It is essential, as your reader progresses through the world you create that the reader can consistently create a mental image of the scenes you are describing.
The reader will constantly be painting a mental picture of the locales you describe; it is, therefore, essential you provide enough detail for the reader to paint a clear picture.
At all times your reader will be creating an image in his or her mind. The reader will create this image independent of your input. They will be desperately scrambling 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 address the descriptions of your locations and characters, so the reader can create an accurate picture.
This concept produces a simple rule:
If the location changes, you need new description.
The problem that often arises has nothing 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 location description:
If a character enters a new location.
If a current 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 new 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 location 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 will be creating, as needed, paragraphs of description as well as simple phrases, such as “the woods”. It all depends on context. What you choose to classify as important and trivial is up to you.
Let me pause a moment.
I can give you a better framework than it is up to you. Here are a few “rules of thumb”:
- If more than one scene occurs in a certain 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 one location, and the location is not relevant to the scene (it could be any street), then the location is trivial.
- If the scene is a traveling scene only, 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 necessarily 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 one 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 the location for multiple scenes, then you need 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 or spread it out.
This isn’t really a one-time decision. The scene within each story will help you decide. Let’s look in a little more detail.
If the location is used in just one scene, then add the description at the start of the scene in one chunk.
If the location is 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, one line at a time.
Let’s go back to our prison cell …
John 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. However, even though the prison cell is only used in this one scene, it is still an important location and a significant plot point and is worthy of significant description.
In this situation, you present the description in a couple of paragraphs:
The cell was a small, perfectly square room, about six foot in height with each wall no more than four feet in length. A single window, also perfectly square, was halfway up one wall and let in a small amount of light, though 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 had left numerous scratches and knicks. On the bed was a yellow mattress mottled with stains. The only way in or out of the cell was a single heavy gray door.
Now let’s look at the same description but this time in a different context.
This time John 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 requires a different approach. When the location is first introduced, we provide the reader with a significant, but not extended, description. Then, as the scenes progress, the author will layer in a number of short descriptions to add texture to the location.
Here’s the initial location description:
The cell was a perfectly square room, about six foot in height with each wall no more than four feet in length. A single window was halfway up one wall, and a single bulb hung from the center of the ceiling. A bed consisting of a yellowed mattress rested on a steel frame. The only way in or out of the cell was a heavy gray 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 his or her mind’s eye.
In this situation, where a location will be used for a number of scenes, you have a little more freedom. What you can do is layer in more detailed descriptions. You could write in a couple 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 bloodred to deep, dark brown. He lifted the mattress. The frame was gunmetal gray, though it was scratched and dented. On the left-hand leg, someone had scratched out a series of tally marks, the lines of white paint underneath 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 in the reader’s mind.
Remember the key rules of thumb, when writing description:
- 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.