by Jody Hedlund
How much setting should we add to our stories? Is there a right or wrong answer? Or is it merely an individual decision based on personal preferences?
Obviously, different genres carry different expectations. Historicals need more setting details in order to help the reader “time travel” to the past. Science fiction or fantasy may require more elaborate descriptions so readers can visualize the new worlds. Often exotic locations need more fleshing out.
Really, anytime we’re writing about times and places that are unfamiliar to the majority of our readers, we’ll likely need to use more setting in order to help our readers “see” where they are.
But even within varying genres, how can authors tell when they’re getting the right amount of details? How much is too much, too little? How do we know when we’ve got just enough?
Too Much? We tend to include too much when we do an extensive amount of research on a particular subject and think we need to get it all in (either to make ourselves look smart or because it fascinates us). The overload will likely bore our readers or cause them to skim through our descriptions.
Too Little? Plot-driven writers often use too few details. We get so busy telling the story and moving it along that we forget to help our readers experience where they are. Having too little setting may also be the result of not doing enough specific research, thus causing us to over-generalize on too many details.
Just Enough? If a writer leans toward using too much, they may need to ask themselves—why am I adding this? To show off how much I know? Or for the reader and the sake of the story? If a writer leans toward too little description, they may need to ask—am I grounding the reader enough? What else can I add to breathe life into the setting?
It’s tough to get just enough. The middle ground is going to vary depending upon our styles and genres.
However, what are some steps all of us can take to write better settings, no matter our style or genre? Among the many, many things a writer could describe, WHAT should we focus on? Here are 5 techniques I use in writing settings:
1. Use setting details to set the mood.
Sometimes it helps to decide the general mood of the scene (like fear, sadness, joy, etc.) before writing it. Then we can pick a few setting details that will help highlight that particular feeling.
For example, recently I was planning a scary scene in my current work-in-progress (WIP). I brainstormed a list of various setting details that would enhance the scare-factor: the scurry of a rat, the clatter of branches, the stench of vomit, etc. Then as I wrote the scene I referred back to my list and tried to weave in some of those details.
2. Make sure to “see” the setting through the eyes of the POV character.
We HAVE to know our characters inside and out in order to play their role authentically (see these posts for ideas on fleshing out characters: How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters & Creating Characters That Make Readers Cry ).
Once we’re in the point-of-view (POV) of a character for a particular scene, then we can only describe things that particular character would notice. My hero won’t care about the style and texture of my heroine’s dress, but he would notice the specific type of rifle the antagonist is holding.
3. Attempt to use all five senses throughout each scene.
We have an easier time adding in visual descriptions. But we can’t forget to bring our scenes alive through the use of textures, sounds, smells, and tastes. Maybe we can’t get ALL five senses onto every page. But as I write each scene, I make a conscious effort to find places to include as many as possible.
Thick, grainy coffee, the sizzle of frying pork, tangy tobacco smoke, the chill of floor boards against bare feet—all of these sensory details woven in a scene help the reader to sit in the room right next to our character.
4. Hone in on setting elements that are critical to the plot.
If possible, try to describe things that will somehow play a role in the plot. For example, in a recent scene I described a plate of slightly burnt molasses cookies on the dining room table. In the next chapter, the heroine uses the cookies in a daring plot move.
When we’re judicious with what we describe, it helps build suspense. Unconsciously readers will begin to expect that the elements we describe may come into play later.
5. Sprinkle in similes and metaphors.
I love similes and metaphors. They can be a beautiful writing technique when done sparingly and appropriately. We can weave in setting details through a well-placed simile.
For example, in a recent scene I say this: “Her pulse pattered with the same staccato as the icy-snow mixture that pelted the window.” (Through the simile, I’m cluing the reader into the weather—which is an important factor in the next scene.)
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