I've got a lot of story fragments that contain the major plot, but that are also very short because everything moves so fast.

What I find a lot in Novels is a bit of "filler", like someone just describing a car in more detail than required, or the landscape or even some mundane thoughts. Some books overdo it, but most manage to make it add to the atmosphere and setting.

I just don't seem to be able to "hit" that sweet spot where I can add things like that because I perceive it as superflous.

Are there any tips to improve the writing of the atmosphere/setting bits?


Get someone else to read the story and point out the sections that would require more fleshing out. As the author your perception of the text is tainted with the imagination of the scene. Things that appear obvious to you may be entirely unclear for the reader. The talent to forget what you know and read the story you wrote as if you'd have read it the first time is rare and elusive. Most of us simply need a help from someone who genuinely didn't read it.


I have faced the same problem. Going to professional editors/critique groups didn't help, as they all want you to rewrite the story as they would. Which is why you get scenes that spend a whole paragraph describing what the character wears.

Here's what worked for me. Imagine you are standing in the scene in your novel. Describe the scene as your main character (for that scene would), moving through the scene with the character. Add description only when it is something the character would notice. So if someone is wearing a Tshirt with Jeans, no need to describe it, as do you pay any attention to anyone wearing a Tshirt on the road?

But if the person has pink hair and is standing with a machine gun, then you would describe her, as your character would notice her.

What you describe will depend on the scene. A character running from zombies would not notice another person wearing a red T shirt with Nike shoes (as I recently read in a book). On the other hand, if your character is at a party flirting, they may easily notice these details.

My advice is, don't write stuff that you don't like reading. So when reading fiction, I skip whole paragraphs that describe the characters clothes/house/car, so I don't write those scenes.

It will take sometime to get the balance right, but keep at it until the scene looks perfect to you. Your muse is a better judge of good writing, so trust your inner voice.

Edit: Based on John's comment below: describe anything your character may find unusual, or may cause him to have a reaction. In addition to Johns comment below, something like plain white buildings may cause the character to think, "I'm bored of seeing the same colour buildings everyday", which will tell you something about the setting of the book.

  • 2
    More general: Describe the details your character finds unusual. If he sees someone with t-shirt and jeans and thinks "Just another of these dumb-minded uniformist" then it tells us something about the character and the surrounding which creates atmosphere. The character's feelings make the atmosphere. Oct 26 '12 at 12:59
  • Good comment, John. Oct 26 '12 at 14:42

Focus on the effect you are trying to create in the reader. Maybe the most important of those is the emotional impact you are trying to create.

Then: Choose the details that help to create that emotional impact. What details would help us to understand the character better? To understand what the character wants, and why it's so important to them? To understand the character's strengths and limitations? To understand the character's state of mind?

An important element of this is that it is not just the detail per se that is important, but the POV character's noticing the detail. If two people walked into a room, they'd each notice different details. Which details each character notices, and which each overlooks, tells us great deal about the character's personality, attention, and state of mind. And this in turn helps us to understand the emotional impact of their actions, thoughts, and situation.

What would your POV character notice?

My favorite example is from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. About two thirds of the way through the book, the narrator character Serenus Zeitblom walks into a room to discover Clarissa dead on the couch. Then, for several paragraphs of fine detail, he describes the couch. That he focuses on the couch is very creepy, and exemplifies just how cold Serenus is.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.