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Recently, a few snippets of my fiction have received critiques along the lines of 'Does not give a sense of space'. Or 'needs more description, sights and sounds'.

I think where I am going wrong is that in any given scene I am focusing too hard on the characters, the dialogue or the progression of events and not creating a world which the reader can feel around him/her. So would you guys have any tips on how I can get better at creating space? Any good reading material on it?

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Great question! Some focus would be very helpful - what setting are you working in? Do you have a good idea of a mileau you're trying to get across, and you're not managing to? Or do you yourself see the story setting as being vague, indistinct, or unimportant? What have you written about the setting, which has proved insufficient? –  Standback Aug 17 '11 at 8:30
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Asking for critique of your snippets is on-topic. Post one and you do not have to guess where you are going wrong, you can collect some decent opinions here. –  John Smithers Aug 17 '11 at 8:47
    
John you might be right considering your experience on this site, but i did post a sample a while ago which got raided by the police here :) –  M.A Aug 18 '11 at 6:51
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M.A., the polic[y|e] changed. Critique is on-topic. Follow the guidelines: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/166/… –  John Smithers Aug 18 '11 at 17:33
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3 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

A common mistake when people first try to work on setting or "space" is simply to add more description. This is usually the wrong thing to do, since lots of unfocused description is just clutter. What you need to do add descriptive notes that also contribute to other elements of the story. Having a small number of details that contribute to the overall weight of the story is much more effective than adding a large number of disconnected details.

To take Lauren Ipsum's example above, let's work with John entering a room and saying something to Mary. We can bring in description to add to any of the following:

  • Character: What kind of person is John, and what does he notice? There was new wood flooring in her apartment, straight out of last year's home show. Cheap Picasso reproductions on the walls. Paperback copies of trendy, pretentious novels were stacked on the Ikea end-table. She'd probably never even read them. Ah, but at least she had a nice leather couch, tucked there beneath her half-exposed thighs, just waiting for the two of them to screw on.
  • Plot: What's the situation, and how does the setting affect it? The metal door bangs shut behind him, and he immediately notices there's no other way out. Mary's sitting behind a card table, and in the shadows behind her a strange man leans against a filing cabinet and smokes a cigarette. The air stinks of gunpowder and garlic.
  • Theme: What is the atmosphere and tone of the story, and how does the environment reflect it? Sunlight creaks in through the ancient blinds, lighting up a dusty, cluttered coffee table. Unwashed dishes are piled up in the sink. Water dripping from the faucet makes a pinging sound in an old bowl, counting down the seconds until their inevitable breakup.

Obviously, your situations are different from these. But in any scene, you create atmosphere and setting not by describing everything, but by picking out those few details that will build up the rest of what's going on.

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Wonderful answer. I suppose one should probably choose from one of those three aspects at any given time instead of trying to combine them to enrich e.g. both character and plot. –  Carl Seleborg Aug 18 '11 at 19:51
    
@Carl, no combine away! Good writing is the art of getting your words to do more than one thing at once. If you can use a single sentence to create setting, plot, and character all at the same time, that's awesome. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 18 '11 at 22:38
    
I especially love the 'theme' point, that was one of the things I was looking for but couldn't articulate –  M.A Aug 19 '11 at 7:34
    
+1, excellent answer –  Unreason Aug 23 '11 at 12:55
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You have a scene already, right? John walks into the room, says something to Mary, Mary responds.

Now, close your eyes and put yourself into the room. Engage all your senses — one at a time, if this is unfamiliar work for you. Start asking yourself these kinds of questions:

  • What does the room look like? How big is it? How does it connect to the other rooms in the house?
  • What kind of furniture is in the room? Where is it? How new or old is it? What's the decorating scheme? Which of the characters decorated it?
  • Are there magazines or books on the coffee table? Whose? What are they? Are they read or for show?
  • Is the room tidy, messy, clean, dirty? Are there toys strewn everywhere or plastic on the couches?
  • Is the floor wood, tile, linoleum, or a rug? Is it worn or new?
  • What's on the walls? Paintings, photos, art? What color are the walls? Paint or wallpaper? Is it peeling?
  • Is it day or night? Where are the windows? How does the light fall in the room?
  • What kind of lamps or lighting is in the room? Where do shadows fall? What kind of lightbulbs? What color light do they throw? Do they hum?
  • Is the window open? What can you hear from outside? Traffic? Neighbors? Kids? Dogs? Birds? Insects? Sirens? Music? A parade? Explosions?
  • Is the TV or radio on? iTunes from someone's computer?
  • What season is it? Is the heater or A/C going? What's the weather like outside?
  • What are John and Mary wearing? Did he just come from the office? Was she working in the garage? Was he cooking? Did she just get out of the shower? Is this what they normally wear?
  • Does the kitchen smell of cookies or dinner or bleach? Are there fresh flowers in the house? Is she wearing too much perfume? Does he smell of engine oil?

You won't use all the information (edit to clarify: all in this scene), but it will help you to get a sense of the physical place of your characters. Add in whatever is useful. Save the rest as notes if you return to the room and you need other information to add, or if you want to change something to demonstrate the passage of time or a character development.

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Please don't use all the information. If you do, you're going to overwhelm your reader with information that's not relevant to the piece. Pick and chose information that will A) give you reader a sense of the scene and B) portray something about your characters. If the kitchen smells like bleach and there are housekeeping magazines on the counter, we're given a tidbit about your character's personality. –  Ralph Gallagher Aug 17 '11 at 19:45
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You're right, sorry. I clarified above: "you may not use all the information all in the same scene." But if M.A. isn't used to doing this sort of thing, then the exercise of defining every bit of the room for him/herself is a useful one, until M.A. gets accustomed to knowing what belongs in the scene. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 17 '11 at 20:34
    
I think that list would be great for a brainstorming exercise on what details to add, so yeah. Although I feel that the problem is not just 'sights and sounds', my mistake in framing the question –  M.A Aug 18 '11 at 7:02
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Of course, adding more description might be all you need, I don't know.

Adding "space" may mean more than just adding description. Could be that you need breathing room. Maybe the dialog needs to meander to tell us more about your characters. Maybe you need more characters. Maybe you need a dog, or a plant, or an event for them to pay attention to and discuss.

Sometimes pauses, quiet, significant stillness may help.

Empty "space" can be just as powerful as adding in blah blah details.

(I really dislike the word "space" because it tells me almost nothing. I hate it when it's used on HGTV to refer to what I like to call a room.)

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Would you use the dog, plant, or meandering dialogue to shift perspective, and hence add more depth? As in to add an additional angle to the it than just my narrative? I think you are on to something with 'breathing room' –  M.A Aug 18 '11 at 7:11
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