what if they’ve never been to a beach? Do I want to leave those important scene-setting decisions to them? And what’s “perfect weather?” And one person’s “wonderful time” might be another person’s purgatory.
So how much description is enough?
If you’re a writer, the answer to that may depend on asking yourself more questions. What details are important for my reader to know? Which details will advance the plot and/or help to establish my characters? What mood do I want to set? What pace is appropriate—more description for languid love scenes and less description for fast-paced action scenes?
If you’re a reader, is this the part of the book where you skip ahead?
Tim Chapman is a former forensic scientist for the Chicago police department who currently teaches writing and tai chi chuan. He holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. His short fiction has been published in Palooka, The Southeast Review, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and the anthology, The Rich and the Dead. He’s also the author of two novels, Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, (re-released as A Trace of Gold) and The Blue Silence.