Too often, the concept of “good writing” for prose fiction is overly simplified by well-meaning industry professionals.
For example, I once attended a workshop on how to write setting description. During the presentation, the presenter gave multiple examples of lengthy, image-heavy scene description. Her implication was that these were all examples of good writing, while other, less detailed descriptions were all examples of bad writing.
What she failed to mention was that depending on the book’s genre and the scene involved, there are many times when drawn-out descriptions are the weaker choice and will break the narrative’s flow and pacing. In fact, there are many approaches to writing which are often presented as absolutes, while in reality, their effectiveness is relative to the author’s goals and intended audience.
Going back to the debate between detailed vs. simplistic setting descriptions, If I were writing a scene in a literary novel in which an old man is sitting on a park bench in winter while contemplating mortality, that would be a perfect time to use some complex imagery in the description. Details like the cold, silent snow and the low clouds pressing down on the world like death shrouds would add to the poignancy of the moment and evoke some visceral emotions.
But what if the same old man in the park is waiting to make contact with one of his undercover agents in the midst of a thriller novel? The long, drawn out description described earlier would just kill the pacing. Instead, I might choose to focus on the fact that the stark, cold surroundings means that the park is currently abandoned, making it a perfect spot for an unobserved rendezvous.
Neither of these two approaches is universally right or wrong. It’s all contextual. A good author will know what approach is best for each scene and story.
Of course, good setting description does tend to share some characteristics, regardless of the genre. For example, It’s important to stay focused on the primary purpose of the scene. The author should also be mindful of common problems like excessive wordiness or failing to establish any setting at all.
Writing setting description isn’t always easy. It’s often a balancing act between failing to set the scene and distracting from the action. But whether it’s a two-line description or a full page of flowery prose, a skilled writer will remember that the right approach is the one that best matches their story and intended audience.
A big shout-out to the wonderful members of my Writers Community:
Christine Herbert, Michele Cacano, Jason Jenkins, Jessica Mormann, Naltath, and Jo Sal.
If you’d like to learn more about my Writers Community, check out the following link: