I’ve developed from over-describing to under-describing to what I believe is close to the correct amount of describing. I discussed the character descriptions a few posts back. This time I’ll look at the environment.
How much is too much? When your sword-wielding hero comes over the hill and sees the city before him, do you need to describe every detail that is possible to see from his viewpoint? Not really.
However, the opposite also doesn’t help much. I’ve done that many times. My hero enters a ominous building, but my lack of description throws the whole atmosphere off. It is important to let the readers know what the world your hero walk around in looks like.
By using as many senses as you can put in, (especially sight, hearing and smell) you can create an atmosphere. It is perhaps through this part that one can truly immerse the reader.
Someone (I can’t remember where I read it) said that rather than writing about the emotion that a character experiences, write it so that the reader will experience that emotion. I think this can apply to atmosphere as well. By displaying the things that stand out to your character (the leaky pipe, the drip of water in the distance, the slimy wall and the rancid smell) your reader will experience the location that you chose the same way as the character, or at least have more of a feeling of actually being there. The more senses you can bring into account, the better the experience will be.
Now, even the Show vs Tell rule can be explained and/or used here. When you let your hero enter an area, instead of just saying ‘the hero entered an unpleasant-looking sewage pipe, filled with a feet high level of water’, you show the reader the pipe and make them make their own decisions about whether it is unpleasant or not. The reactions that the character makes will show them how he reacts. For example, ‘The hero entered the pipe. He strained to see in the darkness as he stepped forward, right into water. He lost his balance on the slippery ground and grabbed for the wall. After regaining his balance, he made a face as he pulled his hand from the slimy wall.’ Something like that. It gives the reader more of an idea of where the hero is at and what the atmosphere is like.
Describing the environment is an important part of writing, especially in made up worlds. It is the tool you use to pull your reader into the world with your hero, instead of letting them stand outside and look down onto the world that your characters inhabit.