Working The Room: Environment As Character Through Active Description
As important as your human (or humanoid) characters are to your story, they aren’t your only characters. Another important character in every scene — no matter how subtly you use it as such — is the environment in which your scene takes place.
The more regularly you use a given environment, the more important it is for you to have a comprehensive mental map of that environment, because you’ll want to keep certain details in the background, or bring them to the reader’s mental foreground, depending on the mood and pacing of the scene.
HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?
The answer to this question, frustratingly, is context. How much detail to give, or how little, depends on the needs of the scene. If your pacing is high and the environment you’re describing is quickly passed through, give a single but powerful adjective.
If, on the other hand, you’re describing your protagonist’s home, whether it’s the primary or secondary protagonist, choose broad details and, with future scenes for that location in mind, minor seeds you can expand on in those future scenes.
Stepping into Dyers’ office, Branson noted the ankle-deep carpeting, the fat leather executive chair, and the gilt-fringed expanse of oak desk.
“Okay, Dyer, let’s have it.” Branson watched the fat man spin the onyx pen set on the desktop.
The Details Of Description
So what are some guidelines to keep in mind with environmental description to keep it from choking the pacing or feeling like filler?
Here are a few quick-and-dirty tricks I use:
*Anthropomorphism or pseudo-anthropomorphism. What I mean by this is giving descriptions that put certain environmental components in anatomical terms — “the elbow of the desk” or similes such as, “the room was stark, even skeletal.” What I mean by pseudo-anatomical is connecting an environmental component to a specific part of a human (or, again, humanoid) character’s anatomy, as I did above with the “ankle-deep carpeting.”
*Make the environment part of the action, no matter how subtle the action is, as in Example 2 above where Dyers is spinning the onyx pen set with his finger. Notice, also, how the ‘seed’ of the presence of the pen set was planted by describing the opulence of the room and the desk itself. It simply “makes sense” that such an object would be on that kind of desk.
Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to throw them at me in the comments. Until next time, thanks for reading, and be good to yourselves and each other.