Writing instructors caution against the “info dump,” long sections of description that deliver too much information for a reader to realistically absorb and retain.
True, the classics are filled with just such description. From Herman Melville and his detailed explanations about whaling to Emily Bronte’s report about angst-filled Heathcliff and the gloomy Wuthering Heights, readers
wade throug are immersed in the time and culture of their stories.
Not so, contemporary fiction. Can we conclude, then, that setting no longer matters in the books we write? Hardly. One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so popular was the rich, imaginative setting in Hogwarts, the magical school for witches and wizards.
Today’s writer should conceive of a vivid setting, just as the writers of old did. But our task may be a tad harder. Rather than delivering the setting up front, or as a “time out” in the action, we must give the goods on the run. Action must go forward even while we deliver the necessary tidbits to paint the scene.
Take a look at the opening of By Darkness Hid, the Christy award winning novel by Jill Williamson:
Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.
He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna Manor still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.
In these two short paragraphs we have simple action that also delivers important description. The story is just getting started, but we already know quite a bit—basic information about one of the characters, the time of day, and a feel for the place. Later we’ll learn that there’s even more tucked into these few sentences, but I’m not giving any spoilers. 😉
The key to good description today is to dribble bits of information into the action rather than coming to a full stop to deliver a laundry list of facts.
For an excellent article about world building—written for writers of speculative fiction but helpful to any fiction writer, I think—visit Speculative Faith (and if you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to win a free copy of the author’s book).