Details And Ambience – Not Always The Same Thing

The smell of cinnamon and apples.

The heat of the chili on her tongue while feeling the cool night air on her back.

Her long hair falling in her face as she shifts on the hard bench.

The feel of the splintered picnic table, rough against the undersides of her forearms as she watches the firelight play on his skin – and tries to keep from looking like she’s staring.

The slide of his jacket around her shoulders, still warm from being on his back as she smiles gratefully up at him.


We’ve set not just the scene, but the mood.

You can tell it’s probably a fall night. You know she likes this boy, and he quite probably likes her, too.

I was beta reading something for a new writer the other day, and the girl had the right idea, but got too bogged down with details vs. ambience. When her two characters met, I knew what each was wearing from head to toe. I knew what flavor of gum the girl was chewing, the color of both their eyes and hair, how tall they were to the inch. I knew the color of the shutters on the house the girl lived in and how tall the bushes were out front.

And yet I knew nothing about them, really, or the way the environment aided or impeded them.

That’s not to say that ambience isn’t a double-edged sword. I have a bad habit – a very bad habit – of not giving a crap what my protagonist is wearing unless it has a physical function in the scene. She can wear a hoodie if she has to zip it against the cold, but I won’t tell you if she’s in jeans or a sundress when I might want to mention that.

Readers like to be able to paint a mental picture, and they need a level of detail to do that. When the characters are vivid and incredibly detailed in my head but not much more than a shell on paper, I’m losing my audience.

I actually wrote a 10,000 word novella once with this awesome, fun love story between these great, quirky characters, and it wasn’t till my beta reader mentioned it that I realized I’d never – not once – described how the two lovers looked. Not once.


So the bottom line here is don’t sacrifice ambience for details, and don’t leave out the necessary level of detail to keep your reader hooked on your story.

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