When you’re setting a scene you have to give the reader all the information they need and not a jot more. You must sum up a location’s feel (which might encompass smell, background noise and even air pressure) as briefly as possibly. You can’t overload the reader with detail, but you must give them the vital information.
It is, in other words, bloody difficult.
My general guide for description is to put in anything the protagonist/POV character would notice in the order he or she would see them. Thus: people first, then obvious abnormalities, then temperature/smells/sounds and then, if we get that far, into the mundane.
But there are so many exceptions. It’s almost a trope now, but I’m noticing more and more the delayed surprise:
It was a totally normal park. Playground with its swings and slides; bowling green with its perfectly manicured surface, and standing proud in its midst, bearing the pavilion roof like a parasol, the Great Lord Cthulu in all his glory. As His tentacles dismantled the remnants of the Eastbourne Ladies’ Bowling Team, I knew it was going to be one of those days.
In less ridiculous setups you’ll have the POV character entering a room; you’ll have every single detail lovingly described, and then some sort of dismissive comment: “of course, I couldn’t take it in properly as I was distracted by the eviscerated corpse lying in the middle of the floor.”
This sort of thing works for humour or for situational irony but it breaks the rules of common sense. As soon as you go into a new space the most important thing will immediately catch the eye: to deny the reader this sort of elephant in the room is something you can do once, maybe twice a novel, no more.
I recently read a novel where the climax was set in a wedding. The cheat started several scenes before, however, when the wedding invitations turned up without the name of the groom. That information is so basic that its omission because the largest, most obstreperous elephant in the history of pachyderms. Lulu got nothing on this papa.
But it got worse. The wedding arrived – and the groom still wasn’t named! He became a sort of giant, floating question mark that dominated proceedings without doing a thing. The longer it went on the more ridiculous it became. There was no way the eventual reveal could have been anything but a disappointment.
So: don’t try and be clever. Address the elephant.
I don’t actually mean that. Do try and be clever. Take risks. Experiment. Just be aware that there’s a damn good chance it won’t work. Not the first time you try, at least.
The problem with scene-setting is that it takes time: not time in the writing, though that can be considerable, but in the reading. The easiest way to kill excitement is to take time to describe the surroundings, thus:
I turned into an alley and was brought up short by the sight of three skeletons mugging an old lady. The alley was thirty feet long and narrow enough to touch the sides with a bit of a stretch. The cobbles underfoot were treacherous, mortar long-since eroded and slick with grime. The first skeleton was the tallest; the second had only one leg but sported a pith helmet of the sort adored by Victorian explorers. The third seemed to be that of a dog walking on its hind legs. The old lady was about 5’2” and wore a bonnet decorated not with ribbons or flowers but with a hedgehog of tiny blades.
I hoisted my riding crop and stepped forwards…
At which point the reader is wondering what the hell the skeletons and their victim doing whilst the protagonist was itemising every item in sight (plus smell and sound, of course). Were they looking impatiently at their watches (I assume all skeletons have waistcoats and fob watches. It’s practically a law)? Were they bitching with the old lady – “Ooh, protagonists today – You remember that nice young Conan? I’d have been scattered across the floor already…”? Did they do the old Police Squad freeze?
It’s an alley. Unless there’s some crucial plot-thing – maybe it turns a sharp corner that someone’s hiding behind – it’s an alley. Add in one smell, one texture and move on.
My sanity is slipping away. I can feel Cthulu’s dread appendage on my shoulder and I fear I begin to rant. Time to do something mundane like make
a potion a nice cup of tea*.
If you survive the Dark Lord’s attentions I’ll see you next week. Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter @RobinTriggs.
*A sure sign of madness as I don’t drink tea. Sorry. I wish I did, but there you are