As I said in my previous post, there’s another big way in which description and scene-setting can go wrong, and that’s through a superabundance of detail.
You don’t want to describe too much of the scene, forcing your readers to tally up detail upon detail. With no way to sort out the important details from the unimportant ones, the readers get swamped, unable to build a convincing mental picture out of the material supplied. A handful of judiciously-chosen details, on the other hand, will give your reader the seed crystals from which they can grow their own settings and scenery.
A version of the handful-of-details technique is useful for historical or alternate-historical fiction as well. You don’t have to have to give your readers all the information you could possibly gather about everything in the period you’re writing about. Give them enough interesting and world-illuminating details, and let them do the rest of the work. And nobody but you needs to know that you’ve structured the description around the interesting details you were able to collect, rather than researching every possible detail that the description might possibly include.
But because you’re relying upon your readers to do their share of the work in the matter of world-building and scene-setting, you don’t want to give them more of a burden than they can carry. Every time they have to stop and recompile the scene in their heads to incorporate yet more details, you run the risk of losing them for good.
One thought on “Too Much of a Good Thing”
I had a friend ask “how do you do the historical food porn in your stories?” I pointed her at a particular cookbook I like, and told her “I look at the suggested dinner menu for the month my story is in, pick three dishes — no more — and maybe a dessert. I try to include one dish that’s a little weird and two familiar ones. More than that bogs it down, but three’s about right.” If I have a really long dinner conversation, I’ll let there be a second remove breaking up the dialogue, but three dishes at a time is plenty. Patrick O’Brian can get away with more. I can’t.