A story begins, or perhaps just a scene in a story …
Three characters, perhaps men, women, or maybe even bears, stand outside a bar. Sounds like the setup for a cliche joke. But just maybe, the bar is simply a setting, a relatable meeting place that helps a reader slip into the story.
I was talking to a writing buddy about this setup. We were talking world-building and the appropriate level of description.
Some authors would set the scene with three characters and a bar, leaving it at that.
The problem, we deduced, is the fact that there are an infinite number of pictures a reader can conjure from that simple phrase.
Perhaps a rustic bar, a stand-alone building surrounded by a dirt parking lot full of motorcycles.
Or maybe a similar clapboard structure surrounded by horses.
Could the bar be a walkdown in a downtown setting?
What if it is futuristic and hovers out over the water at a sea-side resort?
Too little description and the reader is left to wonder just what sort of book you’re writing. That lack of setting could alter the scene in a way to leave the reader detached and emotionally uninvested.
On the flip-side, too much description can bog a reader down. Does the reader need to know the exact number of bricks in the facade? No. Does the color or age of the bricks make the scene more intimate? Perhaps. Will the number of stories in the building above the building play into the story? Not unless it’s going to collapse.
What about the floors above the bar and what they hold? That could be pertinent information to tell the reader what kind of bar these three characters are about to enter. Is it an office building? Perhaps a flophouse? Maybe even a police station? All of these play into what sort of setting you are trying to show to the reader.
For the to-much scenario, my go to example is a book I read when I was a kid. In the first hundred pages the MC had woken up and gone to the supermarket. Seriously, punch me in the face. One hundred pages with no real action. (Walking do the supermarket doesn’t count)
I knew everything about the lawn. I knew how many times the author watered it. I knew the kind of seed he used. I knew how often it was cut and what kind of mower he used. I knew …. too much.
The best authors are the ones who tantalize, the ones who give you just enough description to paint your picture, to set your scene, without overwhelming you with too many details. Writing is about trusting your readers to have the perfect amount of imagination to visualize on the framework you’ve given them.
Older authors tend to err on the side of over-descriptiveness, a sin that can be forgiven as they didn’t have to compete with screens. (Cough Cough … Dickens or Tolkien? Could be another post at some point)
How do you find that Goldie Lox level of scene setting?
For me, I aim for the bare skeleton and ratchet up a couple notches from there. I look at the scene and determine if the description enhances what the reader is visualizing. If it’s just fluff, it impedes.
What I do know, is that this subject is subjective. Some readers love to drown in a sea of description and others skip entire book sections to get to where the story picks up again. But I can say with certainty, most readers want balance in what they read.
What sort of reader are you?
In other news, Monday night I’m going to be a guest on Go Indie Now‘s video podcast In Progress. I’ll be talking with hosts Joe Compton and Julia Allen, aka JK Allen, about writing, genre blending, and whatever shenanigans arise. The podcast will start around 9pm.
Tune in to join us on our deep dive into creativity. The livestream will also be available on Twitch and Twitter. I will post those links when they go live a little before the interview.
In the meantime, keep on reading, keep on blowing snow, and keep on flying the Black.