As a fantasy author who used to write historical fiction, I’m always wrestling with the eternal problem of establishing setting without stalling the story pace.
Description is notoriously slow going. It basically puts the action on “pause” while the author inserts whatever details of the locale are deemed important.
Too much description too often leads to reader boredom and the sense of nothing happening.
Too little leaves readers lost, confused, or disoriented.
Now, I was trained to use dominant impression when describing a place or person. Dominant impression is simply selecting the primary detail or information that you most want the reader to absorb and focusing on that in a brief, vivid paragraph.
My natural inclination, however–and one that I’ve fought against for years–is what’s known as the laundry list. This type of description is most likely to lead to reader snores. It involves listing detail after detail after detail. An anxious writer, uncertain of whether the sense of place is coming across, will tend to pile on more and more information with the unhappy result of overloading readers and bogging down the story.
However, I’ve encountered a third way of creating a setting which I think is effective in fantasy.
It involves telling readers where they are–for example Dickensian London or the fire pits of Ustan. And then plunging the viewpoint character into immediate trouble–either in scene action, conflict, or peril–and presenting the dialogue and character reactions true to their particular locale.
There’s no other explanation from the author. The reader, reading quickly to stay with the story action, has to keep up, orient himself to the locale, and envision the kind of place where characters would speak and behave in this particular manner.
It’s quick, engaging, and anything but boring. Avoid the temptation to explain and embroider. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.
And if you want to read an example of this technique, try THE ANUBIS GATES by Tim Powers.