Writing scenery is like walking a tightrope. Readers must know where the story takes place, and scenery plays an important role in establishing a stage for the characters. On the other hand, too much scenery can feel stifling. Many readers dislike lengthy passages on the color of the walls and the size of the trees. Unless a writer has a die-hard fanbase who for some reason find such extensive detail interesting, this type of scenery depiction should be avoided. Even more, many readers consider too much scenery description as killing off their own creativity, as the writer has described every single detail of the world without leaving room for individual creative interpretation.
Of course, these opinions all differ depending on your reader. There will be the occasional reader who loves over-the-top description, as well as the reader who abhors even a slight description of the room your character stands in. As an active reader, I myself have seen both extremes of scenery description. I tend to prefer less scenery description although I certainly appreciate a well-written passage. This translates to my own writing. Unless the place itself is of particular significance, scenery description is more of an afterthought than a priority for me. We writers will all have different preferences, which will factor in how we write. However, no matter our personal opinions, we also want readers to remain interested in our story. So how do we find the right balance when writing scenery? How do we paint a picture that is both engaging and meaningful to all readers?
Characters Interacting with the World
Finding the right balance is a tricky task, especially when so many people disagree on what level of scenery actually works best. For this, the only advice can be to use your best judgment, and, as a rule, avoid paragraphs full of nothing but description. Regardless, there is a way to write scenery without putting your readers asleep. In addition, this technique will also aid in character building.
While an occasional sentence of your protagonist’s surroundings will not go amiss, many paragraphs devoted only to describing scenery will likely prove detrimental. However, if you have a great deal of information to convey to readers, such as the case of a new place or environment of significance, then you may have no choice. Yet, many successful authors sneak in pages full of mainly descriptive with only positive results. How is this possible?
The trick is to have characters interact with the world around them. Throw your character into this new place and then write a description of how that character explores the surrounding area. By focusing on characters’ interactions with the scenery around them, you include both good scenery description and show more of the characters’ personalities and backgrounds. For example, if your protagonist is a small-town farm boy who travels to New York City for the first time, you can show how he struggles with the crowds of people and loud noise. This will add conflict, explain more of the protagonist’s background, and describe the city all at once. This method of writing description will provide more significance to the character’s surroundings and improve scenes. Additionally, for any writer who struggles with waxing beautiful poetry on the color of the flowers or the shape of the buildings, this method will make it much easier to write scenery description. As the focus is on the character interacting with the world rather than the world itself, it will likely feel more natural for such writers.
Several writers use this trick effectively in their published works. When you read your favorite book again, be on the lookout for this technique. You may not have noticed it before, but there are likely several scenes where the protagonist explores a new situation and reveals scenery simultaneously. Keep your eyes open, and experiment with your own writing; this method will be a nice tool to use when you tire of lengthy paragraphs of nothing but scenery.
Steps to Using This Technique:
- Decide first what scenery you want to share with your readers. As the writer, you likely have imagined all the details of every given place in your story. Of course, your reader probably does not need to know how many bricks are in the wall or any other mundane details. So, make a list of everything your readers should know and would add to the story.
- From here, brainstorm how your characters can interact with the world around them in a dynamic and engaging way. Have the characters pick up items, touch weirdly decorated wall paper, dip their toes in the lake, etc.
- After this is completed, see if there is any planned scenery detail still left out. This is when you can simply write out the description as observation and plug in at the appropriate place. Hopefully, most of the other scenery was described through character interaction, so some straight out description at this stage will work well.
Mackenzie Hendricks graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a Bachelor in English. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.
She enjoys reading all types of genres, but her favorites are fantasy and historical fiction. In addition to writing nonfiction and scholarly articles, she also dabbles in creative writing in her spare time.