Last time, I mentioned how stories—the good ones anyway—avoid the boring parts of the journey by jumping into the action. Today’s post continues that “skip to the good parts” theme to talk about settings.
Setting is the sense of time, place, and mood within a story. Descriptions create a world within the mind of a reader and prevent the characters from just being talking heads. Settings can make a story come alive with a movie in the reader’s mind. Or they can drag a story down, stopping the action in its tracks. What accounts for the difference?
How long is too long?
One of the most important considerations is length. Four sentences of setting in a row probably reaches most readers’ limit (or about one paragraph). Any more than that and their eyes glaze over while they begin skimming for the next quotation mark, as dialogue equals action to many readers.
Yes, authors with a readership can get away with more than five sentences of description. *coughTolkiencough* However, all but the most fervent Tolkien fan will admit to skimming those parts. So if no one is going to read them, why not just take them out to begin with?
When a story focuses on some detail, the author is telling the reader that the detail is important. It’s like a camera zooming in on the scene. This can be good or bad. Too many descriptive details in a row are like a tour guide speed-talking through the Parthenon: look-here-no-look-there-no-look-over-there-and-don’t-forget-over-here. The reader can feel like they have whiplash from it all!
When is a detail important?
Unless the story is written from an omniscient viewpoint, the narration should focus only on details the point-of-view character would notice. A child would notice different things than an adult. A female would notice different things than a male. A socialite would notice different things than a homeless person. When an author focuses on details in the description, they’re not only telling the reader about what’s important in the scene, but they’re also telling the reader something about the point-of-view character.
In this way, setting can be used to show backstory and character emotions, as well as be used to create emotions within the reader. And this brings us to the other important consideration with passages of setting.
Interweaving setting with action
The best (non-boring) settings interweave description with the action. We see the character interacting with and moving through their environment.
For the above picture, we could have a flat sentence: Around the elegant table, the tan linen napkins sat propped above each place setting.
Or we could get insight into a character: She slid into an empty chair in front of a linen napkin and wished she’d paid more attention to her mother’s etiquette lectures.
Both methods create a picture in the reader’s mind with a hint of a fancy table, but the second option seamlessly interweaves relevant details:
- character emotion (anxiousness),
- backstory (mother was an etiquette stickler),
- action (she’s joining this table),
- and tension (Will she embarrass herself during the meal?).
And all those nuggets of information keep the information interesting for a reader. We can’t skip that sentence, or we might miss something important.
I’ll admit, this is a favorite subject of mine because it’s one of the aspects of my craft that—thanks to workshops and a very kind mentoring email from Courtney Milan—I’d call the most improved. Ask my critique partner. My first attempts to create setting were either too little (er, non-existent) or paragraphs in a row (not just sentences) of flat description. I’m proud to say that same overly-wordy section is now one sentence that flows with the pacing and gives character insight. And that’s the key: Setting should be about interweaving action (not slowing down pacing) and important (relevant) details with character emotion.
How much description do you like to read? At what point do your eyes start to glaze over? What makes description interesting to you?