We make worlds and people to live in them, but we cannot possibly pour all of that onto the page. Instead, we must evoke setting and character by the use of precise details and choice of words.
I am thinking here, of course, of fiction where the intention is to tell a story rather than to fully describe the place or the person. In this case, the description applied to the elements has a couple of basic goals:
- to make the elements serve the story
- to make the elements distinctive
Serving the Story
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
Characters do surprising things, but readers feel cheated if those things are not seeded in the story: if a character has been hobbling about on a walker for the first hundred pages and then suddenly casts off their shackles of infirmity to chase after that criminal who just robbed the bank with no hint that she was someone else, or without some other kind of transformative event, then the reader may well cast the story aside.
Settings need the elements to be there to support the story. A nursery with a shotgun hidden under the baby’s bed only makes sense if you’ve seeded the idea that the nursery may not be all that you would usually expect – hints of the babysitter’s history as a drug runner, say, or the parents’ desire to be ready for the zombie apocalypse.
“We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.”
the Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation
I’ve just started reading Redshirts by John Scalzi and I have been very struck that there is almost no physical description of the characters, and yet they are all distinct because of how they talk and what they speak about.
The details we put in need to be enough to be sure who is doing what.
Names help, of course. Having major characters with differing initial letters or at least easily distinguished names on the page helps make it clear who is speaking. Making physical descriptions clearly different – or even subtly different, if you focus on the subtleties – helps clarify who is acting.
Similarly with settings. We can’t put in everything* so we have to describe what makes each location distinct from the others, whether it’s the insect-crusted ceiling of the cave or the Louis XV sideboard in the sitting room rather than the Louis XIV.
How do you decide what to put in and what to omit?
[*] and this was one of the basic problems with Bluehammer, that I tried to.