By: K.M. Weiland
You can’t write a good setting without a good description. That’s the way it rolls. In written literature, what is setting if not description? How do you convey it without description of some sort? For something so relatively intuitive, setting descriptions can end up being surprisingly tricky to detail effectively.
For one thing, you have to be able to perfectly visualize the setting in your mind (yay, Pinterest!). For another, you have to be able to choose only the most pertinent details and then—hardest of all—organize those details into some kind of coherency that will allow your readers to share your perfect visualization.
(And we won’t even get into the fact that you first have to choose settings that are relevant, interesting, and thematically pertinent. Oh, and accurate.)
Today, let’s examine each of these possible pitfalls and how they might be rendering your setting descriptions less effective than they could be.
3 Ways to Ruin Your Setting Descriptions
1. No Filter on the Details
If you’re like me, you have a cinematic imagination (when I was young, I called the stories I imagined “my movies”). You see every detail of your settings in larger-than-life Technicolor (complete with light filters and slow-mo when necessary). Quite admirably, you want to share that vivid sensation with readers, down to the very last detail.
So you write something like this:
Rose tiptoed into Max’s office. Now where would he keep top-secret spy gadgets?
The room was perhaps thirty feet square, the walls a serene shade of blue somewhere in between a springtime sky and a robin’s eggshell. The carpet was two shades darker.
A monstrosity of an executive desk sat in the middle of the room, in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, curtained in velvet that looked to be two shades darker itself. Behind the desk, an eerily empty leather-padded chair stood guard over the humming black HP computer with its 36-inch touch-screen monitor. A printer, a scanner, three phones, even a fax machine filled up one side of the desk.
Bookcases lined the walls, crammed so full that hundreds of extra books had to lie sideways along the shelves’ front edge. Above the bookcases, fully a dozen framed photographs glinted from behind glass: three diplomas, five awards, two pictures of family, and one of a fluffy cat.
The back of room, near the door, was tastefully crowded with overstuffed furniture: a couch, two glass-topped end tables, three gorgeously comfortable leather chairs. Flowers in blue and purple cut-glass vases wafted scents of rose and jasmine from every corner.
Ready for some action yet? This isn’t a terrible description. It definitely creates a detailed picture of the office. It even offers a few interesting insights into Max. But it’s also excruciatingly long (and I’ve seen ones that are even longer!). Readers were ready for Rose to find the super-secret spy stuff after the first paragraph.
Even worse? This much detail at the wrong time, in the wrong place, can actually end up stunting your readers’ ability to evocatively visualize the scene. The most powerful descriptions are those that give readers the tools to build their own settings, rather than force-feeding them the author’s vision, detail by detail. All you need are a few well-placed telling details to help readers see the whole scene at a glance.
2. No Organization of Details
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