A while back one of my online writing students asked the following question:

I’m finding that I’m having trouble striking a balance between too much scene-setting (delaying the really important action) and too little scene-setting or detail (so that the reader has difficulty knowing why the main action is important). Do you have any advice on either how to mentally frame things when starting to write so that there’s room for the complete action to unfold, or for how to approach the editing/revising to more clearly see what’s lacking and why?

I love this question because it gets at a core principle of good writing: you are forever balancing some tension (and usually more than one tension at a time). This writer is struggling with the tension between the need to set the scene–both literally, showing the reader where the action is taking place, and figuratively, giving the reader why some context for why this action is happening and why it’s important–and the need to get on with the action.

I’ll start my answer where I often start my answer to writing questions: love your reader. Inviting a reader into a scene is an act of hospitality. The writer is a host saying, “Come in, come in.”

Now, there is a kind of host who bores the guest: “Come in, come in. Let me show you my stamp collection. And here are the nesting dolls that we got when we went to Russia. Have you ever been to Russia? It’s amazing, just amazing. Everybody should go to Russia before they die…”

And meanwhile, the guest is thinking, Actually, can you just tell me where your bathroom is?

My point is that there is a kind of “hospitality” that is about the host rather than the guest. Don’t be that kind of host. The right kind of hospitality is an act of love, not an opportunity to show off.

With that in mind, ask yourself what your readers need to know in order to enter into the scene in the way you want them to enter into the scene. People need to know, for instance, how many people are in the room.

Recently I received a story in which two people were having a conversation. Then I realized that a third person was there too. Then I realized that these three people were sitting in a coffee shop. Then I realized that there was actually a fourth person at the table. Which is to say, I was continually having to re-envision the scene to adjust to new information.

Just one sentence in the first paragraph would have made a huge difference in the reader’s experience: something like, “Four people sit around a table in a coffeeshop.”

“Setting a scene” requires

  1.  that you give a reader just enough detail so that he doesn’t have to backtrack and re-envision things a few paragraphs later, and
  2. that you not give the reader irrelevant details that delay the start of the action.

This is a balancing act, and it takes practice to get it right.

It helps to think in terms of what details you would take in if you were in the room yourself. Think, for instance, of what happens when you turn the corner of a new aisle at the grocery store. There are ten thousand visual stimuli, but you ignore most of them for the sake of finding the particular raisin bran that your family likes. Dial into that selective attention to guide you when deciding how much “scene-setting” detail you need.

One of my students recently wrote a story about two women having a less-than-cordial encounter in a grocery store aisle. If the writer had been self-indulgent, that could have been a disaster. But the details of the cereal aisle weren’t especially important, and she didn’t provide many. She mentioned two shopping carts almost bumping into one another, and she mentioned that we were in a cereal aisle, and that was about it. But it was enough. The action was interpersonal, and the fact that it took place in the cereal aisle rather than the produce department (or the Department of Motor Vehicles) wasn’t especially important.

I should also say, however, that it’s easy to imagine a situation in which “setting the scene” in a grocery store requires more detail. What if you’re depicting a city-dweller who normally shops at Whole Foods, but he finds himself back in his small hometown, shopping at the Piggly Wiggly? Maybe in that case it isimportant to depict the pickled pigs feet and the off-brand raisin bran and that peculiar, not-quite-fresh meat smell that lingers around an old-fashioned grocery store (remember that smell, from before the Kroger came to your town?).

That is to say, sometimes “setting a scene” involves setting a particular mood through the details of the setting, and sometimes inviting your reader into the scene is more a matter of getting on with the action. I wish I could give you more specific guidance than that, but it’s just the nature of the beast. You have to practice, and get it wrong a few times, and eventually you learn what you need to do. Do the best you can, and then invite the feedback of readers to see whether it worked. The only way to get it right is to be willing to get it wrong a few times.

This student also asked about writing descriptively without boring the reader. Don’t confuse writing descriptively with piling up detail. Writing descriptively is a matter of giving your reader enough detail that he can enter into the scene that you are writing.

Descriptive writing says, “Here’s what you need to know in order to inhabit this scene…” Keep your reader’s experience constantly at the forefront. What does he need to know in order to be ready to receive what you have to give him?

Think about the room you’re sitting in right now. What are the three to five details you could give the reader so that he could feel that he’s sitting in the room? Three to five is an arbitrary number; what I really mean is, what are the fewest details you could give in order to invite the reader in? That’s how descriptive writing works.

Right I’m sitting in a room with 1100 books and a yellow lab stretched out asleep on a hardwood floor. Those details begin to give you a mental image of this room. I left out a thousand other details. And in fact, if I had given you too many details, I would have diluted your mental image—which is to say, more details may have resulted I my writing less descriptively, not more descriptively.

Also, I should point out that I could have described this room very differently. I’m sitting in a room where the furniture is all mismatched, the wood floor is gouged and scratched from ten years of six kids’ comings and goings, and the air smells like a dog who needs of a bath. Those details are also true of this room. Since I can’t provide every detail, I have to decide which details prepare you to receive what I’ve got to give you. Do I want to invite you to inhabit a cozy, bookish room? Do I want to invite you into a room where a lot of living by a lot of people has frayed things around the edges? It depends what kind of story I’m trying to tell you.

Photo by Russ Martin on Unsplash