Setting the scene in a story is, of course, important, because without it there's no real story universe. The Lord of the Rings would be less magical without the descriptions of the vast landscapes, for example. But describing a majestic landscape as a stage for a mighty battle, or perhaps a dimly lit room full of old books and hidden treasures can be tricky from time to time. What should you describe? What should you leave out? How long should it be? And many more questions might go through your mind, but it's not as complex as it may seem. In this guide I'll go over various aspects you might wish to keep in mind when describing any scene. Of course, not every story is written the same way, nor is every scene described the same way, but more on that below.
First things first. There is no single right way of describing scenery just as there's no single right way to write a book. Some of it depends on your own strengths and weaknesses, some on the desires of your (potential) readers, and some of it on other elements entirely. Of course these things aren't always easy to figure out, a lot of it simply comes with practice, but I find it important and comforting to know that there's more than two paths leading to the same destination.
At the same time this doesn't mean you can't improve on certain aspects. If you can, I think you definitely should, but knowing there are multiple paths can help you find the right one.
Very broadly put, you'll find 3 main paths. The long, more poetic one. The short, to the point one. And the middle path. Obviously there are countless variations within these 3, and not all of them are as well received as others, but you can probably already see where you fit within these 3. Everything I'll cover below can be put to use within these 3 paths, but some will obviously be of more help in one than the other.
No matter the scene you're writing, make sure you focus on specific elements. Bombarding the reader with countless details and elements will more than likely mean they barely take in any of it. If you instead guide the reader through a setting, focusing on one or two elements at a time, and possibly leaving most of the rest out, you'll give the reader a far greater sense of where the story is taking place. You'll give them enough to fill in the blanks themselves.
You can compare this a lot to drawing or painting. You don't just dump all the details onto your paper at once, you first sketch the main stage, then fill in the smaller details a little at a time, each time moving from one part to the other.
To illustrate this with an example, consider the following two pieces:
- The three mountains reached into the layer of clouds with their snow capped peaks and ice-crusted stones. Thousands of trees, mostly spruces, larches and firs, all covered in a layer of snow and countless icicles, covered the lower parts of the mountain and offered shelter to all the creatures in need of a break from the elements.
- The three mountain peaks reached high up into the sky. Their grey and white peaks hidden by a layer of clouds. Far below, a thick forest of trees clung to the base of the mountains. Their usual greens and browns now covered in whites and translucent blues.
In the first example you get way too much information, a lot of it isn't even important or simply redundant. Which trees grow in the forest exactly is probably not important to the story, and the fact creatures live within a normal forest goes without saying. In the first sentence the focus is also a bit all over the place. Your eye is taken to the top, then further up into the clouds, then back down to the snow capped peaks, and then to wherever the ice-crusted stones might be, then all around the trees.
In the first sentence of the second example the movement is smoother. Your eyes go up with the mountains, up into the sky until you reach their peaks, who then appear to be hidden within a layer of clouds. "Grey and white" is also enough information to let the reader know there's probably snow and stone up there.
Focusing on elements is easier when you involve more senses, rather than only relying on physical descriptions. To illustrate this, consider the following:
- The light of her torch flickered against the porous rocks around her. The frigid walls were once again warmed ever so slightly after having been abandoned by the magma flows who birthed these treacherous caverns thousands of years ago. The smell of sulphur that once dominated made way for the musty stench of what can only be bat guano.
Within this example I used sight, sense of temperature, and smell. I added other elements I'll delve deeper into later as well, but temperature and smell alone already gave a lot of information, and they set the scene in a more specific way. Cold and stench are the biggest elements and are contrasted by the girl with her torch. If I had focused more on the sounds within these caverns, the feel of the rocks, or perhaps simply the colors, it wouldn't have had the same kind of effect. But this example does bring me to the next point, point of view.
The point of view you use to describe the scene can be of great help too. Different people react to the same scenery differently after all, so focusing on the elements a specific character would focus on will tell the reader more about that character. This goes for things they won't notice as well. A character might, for example, not notice the candles lit in a room when they are reunited with their lover, but instead only see the one they love.
The point of view doesn't have to be that of a character either. In my earlier example of the magma caves I made those caves a point of view, even if it was for just a sentence or two. They were warmed, abandoned, and birthed by magma, making the caves overall seem more alive. If I had focused on the girl with the torch by describing the cave from her point of view, the cave itself wouldn't have been a character as much. Of course, it's difficult to tell in just a short example, but my intention was to have 2 characters: the girl who explores the cave, and the cave itself with all that may lurk within it.
To use the point of view concept in another example, consider the following:
- He reluctantly continued to make his way through the murky forest. He already hated the thorns that constantly clung to his clothes, the tree roots hidden beneath the layer of crispy leaves who somehow always managed to find his feet, and especially the low hanging branches who constantly get all up in his face. But now he also started to hate the cawing of the crows he was convinced were mocking him, and the smell of the various flowers he considered too cheerful for this horrendous place.
In this example the focus is on the character, but the forest itself is described through his struggle. All the complaints also put the blame on the forest itself, rather than on him, which is very telling as well. If I had made the forest itself more of a point of view, it would feel like more of a living organism who might actually be after him, which would have diminished some of the effect of the guy being the problem, rather than the forest he so easily blames.
As you've seen in some of the previous examples, word choice is important as well. That's the case for everything you write of course, but no less true for scenery. Some words simply evoke specific images, which can be really helpful to describe all sorts of elements. The brown color of a building, for example, could be described as mahogany, khaki, beige, brick, cinnamon or even rusty. They all evoke different images, so picking the right one is important.
To further illustrate this, here are 3 example sentences:
- Flowers in greens, blues, reds and yellows grew all across these summer fields.
- Flowers of emerald, ruby, sapphire and jade grew all across these summer fields.
- Flowers of azure, coral, aquamarine and silver grew all across these summer fields.
None of the sentences are wrong, but they each evoke a different feeling. The first is simpler, more suitable for some characters than others, but could work to highlight the simple beauty of the field as well. The second sentence focuses on gems entirely, evoking images of luxury, sparkles, and similar themes. It'd work great for a field covered in dew for example, as those definitely sparkle in the sun light.
The last sentence focuses on ocean related words in an attempt to focus more on the vastness of these fields. You could even add "A sea of" before flowers, to get "A sea of flowers colored azure, coral, aquamarine and silver..", but how poetic you need to go depends again on your strength and weaknesses, and on your target audience.
My last, but definitely not least point is to be economical with your descriptions. This is pretty much the accumulation of all the previous points, as they all allow you to limit how long your descriptions are, but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
The length of your story in very important, and I mean in every aspect. Chapter length, total length, length of specific segments, and so on. Long descriptions tend to cause the reader to lose track of what was happening, long total lengths mean it's more difficult to get your book published (unless you're an established writer) and it can deter some readers as well, but that's, of course, audience dependent.
So how can you be more economical with your scenery descriptions? For one, by not including details that aren't needed. Most details aren't, unless they're relevant to the plot and add something to the story. By focusing on just a few details you can often give the general feel and look of a scene very effectively.
Another way is by breaking things up a lot more. If there's a lot that needs to be described, sprinkling in a little character interaction can make for a good way to break things up, and it could help keep the pace going of whatever's happening in that scene.
Writing only that which is necessary is part of writing in general. While some styles do allow for more freedom, sticking to only that which is needed usually pays. The less useless information you add, the more story you can tell after all. Who'd say no to more great storytelling?