Let’s imagine that the setting of a novel is a summer’s garden. (OK, so whether as reader or as writer, you may actually favour books set somewhere rather darker and more urban, but please bear with me. I’m a novelist – it’s a metaphor, all right?)
In the author’s head is an image of the garden, perfect in every particular.
Her challenge is to convey that image to the reader (or one that is slightly different, since every reader’s experience of an imagined world must necessarily be unique). She must conjure it as clearly and vividly as she sees it herself – but do so without describing in tedious detail each leaf and blade of grass.
How is this magical transformation to be effected?
The first step is a detailed ground plan.
Above all, it is vital that the writer’s fictional world should not be under-imagined. She must be familiar with every part of it, whether visible or invisible. The reader may never see what’s over the wall or behind the tree but the writer must know, just the same. It enables her to write with total assurance of this place of her invention, and her confidence will transfer itself to the reader, even though the hidden sweep of lawn or shrubbery is never actually revealed. The ground plan is for the author alone and does not appear upon the page, but without this close knowledge the scene will remain unreal: an artefact, a stage set.
Then it is time to put pen to paper. The author’s task is to transmit an impression of the perfect whole through the revelation of selected parts – in much the same way as a painter may convince us that we see upon her canvas a landscape all complete, while in fact large areas outside the key focus of the eye may be hatched in only cursorily or washed to a hazy blue.
It seems to me that there are two main techniques that the writer, like the artist, may adopt.
The first is the broad brush approach: the application of bold, outline strokes to sketch out the overall shape of the setting, to give a sense of its defining features.
Given a sufficiently suggestive skeleton, each reader’s imagination will be fired to furnish for itself the colour and contour, the light and shade which bring the scene to life.
Less obvious, perhaps, but equally effective in my experience, is the opposite approach: working not from broad outline but from small, selected details. Switch the focus away from the general view and depict instead, at close quarters and minutely observed, some characteristic element from which the reader can infer the nature of the whole.
How better than to evoke a rose garden than to describe in fine, filigree detail the petals of a single rose?
Rosy Thornton writes contemporary women's fiction. She is the author of five novels, the latest of which, 'Ninepins', won her the East Anglian Book Awards prize for fiction in November 2012. To pay the bills, She lectures in Law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a fellow of Emmanuel College.