Homes, offices, shopping centers, and sidewalks. They’re where most human drama takes place. And how could it be otherwise? They’re where most of human life takes place. That poses the fiction writer with a number of questions.
Many a young fictioneer is obsessed with description: the enumeration and depiction of the physical setting in which his characters act out their dramas. This can lead to some ludicrous fiction: stories in which the bulk of the verbiage is about inanimate objects of no particular importance. John Brunner’s two laws:
- The raw material of fiction is people.
- The essence of story is change.
...should suffice to steer a writer away from such pointlessness, and toward the narration of actual events: scenes in which his characters make the decisions upon which the plot of the story rests.
Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. Sometimes elements of the inanimate scenery become important to the evolution of the plot. They might provide evidence about what’s going on that a character needs to notice. For example, imagine a drama set in a hospital, in which the Marquee Character is a pediatric doctor. He completed a routine operation, perhaps a tonsillectomy, on a young patient a couple of hours earlier, and is on his way to check on the lad. He comes to the door of the boy’s room only to find a “crash cart,” laden with the gear used to revive someone after a cardiac arrest, immediately outside. The character must notice that cart – and the reader must hear about it.
But such decisions are dictated by the plot. They don’t arise out of the luminiferous ether. If, in place of the “crash cart,” the doctor were to come upon a food trolley with the leavings of meals on it, all the object’s significance would presumably vanish. A description of the trolley would be pointless.
Once in a great while, description for description’s sake will be desirable. Perhaps it will be militated by the need to indicate a sharp transition between contexts. Here’s an example from the great J.R.R. Tolkien:
Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. [J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings, "The Two Towers"]
Tolkien used the contrast between the lands Frodo and Sam had been traveling through and the wild beauty of Ithilien to give momentum to their travels: the sense of motion through lands as various as those of England. Could it have been done another way? Possibly, but we must admit that Tolkien’s method worked very well. He who writes not of grand quests pursued through ever-changing lands populated with multifarious wonders and terrors, but rather of persons situated in familiar environments where most of our lives are spent today, will seldom have such a need. His need will be to keep the story moving, and in the great majority of cases, the best approach will be to speak of his characters’ interactions through word and deed.
In other words: Don’t worry about the shape and color of that sofa, or that desk, or that tree, or that storefront. Unless those things matter to the plot, that is...but how often is that?