The Devil and Where He Lives, Part 2

I said Friday that I’d talk a little bit about describing settings today, so here I am to rave at you again.

Something I’ve heard people struggle with is balance. How much is too much? So I’m going to try to say, brass-tacks level, what I do. It’s up to you to decide if I could be helpful!

Let’s say we have one character alone in a dining room. Bare minimum, we know we have 1) a person; 2) some kind of table; 3) some kind of seating.

If your setting is already established in general, you’ll know (and can trust the reader to know) that there are bamboo mats for kneeling, a low table, and sliding rice-paper doors. These things don’t warrant much more than a glance, unless the items are special or notable in some way: a rich house where the character is poor, for example.

What’s important about dinner (since that’s usually what a dining room is for)? The company and the food. Since the character is alone, company is a non-concern. There are a lot of ways to describe food, but sound isn’t (usually) necessary. I usually perceive food with nose, eyes, and mouth, in that order, so that’s how I’d detail it.

But say you’re going to set a fight scene in the dining room. What then? Maybe you have the sensory enjoyment of the food, but then the character hears a sound… and suddenly, the spatial relationships between objects become important.

Really, picking and choosing setting details is about what’s important to the scene. What do readers need to know to understand the scene? And what could really drive it home? Sometimes the right sensory detail in the right place can be devastating.

To research how to use details, I’d recommend reading manga and really looking at what the mood panels and backgrounds depict. A lot of mangaka are masters at this. What do you need to see, as a reader? And what do you need to feel? I haven’t found a much better resource for my own descriptions than that.

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