Let’s try an example. Dame Agatha Christie sets up her classic play, Ten Little Indians, with initial stage directions that are here reproduced with one minor deletion:
“The scene is the living room of a house on Indian Island. It is a very modern room, and luxuriously furnished. It is a bright sunlight evening. Nearly the whole of the back of the stage is a window looking directly out to sea. French doors are open in center to balcony. It should give the impression of being like the deck of a liner, almost overhanging the sea. There is a chair out on the balcony and the main approach to the house is presumed to be up steps on the left side of the balcony. . . French doors are wide so that a good area of the balcony is shown.
“In the left wall, near windows, is a door to dining room. Downstage left is a door communicating with hall. Pull cord below this door.
“Up right is a door to study. Middle stage right is fireplace. Over it hangs the reproduction of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme. On the mantelpiece are a group of ten china Indian figures. They are not spaced out, but clustered so that the exact number is not easily seen.
“Center are two sofas with space between. Chair and small table up left. Club chair with tabouret right and above it, down left, where there is also a bookcase. There is a window seat up right and cocktail cabinet below mantelpiece. Tabouret down right. Before fireplace is a big white bearskin rug with a bear’s head. There is an armchair and tabouret right center. A square ottoman at lower end of the fireplace. A settee with table left of it in front of window at the back.”
Can you imagine this scene? On your inner visual screen do you imagine colors? What colors? The only color actually mentioned is white in describing the bearskin rug. If you can see the sky through the balcony, would it be a solid blue or dotted with white, puffy clouds? Would this expanse be flat or stretch to the horizon? If either, does that affect the colors you perceive? How would it affect the reader?
We are told the living room is very modern and luxuriously furnished. Would those words narrow your perception of color? Perhaps. But we aren’t given a date. Many colors can be perceived as modern. Some colors such as those replicating the patina of oak and mahogany are dark and have been associated with luxury for decades. Would they also be modern? Or, is there an unwanted tension created between the dark colors of wood and, say, the sparkle of gold or silver? How about visual intensity? Is one contrasting color concentrated in a small space to become a focal point?
The mantelpiece is mentioned as an important room element. Should it be noteworthy by being crafted from a light-colored stone or gilded with gold?
Whatever the case, the discussion so far should kindle the thought that there can be no right or wrong answer in a vacuum. The purpose of room color description is most often useful only to create a mood. Dark colors conjure up gloom and/or depression and, while there are no characters mentioned in the stage directions, a dark-colored room makes it easier for a mystery’s burglar to slink into the background. Bright pastel colors could be the trigger to an older person remembering where they grew up as a child, e.g., a red lampshade, a green throw pillow on either or both sofas.
Color, important in itself, can also define shapes. Are the purple velvet curtains a vertical rectangle or visually impressive for their scalloped horizontal line at the top of the window(s) they adorn? We can probably inwardly visualize the shape and size of a bearskin rug. A fireplace or its mantel presents a greater challenge. They can vary greatly in size and design, although visually within limits. Determining what the word “tabouret” means is decidedly more difficult. There is an inherent ambiguity in the word for it can mean either a low seat without a back or arms or a small portable stand or cabinet. Since the word is used multiple times, a mixture of visualized furniture is definitely possible. Why confuse the reader? There is no good reason to. The reader would be busy enough trying to visual the room without generating more confusion, especially since we haven’t added any character yet.
And, even if one is confident in describing the room, how should it be done—all at once, or piecemeal in narrative between character dialogue, in character dialogue, or silently within the thoughts of a character? It’s a big decision. Too much narrative and you lose the reader experiencing boredom with a lack of action. Too little description and the reader will be lost for not being grounded in the context of the story.
While it would be an unending task to try to pinpoint what should be the final result of every written story, the point here is that each author needs to examine his or her setting description with an attempt to determine what is being projected into and absorbed by the reader’s mind. If the projected image is not the desired one, a different perspective is likely the best first choice for finding the solution.