It is essential that as your reader progress through the world you create, they are able to consistently create a mental image of the scenes you are describing. The reader will be constantly painting a mental picture of the scenes you describe; it is, therefore, essential you provide enough detail for them to paint a clear picture.
This is important. At all times your reader will be creating an image in their mind. They will create this image independent of your input. They will be desperately scrabbling for clues about the world your characters occupy and putting them together to create an image. It is up to you to control this image with your description.
You will need to constantly ‘top up’ the description of your locations and characters, so the reader is able to constantly recreate an accurate picture. This concept produces a simple rule – if the location changes, you need new description.
The problem that arises is often not to do with the timing of the description, but the amount of description that is needed, which will vary from a simple ‘the bare room’ to paragraphs of detailed prose.
OK… this is not as complex as it sounds. To help you understand, here are the two situations in which you will need to add description:
- If a character enters a new location.
- The location physically changes (it may start raining or a train may pull up to a station platform).
In short, change needs description.
Let’s look at some common examples:
If a character is in a new location then you need to add a description of that location. If a character moves from A to B, you must describe B. If you fail to describe a new location the reader loses the mental picture and quickly becomes confused. For example, if your main character was sitting in a dining room, but then gets up and moves to the kitchen, you would need to add description of the kitchen.
The question is how much description? The answer depends on the importance of the location. This is the key concept to description. The importance of the location dictates the amount of description.
- If the location is important then you need to include a significant amount of description.
- If the location is trivial, then the description will be minimal.
This means that you can be varying between paragraphs of description and simple phrases, such as ‘the woods’. It all depends on context. What you choose to class as ‘important’ and ‘trivial’ is up to you.
Let me pause a moment. I can give you a better framework that ‘it is up to you’. Here’s a few “rules of thumb”:
- If more than one scene occurs in a location, then that location is important.
- If only one scene occurs in a location but that scene is either essential to the plot, or the location itself is an important element (e.g. edge of a cliff for a fight scene), then the location is important.
- If one scene occurs in a location and the location is not relevant to the scene (it could be any old street) then the location is trivial.
- If the scene is a “travelling scene”, that is getting a character from one location to another (think inside of a plane), then the location is trivial.
Let’s first look at the level of description for an important location.
For example, if you are writing a story about a man stuck in a prison cell, then the cell is an important location (there will be more than one scene in this location, plus the cell is an important part of the scene) and will need a chunk of description, probably a couple of paragraphs. There will be a number of scenes set in this location and it is, therefore, an important backdrop for your story.
How you present this description will also depend on the context of the location. If the location is important, but will only contain a scene or two, then you will get away with dumping the description into one or two paragraphs. However, if the location is important, AND will be location for multiple scenes then you are going to want to have a far more detailed description. However, you will not want to dump a massive section of description and, therefore, you’ll be spreading it out over a number of pages.
This leaves you with two choices:
- Add all the description in one go.
- Spread it out.
This isn’t really an and/or choice. The story will help you decide. Let’s look in a little more detail.
If the location is a one off, in other words, if the location will be used in just one scene, then add the description at the start of the scene in one chunk.
If the location will be used in more than one scene, then you need to take a different approach. In this situation you start with a significant description, probably a single paragraph. Then, as the scenes progress you layer in more description, a line at a time.
Let’s go back to our prison cell…
Our main character has been captured and placed in a cell. He will escape at the end of the scene and that’s the last the reader will see of the cell. Therefore, the cell will appear in just one scene. However, since the scene is just in one location it is still an important location and is worthy of significant description.
In this situation, you present the description into a couple of paragraphs:
The cell was a small, perfectly square room. It was about six foot in height with each wall no more then four feet in length. There was a single window halfway up one wall. It was also perfectly square and let in a small amount of light, though it was blocked by a grill. The only other source of light was a single bulb that hung from the center of the ceiling.
Along the opposite wall was a squat bed. Its frame was steel but years of use leaving numerous scratches and knocks. On the bed was a yellow mattress mottled with strains. The only way into or out of the cell was a single, heavy grey door.
Now, let’s look at the same description but this time in a different context.
This time our main character has been locked up in the cell and will not escape until near the end of the book. The cell will be the location for a number of scenes and is, therefore, a vital location for the story. In this case the location will appear in a number of scenes. This approach is now different. When the location is first introduced we provide the reader with a significant, but not extended description. Then, as the scenes progress the writer will layer in a number of short descriptions to add texture to the location:
The cell was a perfectly square room. It was about six foot in height with each wall no more then four feet in length. There was a single window halfway up one wall. A single bulb hung from the center of the ceiling. There was a single bed, a yellowed mattress resting on a grey steel frame. The only way into or out of the cell was a single, heavy grey door.
Here you can see we have cut the initial description to a single paragraph. It is enough for the reader to form a picture in their mind’s eye.
In a situation where a location will be used for a number of scenes you have a little more freedom. What you are able to do is layer in more detailed description. In this case you could write in a couple of sections where the main character examines the room. Perhaps he tests out the bed, and then looks at the window; perhaps he bangs on the door or spots some writing on the wall. In each case you would layer in more description.
John looked closely at the bed. The mattress was yellowed and mottled with stains ranging in color from blood red to deep, dark brown. He lifted the mattress. The frame was gun metal grey, though it was scratched and dented. On the left hand leg someone had started to scratch out a series of tally marks, the lines of white clearly visible. Paul counted to thirty before giving up.
This process produces a layering effect. Each time it is repeated the location is further ingrained on the reader’s mind.
Remember the key rules of thumb, when writing description are:
- If it changes, describe it.
- If it is trivial, then a line of description will do.
- If it is important, then go to town with your description.