The empty world – is your novel eerily deserted?

This is me, passing before your eyes as an extra in Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter . (Here’s my post about it, since you ask. Back now? On we go.) Blink and you’d miss me because your eye would quite rightly be on Matt Damon and the other characters who mean something to you.

And look at all the other folk in the scene. Extras, nameless, not even in the script. All of us, there to be ignored.

But if we weren’t there you’d miss us even more.

Too quiet

Something I see so often in first novels is that scenes look unpopulated. The main characters and the setting may be well drawn, but there is no sense that there is anyone else in the world of the story. School gates are deserted; the shopping mall is empty; there is never another car on the road. It makes the reader feel something is wrong. Background people are a crucial detail for making us feel a scene is real.

I know why this happens. When you envisage a scene, it’s hard enough to put in all the stuff that is relevant. But the background?

Directors on big movies have the same problem. They concentrate on the principals. The job of making a background come to life belongs to the assistant director and team. You almost have to do a similar thing yourself when writing – make one of your jobs populating the background.

Not too much

Of course, you don’t want too much of it. It mustn’t get in the way. When you’re opening a scene and letting the reader know who’s where and what they’re doing, add a person or two – perhaps a woman with her chin snuggled in her yellow scarf, walking fast to her car. The postman in a fluorescent vest swinging his leg over his bicycle.

You can use details of movement or life to punctuate pauses in dialogue or to underline tensions. Perhaps one of your characters hears a clack of bricks being thrown from the scaffolded house into a skip. He thinks that throwing something was exactly what he felt like – and instead he’s having a conversation that’s going nowhere. Or someone sitting in a cafe sees someone at an adjacent table waving to a passing friend and it reinforces their sense of being alone.

Imagination wrung out like a rag?

Of course, we’ve all got enough to think about inventing our significant stuff. It used to frustrate me too until I discovered Flickr. Now I search for a street scene or a bar and grab one that has the right look and feel. Instant background people – and I can get back to the characters I know and what they’re doing.

When you’re setting your scene, don’t forget the unimportant people.

Do you have any tips for populating a scene? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Stan Mitchell on January 29, 2012 - 8:50 pm

    Awesome post, with an excellent point about early scenes looking unpopulated. I think we’re in such a rush to make a good impression and keep the pace up, that it’s easy to make this mistake.

    And I love the Flickr suggestion. You’re a genius.

  2. #3 by gryphonboy on January 29, 2012 - 9:41 pm

    Awesome piece of advice.

    Never really thought about filling in the details before. I just presumed that was something the readers imagination would do.

    I think the way I’m writing my story will make it difficult to spend time on background stuff. I’m only devoting a page or two to each scene/chapter so I’m more focused on the core. I will definitely use this idea when I’m done with the first draft and start to focus on rewrites.


    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 29, 2012 - 9:52 pm

      Thanks, clawed one… That approach makes sense, to do things step by step. Definitely concentrate on the core first. Then when you’re secure with that, look around.

  3. #5 by MKBishop on January 29, 2012 - 10:46 pm

    It’s things like this that turn a novel from a story to read, into a place to go. Thanks for the reminder of how to do it.

  4. #7 by Pete Denton on January 29, 2012 - 10:56 pm

    Great post and fabulous advice. Always good to be reminded of these type of things and flickr is a really good idea. Little details make all the difference!

  5. #9 by Jane Gorman on January 30, 2012 - 12:25 am

    Great advice, thanks. I like to use photographs I’ve taken to get a feel for a scene, even if it’s not really the same place. Though I sometimes run the risk of going in the opposite direction when I’m writing, getting too caught up in the stories of the people in the background.

  6. #11 by never2late2write on January 30, 2012 - 4:30 am

    Great ideas! Thanks Roz. I’m definitely going to check out Flickr.

  7. #13 by Sally on January 30, 2012 - 12:24 pm

    Hi Roz! I always like the little things (esp. characters) in stories as much as the main ones. I think you’ve raised an important point. To really make your story feel alive it must be populated properly – without overwhelming the reader of course. I must admit I’ve had a tendency to over-complicate if anything. 🙂

  8. #15 by Lynette Benton (@LynetteBenton) on January 30, 2012 - 1:33 pm

    What a clever insight, Roz! Since your comments certainly should hold true for memoir, they have me feverishly examining the opening of my memoir to make sure it’s not “deserted!” Thanks for yet another super smart post.

  9. #17 by sarah on January 30, 2012 - 7:46 pm

    This was always my problem with Lord of the Rings. No people around! No farmers, travellers, figures seen in the distance, marketplaces to buy food on the road, etc. (It was worse in the movie – they’re in the middle of the wilderness, and they’re frying bacon!)

    • #18 by gryphonboy on January 30, 2012 - 8:20 pm

      I hope you’re not being serious. LoR is probably too detailed. He invented entire cultures, with in depth histories and even completely functional language.
      No people? No farmers? Did you even read the first chapter? I can’t decide whether you’re being sarcastic or not 😛

      • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 30, 2012 - 8:22 pm

        Can’t comment. I couldn’t get past the first page. It didn’t engage me at all and made so little impresson on me I can’t even remember enough about it to say why.

  10. #20 by Mary Tod on January 31, 2012 - 2:56 am

    Love the Flickr idea. My approach is to have my handy notebook with me at all times and to jot down little bits of description about people I see on the streets, the plane, in restaurants and so on. I get some great ideas from them. On Saturday, for example, I saw a woman riding an old fashioned bicycle wearing a full length fur coat, knitted blue scarf wrapped around her neck. She was peddling along the sidewalk at a leisurely pace as though she had no cares in the world amidst a cold Toronto winter day. A great piece of backdrop to fit into one of my novels 🙂

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2012 - 9:06 pm

      That’s a nice moment, Mary. I often stare at people, trying to commit a particular delightful oddness to memory, or asking myself why they’re garbed in a particular way and why it’s unexpected in the context.

  11. #22 by Cinda Fernando on January 31, 2012 - 2:08 pm

    This is one place where screenwriting and writing novels majorly differ – when you’re writing a script, if you add a detail about a woman in a yellow scarf in the background, it’s just clutter on the page.

    But when you’re writing a novel, the detail about the scarf becomes a small, beautiful moment.

    This post was very helpful, thanks Roz!

    • #23 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 31, 2012 - 3:29 pm

      Excellent point, Cinda. What’s distracting and unecessary in one medium is the eye-opening detail in another.

  12. #24 by Jennifer M Eaton on February 3, 2012 - 1:03 am

    I found this funny. I have a crowd in the background of an early scene in my novel, and one person who beta-read just hated it. She said they were “scenery” Well, yes, they were. What’s wrong with that?

  13. #26 by Richard Dunford on February 3, 2012 - 11:10 am

    Thx again Roz for a very interesting and helpful blogpost. As a photographer I’m constantly aware of framing my subject and picking just the right moment to press the button, but all the time balancing the star with the supporting cast.

    I’m very new to writing but posts like this one, as well as the comments that follow, are extremely helpful and motivating.

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 3, 2012 - 9:08 pm

      Thanks, Richard – and what an interesting parallel. I’m far less experienced than you with photographic composition, and just go for the main subject. Exactly like the writers I was describing who hadn’t yet developed the brain power to recognise the background is also important.

  14. #28 by marklanden on February 5, 2012 - 5:51 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Roz. It seems it’s in the details is where an author can actually be an ‘author’. Meaning, how they describe details brings the reader into their world. After I read this, two things immediately came to mind: 1) The point of the article was to remind/teach us to make sure our stories are inhabited. Not only the lady with the scarf walking along the sidewalk in front of the bar, but signs of life like describing how lively the bar is. 2) In general, it would seem that these details are essential to carry a story’s non-milestone scenes, the ‘quieter’ moments.

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 5, 2012 - 7:57 pm

      Absolutely, Mark. It’s part of the joy of being in charge of the reader’s experience. Every beat, every glance, time played out in words.

  15. #30 by Kayelle Allen on February 11, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    That was a wonderful reminder of how to add details that reinforce the main characters and their conflict, without going overboard. I found this post via Twitter and the hashtag #writetip. Thankful for that!

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