At This Point, Nobody Cares About Your Story’s Setting Anymore
We’re now up to Writing Rule #18, which reads this way:
There’s a certain point where setting descriptions get intensely unnecessary.
Setting is an integral part of any story, but it can be overdone. 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.
To put that last line another way, readers are only going to pay attention to your descriptions so much before their own opinions take over – opinions that are oftentimes based more on the front cover than the actual story.
So why bother stressing out about setting in the first place?
To me, setting has always been one of the most tricky aspects of writing. That and endings are areas I simply seem to struggle with. I either put in too little about the world my characters operate in, or I overcompensate and say way too much about it.
During a book reading, I even had someone ask what color the wallpaper was in my protagonist’s home. In the moment, I laughed and admitted that I wasn’t the best at establishing setting. But it wasn’t until later that my editor, who was also there, told me he was implying the exact opposite: that I had gone overboard with describing the house’s interior.
Perhaps my issues with setting stem from letting a writing friend of mine read my original attempts at storytelling. One of her biggest criticisms was that I didn’t detail things enough. And then, when I tried to please her by beefing up those written pictures, I ended up annoying my editor, who said I needed to dial it back.
Sometimes, you just can’t win.
At least I know I’m not alone though, since this is an area even professionally published authors have a hard time with. That’s why countless blogs have been written on the subject and lectures given. But how about I give it a shot anyway with this single piece of advice…
Don’t drone on for pages and pages and pages about your character’s world. For that matter, try not to drone on for paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs, or even sentences and sentences and sentences.
If you’re the type who likes to do that, I’m sorry, but long gone are the days where writers could get away with something like:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
While I deeply admire and respect A Tale of Two Cities specifically and Charles Dickens in general, his particular style of writing isn’t in vogue anymore. (Plus, that’s one very long run-on sentence.)
Instead, try dispersing all those world-building particulars throughout the chapter, giving a few details here and a few details there.
If the scene takes place in a kitchen, for instance, rather than writing that the walls are blue, the stove is on, the water is boiling and the kitchen is a mess, you could maybe try something closer to this:
Debbie ran a flour-coated hand through her short blond hair. The salt had to be there somewhere. She’d certainly seen it before the water began boiling. Yet now she could find everything but the shaker: the box of opened pasta, the oozing can of tomato sauce, the fresh basil still lying on the cutting board waiting for her to get to it too. Even the pepper was in plain sight right next to the stack of bowls she’d deposited on the table.
But not that wretched salt.
The phone rang, pulling her further into her rising panic.
She reached for it blindly. “Hello?”
“Hello!” The voice was chirpingly cheerful: a telemarketer, no doubt. “Is this Debbie Toppent?
Just in case she was mistaken, Debbie tucked the phone between her shoulder and ear, then marched back over to the steaming stove. “Yes. How can I help you?”
“My name is Liz Fargo, and I work for Tarrington Life Insurance.”
Debbie didn’t wait to hear any more. Hanging up, she set the phone down on the counter, her gaze straying up the light blue walls on its way to the ceiling, where she intended to direct one serious prayer for help.
Instead of laying out the whole entire setting in one fell swoop, the story snippet above automatically assumes that readers can see everything Debbie can. It almost seems to take those kinds of description for granted by applying them in such a sneaky way.
Yet it still applies them.
Now, when it comes to historical fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, the worlds might be completely different from the one readers know. So writers often do have to give further care to properly establishing setting in those genres. But even then, try not to dump entire blocks of scenery or surroundings onto a single page.
Spread it around as much as possible. And while you’re at it, feel free to ignore the wallpaper altogether.