The internet revolutionized our assessment of “vivid” versus “verbose.”
Do you ever skip description in a novel? I do, too. Obviously, merely describing how things look, sound, taste, feel, and smell is not, by itself, going to bring a location to life. Something more is required…Only through the eyes and heart of a character does place come truly alive.” — Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction
Neil Gaiman illustrates this in American Gods:
The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.
That works. This does not: “The house smelled of must, dampness, and the sweetish smell of rot.” What makes one “vivid” and the other “verbose”?
Particularly when dealing with anything familiar—like a decaying house—transcend same-old, same-old. What’s the best source of that? Your character’s perception.
This could be a metaphor, simile, symbol, or analogy. In all of these, successful comparisons arise from “an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar” — Aristotle, The Poetics. Does the resemblance resonate at the deepest level? If so, readers instantly sense that a mockingbird or white whale or scarlet letter represents not only the literal but also a meaning beyond that.
Setting becomes meaningful when it reminds readers what they didn’t know they knew.
Setting should set up what’s ahead, and without “telling.” In Kraken, here’s what China Miéville does with the sky:
The light was going: some cloud cover arriving, as if summoned by drama.
And Amy Tan with war in The Joy Luck Club:
But later that day, the streets of Kweilin were strewn with newspapers reporting great Kuomintang victories, and on top of these papers, like fresh fish from a butcher, lay rows of people—men, women and children who had never lost hope, but had lost their lives instead.
Images of “clouds” or “war” abound on the internet. So even incorporating all five senses won’t necessarily produce something “that readers will not skim,” as Maass reminds. Unless setting intensifies response to plot and character, it often feels “verbose.”
Tip: Setting becomes “vivid” only when it’s as integral to a novel as its plot.