In fiction storytelling, creating setting is tertiary to dramatic plot and characterization and needs to contribute to the story. Therefore, for best and succinct effects, setting should have momentum and evoke image. Compare these two descriptions: The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked through the valley. No momentum or concrete images–basically ineffective. Now: The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead. He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the locomotive cab’s floor and shoved it forward. The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it reached the first turn. Both momentum and images utilized, although would need editing and condensation for most stories!
Here’s another concept. Imagine the all-encompassing totality of your scene and prioritize spot images as selected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that will stimulate the reader’s imagination to create a personalized imagined scene that supports the story and characters. A few carefully selected “puzzle pieces” used as descriptive stimulus allows the reader to engage and participate in making the story their “own.” Better quality “puzzle pieces” allow fewer words for the reader to feel the scene is complete and brevity prevails, improving readability. Here are ways to make good choices!
The image must be concrete (paper clip), not abstract (fastener). The word choice must be image-generating (cracked porcelain tea cup, or the blue and yellow Easter egg). Modifiers should usually not be judgmental: six-feet tall rather than huge, which is not only judgmental but abstract; ruddy cheeks is usually better than healthy cheeks, but only if it fits. Avoid clichés. Use specific and concrete nouns and adjectives–sparrow, not bird; sixteen-story skyscraper, not tall building. As you create, keep in mind, for best fiction and stories, long descriptive passages for setting are for past generations.
You may also find clever ways to use dialogue attribution by slipping in scenic elements when appropriate. (Look out! he yelled, slapping the pit bull with his walking stick and shoving the child toward her mother.) You can often incorporate image provoking detail in internal reflections. (She thought his Mohawk haircut, two brass hoop-earrings in his left earlobe, and silver tongue-stub oppressively unattractive.)
All the best, and thanks for reading.
William H. Coles
Illustration from the short story by William H. Coles “The Wreck of Amtrak’s Silver Service”. FREE online. An evil man with a solid vein of conscience delivers summary justice on a cold winter night.
Illustration by David Riley.