I got a request on yesterday's character description post, asking if I had ever done a post on how much you need to describe your setting. Well, yes I have and here it is.
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 becomes boring and causes the reader to skim. But find the proper balance between words and word pictures, and your reader will feel like they've stepped into the book and live in that world.
So 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?Let's look at a few guidelines.
Five Tips on Describing 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?
(More tips on description here)
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.
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?
(And one more on description here)
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 POV's eyes.
(More on how setting can affect your story here)
5. Describe by showing it in action versus explaining it
Setting details 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. Pick details that make it clear it's raining without having to say "it was raining."
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 blowing in from the beach.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.
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.
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 the reader 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?