Friday, January 11, 2019

The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Description is a blessing and a curse. Setting the scene is vital to help readers immerse themselves in your story world, but too much of it can bore readers and encourage them to skim past it. But find the proper balance between words and word pictures, and readers feel as though they've stepped into the book and live in you world.

How much do you need to describe your setting?

The pat answer is, "enough to make it feel real without bogging the reader down in too many details," but that isn't very helpful. How do you know how much detail is too much? Where is that fine line between immersive and oppressive? And the really frustrating part, is that there is no clear cut right answer. What is "enough" for an epic fantasy is usually too much for women's fiction, and what a thriller needs is different from a middle grade contemporary.

Let's look at a few guidelines.

Five Tips on Describing Your Setting 

1. Describe what's unique to the world or situation 

When you introduce your setting, pick details that are unique to that setting. Everyone knows what a town looks like, or a spaceship, or a medieval village, but what makes your town, spaceship, or village different? What are the three or four key elements that readers need to know when they enter this setting?

The more vital those details are to the scene or story, the more fleshed out they're likely to be. But be wary of dumping too much too fast--make the setting feel organic to the story, not like you just shoved a Wikipedia page about your world into it.

(Here's more on knowing if your description is holding your back)

2. Describe what will be assumed incorrectly 

Readers make assumptions based on what they read. Sometimes those assumptions are wrong because the writer has done the "typical" differently. If your setting is a forest and you say "forest," readers will imagine tall, green, trees, birds singing, and sunlight filtering in between the leaves of the canopy. But if your forest is comprised of white crystalline trees that resonate with musical chimes when the wind blows, that's an entirely different forest than the default "forest" setting. Get those details in there right away so readers won't get the wrong image in their heads.

This also works both ways--while you don't want to outright trick readers, dropping a few subtle clues and then letting them make the wrong assumption can work as a red herring when needed.

(Here's more on describing what readers won't assume or expect)

3. Describe what's relevant to the scene 

If your protagonist is trying to escape a madman by running into a maze of crumbling buildings, it's not a good time to describe the overlay of the entire city. Keep your descriptions to what's nearby and what matters. What elements are important to the setting at that moment?

An added benefit of keeping details relevant is that they'll work twice as hard in every scene. Not only will they show the setting, they'll also shed light onto the point of view character's state of mind or personality. They'll world build on multiple levels and keep the pace moving.

(Here's more on the difference between setting and world building)

4. Describe what's relevant to the character 

Tunnel vision occurs when emotions run high and everything else drops away. Even if your protagonist isn't emotional, they'll only remark on things that matter to them. If they couldn't tell you the difference between a palm tree and a maple tree, they won't be describing the local landscape in meticulous detail. But if they're an architecture fanatic, they might describe the buildings in more detail (if this is an important thing for readers to know of course). This will also help you show instead of tell, as you'll see the world through your point of view character's eyes.

It also helps you choose which details to include and which to toss. If the details has zero relevance to the character or what's going on in the scene, why is it being mentioned? Details with no real reason for being there can either be cut, or reworked to show some aspect of the world or character. 

(Here's more on how setting can affect your story)

5. Describe by showing it in action versus explaining it 

Setting details typically work best when they're backgrounded into the scene and flow seamlessly with the rest of the text. If it's raining in a city, show people stepping over puddles on the sidewalk, pulling on raincoats as they leave cafes, the squeak-thunk of windshield wipers instead of "It was raining when she left work." Pick details that make it clear it's raining without having to say it.

This is particularly useful for created worlds, where many aspects if the world are things readers have never seen. Showing a character using it, or interacting with it, gives you a reason to focus on it. And when necessary, yes, even explain it (sometimes a little telling is what a scene needs).

(Here's more on choosing the best words to describe your setting)

Tips on Not Doing Too Much 

It's easy to go overboard with description, especially setting description, so here are some things to think about to keep your details in check:
  • What does the POV character care about at that moment in that scene?
  • What does the POV interact with in that scene?
  • What is critical in the scene to understand where this is going on?
  • What details are critical to understand the overall world?
Personally, I like to use the rule of three here. Three is an easily manageable number and gives enough information without overloading the reader. Try sticking to three details and/or three sentences about something at one time.
Palm trees swayed in the breeze coming in from the beach.

The League had never looked so mean.Like an arched cat, hissing and spitting. A bold crab, claws at the ready. A mama croc, guarding a nest full of eggs.
One note of caution here: Don't use three things every time you describe something. It'll feel repetitious and clunky if every noun has multiple descriptive tags on it.

If you're still unsure if you have too much or too little?

Try printing your pages out (or reducing the page size so it's all grey lines) and looking for large sections of solid text. Odds are those passages are description heavy and could be places to trim. No large blocks of text at all? Then perhaps those are areas that could use a little more description, especially if they're at the start of a new scene or chapter when it's important to ground readers in where they are.

Are you an over-describer or an under-describer? Do you set the scene first or do you weave in the details as the scene unfolds? 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I'm an under-describer for sure. I don't really like reading much description and I don't like writing it much. Thanks for the tips for making it a bit less painful.

  2. i've been searching for this post! thanks for writing it!

  3. Great post Janice. And the timing is perfect. I just got my ABNA review for Sendek and one of the things the review suggested I work on was "add a few effective descriptions without losing the pace."

    I love writing descriptions and it was a surprise to me that I had over edited them out. At least adding a few things will be easier than cutting. :)

    The reviewer also suggested "more exact comparisons" which makes so much sense. I used the phrase: He was drowning, but I wasn't exact in how binding with a demon felt like drowning. It was left too open for interpretation and I need to ground the reader just a bit more.

  4. Thanks, Janice, very practical tips for keeping the right balance in the amount of description.

    I haven't written enough yet (or had enough feedback yet) to know whether I tend to go over or under. Maybe with tips like this I'll be able to keep it well balanced from the start 8^)

  5. I'm generally an under-describer, though not on purpose. I think part of it's that I don't pay attention to my surroundings—and when I do, I promptly forget what I saw.

    It's mental conditioning I did to myself, because I'm naturally nosy and a bit OC. If I let myself, I'll be so focused on getting everything perfect that nothing will get done. Seriously, my makeup company changed the size of the eye shadow containers by about a millimeter, and it's driving me up the wall.

    And then there's the detail that if I pay attention, I'll notice things like pregnancies before they've been made public. Which gets awkward.

    Still, I'm at a point in one story where it's time to make sure the description's worked in, so I hope this post will help me. :)


  6. Very good tips! When writing my first draft I do not describe the setting very much. I'm just focused on getting the story written. Then I go back through and while editing add in the necessary details.

  7. I love writing dialogue - so the descriptions get neglected - thanks for sharing all this good advice.

  8. I'm a big-time under-describer. When I see description in a book, I start to skim, and I think I'm worse now than when I was a kid! I've really had to force myself to slow down and read it to see how others do it.

    I really like the idea of looking for those big blocks of text - if I don't have them in the beginning of a new scene, I need to take a second look at that.

  9. I'm definitely an under-describer. When I make a specific effort to write description, it comes out in a thick clunky section. Though I suppose that's fine in a first draft. That clunky description is essentially an author note of brainstormed things I could work into my description-thin parts.

  10. This is fantastic info!! I always wonder if I'm doing too much, too little, this guide will help tremendously. Thanks!!

  11. Natalie, I'm with you :) I'm always looking for ways to make this easier on myself.

    Tara, most welcome!

    Charity, sounds like you got some helpful advice there. I've found that less is more, cliches as that is. You can do more with a few very specific words than a page of generalities.

    R.E. Hunter, well can hope! Be nice to spare a fellow writer some of the bumps along the way.

    Carradee, on the upside, sounds like you have really good eye for detail :) You might make a good character actually. That's a trait I can see in a protagonist.

    BJ Kerry, most welcome. Dialog is what I almost always write first myself. Then I fill in the blanks.

    Khanada, I'm a skimmer too. Looking at the combination of dark vs light on a page really does give a decent sense of the balance in the text. Zooming out to show six or eight pages seems to work nicely for me.

    Jaleh, I'll give myself a paragraph to blurt it out and deal with later. Or I'll just write (describe) and move on :) Sometimes it's easier once I see finished scene.

    Traci, most welcome!

  12. This is really helpful, Janice! Thanks so much!!

  13. http://crystalwhimsey.net3/27/2012 8:05 AM

    This is good stuff. I'm an over describer which means I end up going back and paring down many scenes. Not particularly productive. People like me get maximum benefit from your article. Thanks

  14. I would also suggest reading your writing out loud. If you are out of breath, or bored, chances are you've gone overboard. Loved the advice. Thank you for posting. I'm editing my novella, "SUKI" right now, and am looking at exactly this. Did I paint a clear, but interesting picture for my reader in each of the scenes? This was shown to me at just the right time.

  15. Crystal, if you're over describing to figure things out, it's not not bad. But if you're not getting anything useful out of it, it can indeed hurt your productivity.

    Christina, good tip. Reading out loud catches a lot of snags.

  16. I ignore descriptions for pages, and then cram everything I can think of into two paragraphs. So...both?

  17. Rachel, do you go back later and spread those descriptions out over those pages or leave it in as is?

  18. I typically cut the big chunks down quite a lot; a few details get moved elsewhere, but usually I just add new stuff to different scenes.

  19. Sounds like a process to me :) Whatever works, works.

  20. Hi Janice,
    Another awesome post to follow-up the character post!

  21. Tracy, thanks, glad you liked it. I always enjoy pulling the older ones out. They deserve some time in the light :)

  22. You KNOW I needed to read this! THANK YOU!!! :) e

  23. Elizabeth, lol, I write them just for you :)

  24. I'm an under-describer. For some reason -- maybe out of habit -- this is the hardest thing for me to do. I have to research a setting in advance so I have the details to draw on. I get things like names of common trees, plants, and animals. I'm doing a story in central California, so it's things like giant kelp, cudweed, and sea gulls. I also look for place names that would help set the location. After that, I have the setting somewhere in the opening of the scene and then add more pieces throughout (if I don't make the effort, I will completely ignore it).

    1. I like that--the specific words to set the scene. A great way to use details without bogging the story down. They bring up images a general detail wouldn't.

      If I didn't have a crit partner who whacked me with the description stick, I'd barely have any. It's good to have one of those when description is not your thing (grin)

  25. Thank you this has made things much clearer now. I like descriptions to a point, but can't stand it when it's pointless or is distanced from the main pov. blea.I don't like it when they don't have anything to to with the plot/characters. Descriptions of say a castles hallways, and doors bore me to tears

    1. Glad it helped. I'm the same way with description. I do tend to skim if it's just random details.

    2. I aim for just what's important to the main pov at that time. It seems to work.

    3. Hey! Descriptions and weather can mix :D

      "He held his head up, far past the hill a man riding a horse plowed through the snow with several others behind him."

      (They are in a valley, I mentioned that a few paragraphs before.) Short and sweet. Hopefully not too short. Oh well, this first draft of this new chapter.

      I really need to remember to come in and check for replys sooner.

    4. You can subscribe I think. But I totally understand not being able to get to comments right away :) Happens to me all the time.

  26. Thank you! Very helpful.