Yesterday, I admitted how I’m not very into reading about setting details.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m not into writing about setting details, thanks to my own story editor (and yes, I have an editor. Every author who wants to publish should). She’s awesome, and she makes me a better writer on every single level. I couldn’t do without her.
Then again, she’s also rather traumatized me over the years.
Because I don’t care about reading setting details, I wasn’t big into writing setting details for quite a while. This only makes sense since we write about things we know, care about or are intrigued by.
But then along comes my editor, who rightly points out that nobody outside of my own head is going to know what my characters are interacting with unless I make such things known. So, after some internal and external grumbling, I determined to change my ways.
And promptly went overboard in the other direction.
Sometimes, I guess that’s just the way we learn.
Through trial, error and well-meaning chastisements from my editor, I do believe I’ve balanced out how much setting to put in and how much not to.
As such, I’m in a pretty decent position to deliver the following Writing Rule. Having been there and done that so many times myself, I certainly know what I’m talking about.
Too much setting can kill the plot.
It’s important for writers to provide setting details for their stories. But it’s also important to give readers room to treat those details as the background noise they’re meant to be. Don’t let setting take away from your plot, which it can too easily do.
Readers don’t need to know every dune in a desert or scent in a rose garden or thrill of excitement at the thought of a romantic rendezvous. Save something for the imagination, which will be kicking in anyway.
Truly, it doesn’t matter how much you describe anything in your book, whether it’s a couch or a golf course or a planet. (Or a character, for that matter.) Readers are bound to come up with their own ideas of what you’re talking about regardless.
So you might as well give them that leeway and save yourself some time.
So when are there just one too many setting details given? What’s the line?
This would be one of those frustrating instances when there’s no immediate, simple and definitive answer to give. It really does depend.
For one thing, it depends on the genre. If you’re writing modern fiction set someplace where the vast majority of your readers are going to recognize, such as a generic Western city or town, you won’t have to make as much of a descriptive effort as if you’re writing historical fiction, or fantasy or sci-fi that’s set in some ancient-based or futuristic society.
The less familiar a location is, the more work you’re going to have to do to establish it.
Yet even in those cases, you don’t have to give everything away all at once. Throw a few paragraphs in to start with, and then intersperse them throughout the rest of the text.
Do it in and through and around dialogue, exposition, character development and plot, embedding a sentence’s worth of setting here… two sentences' worth there… a few words of detail in the next paragraph… and so forth.
That way, your readers won’t even know they’re being immersed in the story. They'll just be immersed.