One of my favorite writing resources, Mythic Scribes, recently shared some great tips on using your locations to bring your story to life. Here is my summary. As always, you are encouraged to check out the original post for more.
The whole point they are making is that by giving your readers a chance to insert themselves into a location or scene, they’ll make it their own, bringing it to life in their heads. It’s no longer just a description, but a place that exists in their mind, and which they helped create themselves.
As to how you can accomplish that, here are the tips:
1. Level of Detail
Don’t get bogged down in details. Quite often in writing, less is more. This is definitely the case with locations. Readers aren’t stupid. Unless something is completely outlandish, most people will be able to fill in any blanks in the descriptions they read. If the color of the floor isn’t important to the story, there’s no need to mention it. There’s no need to even mention that there is a floor. It’s enough to say there’s a room, and readers will assume there is a floor.
Add too much detail and the described location changes from a scene to a list of attributes.
2. What to Show
Mention a few Big Things and a few Minor Details:
- Big Things will allow a reader to get their bearings and create a framework for their imagination to work with.
- Minor Details will affect their attitude to what’s being described, and it will impact how they fill in the blanks in the description.
Let’s look at an example:
A long narrow room. White stone walls tinted orange and yellow by candlelight. A wooden bench along the left wall, and a rickety old table with a few chairs up front, right next to the doorway. Candles burned in little alcoves in the walls and on the table. Large faded rugs covered the floor.
In this paragraph, there are two Big Things: The shape of the room, and the color. That’s enough to start forming an image of what the room looks like.
The rest of the paragraph is Minor Details. The reader won’t know it at this stage, but it’s more important that the bench is wooden, and that the table is old and rickety, than where they are located. It sets the tone for the place.
3. Interacting With the Environment
If all goes as planned, the reader will now have a pretty good impression of the room in which this scene takes place. It’s still a static image though.
The rest of the scene is just conversation, and the location doesn’t really matter as far as the plot is concerned. However, it matters for the reader’s enjoyment of the story. By including the environment in the conversation, the location comes alive and becomes a bar you could imagine visiting. It adds a bit of life:
She produced a bottle from underneath the counter, uncorked it, and sat it down in front of Roy on the bar.
A happy smile tugged at his face as he looked at it. Wet with condensation. Thin vapors of frost curling their way out the top. Cold as a wolf’s howl, as they used to say back home.
These two paragraphs are pretty short, but what matters is what’s left out.
The beer comes from underneath the counter, and its cold. There’s no mention of a fridge or anything like that, but it can be safely assumed there is one. It’s a minor thing, but it still engages their mind, and that’s what matters.
With every little thing the reader has to fill out, they add something of themselves, however tiny. By doing this, they take ownership of their impression, and it becomes more their own. Don’t spoonfeed them every little detail. Again, less is more.
4. Environment as Actor
Usually, the only actors in a scene are the characters talking or interacting with each other.
Sometimes, but not always, it’s possible to have the environment act as well, even if it’s not a sentient being as such. For example, a radio:
Silence fell over the room. Even the song on the radio quieted for a moment, giving way to a lone clarinet in a minor key.
When the conversation goes a little bit sad, it’s underlined by the music on the radio going sad too.
It’s a signal that there’s more going on in the scene than what the characters are talking about – even if it’s not important to the plot. It also gives the location a bit of life. If your world doesn’t have radios, use something else – the wind in the trees, or the bard over in the corner. Anything goes.
5. Embrace the Mundane
By basing a description on something familiar (“a long narrow room…”), the reader will very quickly know what’s up. Their impressions will form and adjust with every word they read. Even within the wonderful realm of fantasy fiction, there is room for the ordinary. It’s how to anchor the reader in the world. It’s the backdrop that makes the fantastic elements really shine:
The barman was wiping clean a glass. Next to him, a lone jellybob hung in the air at just about head height, motionless above a bowl of water on the ground. Its thin tendrils sparkled like a trail of stars in the soft pulsating glow of its heart.
Very few readers will know what a jellybob is, and might pause at the word, even if just for an instant. The rest of the paragraph adds a bit of description, and a reader will be able to form some kind of image. It’s still pretty quick, but not quite as fast as imagining something old and familiar.
Create a solid firmament from the mundane, and then add on the fantastic once you’ve got the reader to accept your world.
6. Adding More Detail
Be very careful when adding on to the description of the room – especially when adding in big things that could have been mentioned from the start.
Consider the initial description of the barroom from the example above. Did you imagine the room with a pinball machine along the right wall? Did the room have a fan spinning in the ceiling? Were there windows?
I’m going to hazard a guess and say you did not imagine the pinball machine. The fan in the ceiling is not entirely implausible, and the same goes for the windows. There might be a fan, and there might be windows.
I have no way of knowing what you imagined in that regard.
This is why it’s important to be careful when adding new information to a description. There’s a chance it might contradict the image in the reader’s mind. When that happens, it breaks immersion, and the reader is reminded it’s just a book after all.
A test you can perform in order to check if it’s safe to add something to a scene is to return to the initial description:
A long narrow room. White stone walls tinted orange and yellow by candlelight.
Pretend you’re an invisible observer and that you’re standing in the same location as the narrator. If you are able to “see” the pinball machine from where you’re standing, say so at the beginning. Don’t add it in later.
Your readers will be standing in the same spot, and they will create an image based on what the narrator tells them. A few might imagine the bar has a pinball machine. Most, won’t. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Don’t add something new that would contradict the reader.
As with so many other things, these aren’t rules you have to follow. Rather, they’re things to consider, and which may or may not work depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
As such, I’d like to ask: what’s your best advice for giving the locations of your story a sense of place, or for blowing life into your scenes outside of the characters taking part? Do you consider it important, or would you rather just get on with the story?
You can read the full post on Mythic Scribes.
An interesting post, Nicholas. 🙂 — Suzanne
Thank you, Suzanne 😀
Some really good tips here. I especially liked the analysis that goes into adding or not adding more details. Also emphasizing the reader’s own filling in the blanks. The one thing I might add is in relation to locale more than indoor locations. That, I think, is one of those cases where writing from life or what you know can come in very handy. With all the same guidelines of course. Skip unnecessary details but add some flavor of place if it helps bring the reader in. But research on places you don’t know works too, done with care.
I love that phrasing, “add some flavor of place!”
Nick, thank you so much for these insightful tips. Sad to say, I’ve been writing for many years, have only had two books published, and at the age of 67 am finally learning the correct process. This will help me hone my skills. Thanks again. Sincerely, Aleta Kay (Dye)
At 67, you’re the perfect age for honing your skills 🙂