Friday, August 23

Are You Maintaining Your Setting?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Because setting is something we tend to do more of at the start (we "set the scene" and describe our worlds), it's not uncommon for setting details to fade as the novel progresses. We know the world, so we don't always remember to add those descriptive details in later chapters. And that can lead to weak worlds and "white room" settings in the back half of the novel. 

As we write our novels and flesh out our worlds, no matter if they're modern day New York or the fantasy village of Hineta, it's not a bad idea to think about how consistent the setting is--and if it's keeping up with the rest of the novel. 

Does the setting continue to to the end, or does it fade out?

It can be hard to keep a setting going, because once we've used the perfect details to show it, we can't just keep using those same details or it'll feel repetitious. It might also feel strange if the characters keep remarking on setting long after it's been established. Or, we might just get caught up in the excitement of the plot and forget to describe it.

(Tips on grounding readers in your world here)

The world is a big place, so there are probably other details that can reinforce the setting and still reveal something new about it. This is especially true in science fiction or fantasy where the world is so much of the draw. Try thinking about:
  • What details might have changed since the book opened?
  • What details might have been uncovered?
  • Are there any recurring details that could become a theme or symbol?
  • Are there reasons why the POV might notice new details?
  • Are you treating every scene as if the reader had never seen it before, or building off of what you've already done?

(Tips on how much to describe your setting here)

Does the point of view character's view about the world change, or does she see the same world in the same way?

There are great opportunities to set the scene and show character growth in the back half of the story. Opinions of a place change as people grow and learn new things. What seemed like an intimidating and stand-offish village might become a safe haven with people who watch out for each other once we get to know them. The harsh lights of a big city might feel magical after we lived there a while.
  • What is known at the end of the book that wasn't at the start? Does it affect the setting?
  • Does the character re-evaluate her opinion on anything setting related?
  • Do the same details evoke a different emotional response?
  • Does she see her place in the world different? How does that change things?

Is too much time spent on the setting?

Sometimes we can go too far the opposite direction. Describing every little detail can get tedious, especially if it doesn't tell the reader anything new. It risks bogging down a story and dragging the pace to a crawl. Examine your scenes and ask:
  • Does the character stop the story every scene to describe where she is?
  • Does she spend more time talking about what something looks like than actually doing anything?
  • Are there a lot of sweeping word paintings that focus on the landscape or weather?
  • Do interior scenes read like chapters from an interior design magazine? 
(Tips on using setting to build your world here)

Getting lost in a book in one of my favorites things, and when the world is real and wonderful I enjoy it even more.

Where do you fall on settings? Minimalist or heavy describer? Is your setting as clear and vibrant by the end of the book as it is in the beginning?


  1. Excellent points--and not something you normally come across in the how-to advice. Love the reminder that setting changes with the character's arc!

    Hope you don't mind if we include this in Friday's round-up of best articles for writers.


  2. I'm a lot like you, Janice - lean with the descriptions. It is something I have to put forth much effort into during later drafts of a story. However, I'm almost finished reading THE SHIFTER, and I never once thought the setting wasn't described well. But perhaps I just don't need too much of a nudge before my imagination simply fills in the gaps. I'm having no trouble at all picturing the scenes, and that was actually something I was going to specifically highlight in my upcoming review.

    *shrugs* Just another example of how we're all different, as readers *and* writers. :)

  3. I'm the same way. I almost don't even touch the setting. I wrote my first novel last year and it takes place almost exclusively in the dream world (but also the shadow realm) ... I do describe those cause they're different from our world. With my current WIP, it's our world. There's paranormal stuff going on, but it's our world. So, I think other than my main character's bedroom, the forest behind his house, his school and his grandmother's kitchen, there's close to no description.
    i'm getting ready to start reading the shifter; so, this is something i can look out for ... to see how you handle setting.

  4. I'm glad I'm not alone in not loving descriptions. I get pushed by my critique group too to describe more. I also am starting to struggle in my second book with descriptions of made up creatures, magical things, to describe them enough without putting in too much backstory.

  5. I always thought I was a bit weird for being a sci fi/fantasy writer who didn't like description, but I meet lots of folks now who feel the same way (yay!). Trends change I guess, and the days of heavy word painting might be over. (more yay!). I think it helps a lot to think of setting as something that lets us accomplish another writing goal instead of just setting as itself. It's a tool, not just a necessary evil. That's how I try to approach it.

  6. I like reading evocative descriptions that flow with the rest of the story. But I hate writing description, because I'm so prosaic. When I try to describe things, they sound dry and boring. So, for now, I just write enough about setting for me to know where the characters are and leave the rest for later drafts.

  7. When it comes to books I read, I don't mind how much/little setting description there is, so long as what is there is reasonably clear. I get frustrated if I can't figure out the layout of a room or what a writer means by how they describe certain clothes.

    My own writing is stronger when I focus on action and dialogue, so I'm working on improving my description while maintaining a steady and engaging pace.

  8. Hello love your blog! It's an interesting question, I am always questioning myself while writing my story, wether it's boring the reader with lengthy descriptions. I do think it's important to include some description, perhaps instead of 'setting the scene' at the start its sometimes better to gradually build a picture throughout the scene? It can be used to enhance an event or dialogue to add to the mood and atmosphere that im trying to create. I have thought while reading my older work that the description, whilst good, was too long and perhaps boring the reader. However I have read no1 bestsellers that start with long description, so it can work.I think the trick is to create the scene you want with the best possible words, but fewer of them :-)

  9. Though I've read many books that use your second point (setting to illustrate character growth), it never really dawned on me to use that in my book. Not just people, but places! Thank you, Janice!

    I'm definitely a minimalist, partly because I find settings hard to envision. "It's a house, fill in your own blanks!" :P

  10. Paul, it's a tough balance sometimes. If you can find one, having a crit partner who's good at that helps a lot. Min is worth her weight in cookies.

    Chazalou, thanks! Bestsellers are tough, because often they can get away with things new writers can't. They already have an audience and aren't trying to win over readers. But yes, anything done well will work, and the best words for the job work in whatever we're writing.

    Rachel, most welcome! Glad I could inspire you. Love the "fill in your own blanks."

  11. I love my two crit partners, though one is adjusting to becoming a mum recently so she can't help as much.

  12. I love my two crit partners, though one is adjusting to becoming a mum recently so she can't help as much.

  13. You can certainly relate to that one (grin)

  14. I do not spend nearly enough time on setting. This will help me!

  15. I tend to be bad about remembering to add descriptions. I can see the setting in my mind so well, I forget I have to let the readers know about it too.

  16. What i've found to be key is to give the reader enough to set the mental stage, but not to go off for six pages when describing a group of a thousand hunter's tunics...

    I appreciated the comment that SF/F is more rooted in the world building aspect, and that descriptions of that setting is part of what that reader wants. As a SF/F author/fan, this is so true and just can not be underestimated. i have been conditioned to temper my proclivity for emulating Tolkien, but when you can meld the setting into the plot and characters, well that is magic.

    don't post often, but i really appreciate your blog. Thanks for the right motivation and assistance when i need it, greatly appreciated even when they are reruns!

  17. I'm told I describe setting more then the average writer, but I'm also not heavy handed. I suspect this is because I don't see details when they're too subtle, so I add enough that I can see them. But I'm also picking details very specifically and deliberately. And it's not just description. It does double duty for a variety of things, depending on what the scene is.

  18. PD Workman, good luck! And remember, setting can always be added in the second draft.

    Chemist Ken, it's easy to do, especially if a lot of research is involved. Then it really feels as if we've done it already.

    Tzalaran, most welcome, glad you find it helpful. It doesn't take a lot to ground readers to a setting, or keep them there.

    Literary fiction is another area where heavy setting description is more common. Setting plays a role and becomes a character.

    Linda, sounds like a good way to use description. It's a useful tool, and can be a very powerful one.