Some authors offer sparse scene descriptions, relying instead on narrative to draw a picture and trusting that the reader will supply his own mental imagery. Other authors lard their prose with lush, detailed portraits of every character and place, leaving less to the readers’ imagination but revealing a world painted with a fine brush.
Dostoevsky, for one, certainly knows how to describe things in detail: “She was a diminutive, withered up old woman of sixty, with sharp malignant eyes and a sharp little nose. Her colorless, somewhat grizzled hair was thickly smeared with oil, and she wore no kerchief over it. Round her thin long neck, which looked like a hen’s leg, was knotted some sort of flannel rag, and, in spite of the heat, there hung flapping on her shoulders, a mangy fur cape, yellow with age.” (Crime and Punishment.)
Contrast that against Plutarch’s sole physical description of Marcellus: “Much of his experience was concerned with the art of war and he possessed a powerful arm and a vigorous body.” (Makers of Rome.) Marcellus is the central character in a chapter of probably 20,000 to 25,000 words, yet all we know of his appearance is that little tidbit Plutarch chose to include.
Which approach is right? Well, both … and neither. Each story is a reflection of its author, but it’s also a stand-alone thing that must exist on its own merits. Some stories are too sparse, some are too baroque, but some are just right, and the judgment lies solely in the mind of the reader.
Perhaps, then the question isn’t so much about “how much is too much,” but rather, “how to describe with savvy?”
Some forms of scene-setting reflect the growth trajectory of young or aspiring writers — you’ll see things like detailed descriptions of a character, including height and eye color and attire, in one continuous narrative block:
The police officer got out of her squad car. She was only about five-foot-five and 120 pounds, but every inch of her dark skin and long, braided hair screamed authority. Her powerful gait and steely brown eyes peering over a wide nose added to the mix, as did the baton swinging malevolently from her polished, patent-leather utility belt.
Such an approach (which I made up, for illustrative purposes) is obviously clunky, but it’s a start. Other authors describe almost nothing; they focus on action and dialogue and leave almost everything to the readers’ inference. That minimalism can work, or it can leave readers dissatisfied.
My approach, which is neither right nor wrong, is twofold. For environmental setting, I might reference or describe one object or characteristic of the place. In one novel, for example, I described a bedroom with a one-sentence reference to the Louix XVI-style armchair upon which a bathrobe had been draped. That bit of trivia, combined with what I had already revealed of the main character’s behavior, clued the reader into what his bed chamber looked like. For characters, however, I tend to offer ample physical description, but slowly; in one novel, I described the height, weight, hair/eyes, physique, etc., of my main character over three full chapters, but not always in a dry recitation of fact:
“No, Helen, I’d rather wear the medium-blue tie with the white stripes.”
She raised an eyebrow. “The orange will pop better with the suit.”
“But mom loves that blue tie. She got it for me because she said it perfectly matched my eyes and she always gets excited when I wear it.”
“Fine,” she said, dismissively. “But the orange tie would look better.”
Does my strategy work? You are the judge. But I think indirect reveals doled out early, but not all in one serving, can help minimize the too-obvious litanies of fact that sometimes clog up narrative flow.
Consider a few questions:
- Are my descriptions balanced? Do I dedicate similar levels of attention to set descriptions as I do to character descriptions?
- Does whatever I’m describing actually matter? Is there, for example, substantial value in a deep description of a passing one-off character?
- Have I left the right amount of detail to the readers’ imagination?
- Have I overlooked an obvious point of description, and in so doing, inadvertently telegraphed a plot twist?
- Am I emphasizing the traits that matter most?
- Have I painted a picture without drawing too deeply from the well of cliché?
- Can I describe people or places indirectly, but without calling attention to it?
- Does it sound like I’m trying to pack too much content into too few sentences, as demonstrated by an overflowing cornucopia of adjectives and adverbs in close proximity?
Yet despite the difficulty of writing descriptions effectively, the harder task may lie with an editor, who not only must assess whether a given passage works, but do so in a manner that preserves the author’s intent. Too many editors edit copy to make it look like something they might have written, instead of serving as a gatekeeper for what does or doesn’t work in light of the author’s natural style. To those editors who try to make the author’s style conform to their own, I say: Knock it off.
Scene-setting isn’t easy. There’s no magical paint-by-numbers approach for getting it right. When done well, a perfectly described scene can make a story; when done poorly, the story collapses. The best you can do as an author is to try your best then rely on your circle of beta readers to help you identify points that need adjustment.