I happened to catch a fascinating show the other day on the DIY Network – Hollywood Builders. They were following the construction of the sets for the new Total Recall movie, and I found it riveting (pun intended). Watching the set electricians wire up the set for futuristic lighting, watching CGI transform a “green screen” backdrop…it’s stunning. Really stunning. But I found the segment on set dressing most fascinating. The set dressers are responsible for making a set look like real by their attention to every conceivable visual detail. In this case, they were dressing the marketplace set – using everything from swimming goggles to a martini shaker to baskets of some kind of dried fruit. Will Douglas Quaid (the main character, played by Colin Farrell) interact with these tiny details? No. Most of these details simply form a backdrop – something the eye will catch in a glimpse as the characters interact in the foreground. But, were these details lacking, there would be a hiccup in our suspension of disbelief, jeopardizing our engagement in and enjoyment of the film.
How does the idea of “set dressing” play out in a novel or short story? It goes without saying that a story with ineffective or insufficient description will be drab and lifeless. So how do we write successful, incredible, imagination-filling settings without using pages and pages and pages of description?
First, we have to remember that the written word is actually a visual medium, though not in the direct way that film is a visual medium. The reader has to translate the words on the page into an image in his or her head. When I say the word “tree”, for example, you form a picture of a tree in your head. Now, the writer’s job is to try to ensure that this translation is as accurate as possible, so that whatever the writer is transcribing out of his or her own head makes it intact into the reader’s head. So, to return to my example, if I write “tree” and want to evoke the image of a birch, but you see the word “tree” and imagine an aspen, I haven’t conveyed things precisely enough. If I want you to imagine a birch tree, I need to write “birch tree”.
This brings us to our second consideration. The writer also has to follow the principle of economy in description. If I were to describe the Total Recall marketplace set in the sort of painstaking detail that the set dressers used in creating it, I would lose all of my readers within minutes. They would be snoring with their noses in the pages (or snotting up the screen of their e-reader of choice). No one wants to read ten pages of pure description – or even ten paragraphs, for that matter. As an author, though, I desperately want the reader to see what I see when I imagine a scene, so the temptation to over-describe is intense. How can I convey a setting in all its rich detail without boring my readers to death?
Choose setting details like you’d choose antiques: keep them few in number, but make each one priceless.
Consider what you notice first when you walk into a room. Is it the lighting, the flooring material, the way sound echoes (or doesn’t), what adorns the walls? Then consider how you could make each of these details count. Remember, no matter what you’re writing, you are constructing a world. Be vivid. Use a few chosen aspects of your setting to illuminate the rest.
So, if you’re going to mention the lighting, be precise: is it an oil lamp, an LED panel, or a torch? If you’re going to mention that your character has a lot of books, give us a sense of the predominant type: does he have cookbooks, or the complete works of Jane Austen, or mathematics texts? The precision of these details reveals or enhances your setting and your characters. Choose details that do more than just look pretty – for really power-packed, punchy fiction, make your setting details do some heavy lifting.
To offer an example of the brilliant use of this technique (again from film), consider how Holmes cracks Moriarty’s code in Game of Shadows by observing the contradiction of the dying plants in the window with the prominence of the horticulture book in Moriarty’s office. These two details and their correlation reveal something about both Holmes and Moriarty and advance the plot, all at the same time. Not every setting detail is going to be this powerful, but it’s a good reminder of the enormous potential that precise, vivid setting description carries.
So, as you dress your settings, focus on details that can reveal your characters, advance your plot, or capture your world, and then let the reader color in the rest of the picture on his own.