Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Scene Setting: How Much is Enough?

Yesterday was unproductive, at least in a writerly way. I did get the lawn mowed, and I'm most of the way through Gena Showalters' latest Lords of the Underworld book. But I didn't get any editing done.

I think part of the reason is that I was afraid I would have to go back and start over on my revisions. Something I read somewhere led me to believe I might not have enough description of the locales. *shrug* Maybe I'll write a post tomorrow about when to listen to advice and when not to, but not now.

Today I'd like to talk about the issue of scene setting. Or if you will, describing the scene behind the action.

As far as I can tell, opinions about this subject differ. Some say describing the setting in detail adds depth and richness to the story. Others say it gets in the way of the plot. Personally, I think it depends on the scene and the story, but that's me. Then there is the old maxim that if the words don't add to the story in some meaningful way, they need to go in the trashcan. How meaningful is a description of the sunrise or the details of a home's decor to a plot?

Example time: In Spectacle, I have a major secondary character racing across the country to save his friends. Everything to this point for him is tension. When he reaches New Mexico, the backdrop of the sunrise in the Sangre de Cristos with the native birds singing and the trees standing as quiet sentinels relaxes the story... until he comes around a bend in the road and sees a line of smoke rising from the spot where his friends should be. (And I'm not talking campfire here, folks.)

In this case, the description didn't drive a damn thing, but it added to the impact of the next piece of the story.

So here I am with Manhunter. The locations themselves are dramatic and beautiful in their own stark way (if you've never driven I-70 from the Colorado border to I-15 in Utah, you're missing something spectacular), but other than the necessity of a certain geographical feature to the plot, the detail isn't necessary. I have already written a certain amount of description - the terrain, a bit of the flora - as I deemed it necessary, but I don't think anyone reading it is actually going to feel like they're there. I don't think they need to at this point. Later, when they're in Northern California, I go into greater depth. I need the reader to be standing in the forest; I want them to feel what the MC is feeling underneath the trees.

I guess I just answered my own question. How much is enough? Enough is whatever amount the story calls for - no more, no less.

Maybe I will go back in my next edit and add a little detail here and there - like seasoning soup. But like seasoning, a little can go a long long way. Peppering a story with description it doesn't need can make the whole thing unpalatable.

Question of the day for you: Do you know of any authors who balance the description thing perfectly? Writers who describe too much or too little? Come on, dish. Personally, when talking too much description, the first guy who comes to mind is James Fenimore Cooper. (But he does it so beautifully, I forgive him every time.)



JenWriter said...

This is something I struggle with. I don't know how much scene detail to add. I want to bring the reader into the story, but I don't want to ramble on and have their eyes blur during certain paragraphs.

Of writers I've read lately, I think Libba Bray and Rachel Vincent do an excellent job of bringing the details to life without droning on forever. For a more thriller/mystery type genre, I like the way Sue Grafton weaves in her details. J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) too. That woman is excellent with her "In Death" series.

Sean Ashby said...

I've had to seriously cut back on my descriptions over the years.

Something I've noticed about my own stuff (so far, anyway) is that I tend to take my time with descriptions at the beginning, but do less and less of it as the book progresses. I'm not sure if I do this because A) I eventually get lazy, and just want to write the fun bits, or B) I've sufficiently established my world (especially if it's a made up one) and the reader doesn't need me to spend as much time on it the further in I go.

...Unless, of course, I need to establish some serious mood, particularly in the final climax.