Setting would be a good topic for today. I guess this is partially inspired by the recent snow and ice we’ve gotten around here. Setting can be anything from a windowless room to a sprawling city to the open plains and lush forests to the vastness of space, even other dimensions if you’re so inclined.
As with characters and plot, attention to detail is highly important. You need to help your readers visualize what you see in your head. There is such a thing as too much detail, however, and I’ve read authors who fill up pages and pages with setting description (often including history). Readers tend to skip over these sorts of descriptions. Keep it simple, but with key visualizations. Other details you can work in through your characters and even dialogue. Don’t lump it all into a beginning set of paragraphs. Spread it out, and clue your readers in subtly. They’ll get a natural feel for the setting rather than being inundated and overwhelmed at the start of the scene. Usually the only time that works is if your character is being similarly overwhelmed, as when told from his or her point of view.
The tricky thing is—you do want your readers to use some of their imagination to visualize, too, but you certainly don’t want them to do all the work: this makes a lot of people give up on a book. A lot of people read to escape; I know I do. I like stories that engage my imagination, but not ones where my brain hurts trying to comprehend the images I’m being slammed with at the start of a new scene, or wondering if I’m seeing things right when there’s not enough information. Of the two, I prefer too little. It’s less restrictive on my imagination. Sometimes too much feels like the author saying, “You’re too stupid to imagine this for yourself. I’m going to tell you everything so you don’t get it wrong.” Sad thing is, the right amount of detail and description can be a very blurry line. It takes lots of practice to get a feel for the range you want. I remember writing instructors telling me to do a couple of paragraphs to lay out a setting…it’s very cookie-cutter, and goes against the other big rule of writing you learn: show, don’t tell.
One thing I do is clue readers into environmental information through my characters’ dialogue and actions. For example: if it’s a bitterly cold, windy winter setting (like in the part I’m working on in the second book of Brink), I have them wrapping up in cloaks that flap in the breeze, their horses’ manes and tails whipping. Their breath fogs the air, and they have trouble taking decent breaths because the cold sucks the air from their lungs. They struggle to walk through ice-crusted snow—it’s mind-draining effort. Fingers and toes are numb. Ice frosts eyelashes. They squint against gusts of snow so sharp it feels like razors against chilly skin. They’re inwardly grumbling about the conditions, or someone comments on how friggin’ cold it is. Because of all these clues, I don’t have to say, “They’re caught in a blizzard with no shelter, out on an open plain. They can’t see further than the backside of the person or animal in front of them. They’re freezing. They’re tired.” The characters are showing the readers for me. The details are mixed in throughout the scene to establish the setting—not heaped all at the beginning, not outright spoken or written.
Some set-up at the beginning is okay—don’t get me wrong. I still do this, especially if it’s a new place to a character, or will be pivotal to him or her in the near future. I have the character look around with that first-time curiosity, allowing the reader to take stock of the setting through the character’s eyes the same way the character is seeing it. But even then I still don’t do it all at once and switch to moving the plot forward for the rest of the scene.
I do want to make sure people reading this blog know I’m not lecturing—this is what I do, and this is how I see these topics given my writing experience, both from being in writing classes and own experimentation as both reader and writer. I’ve talked with dozens of other writers over the years about what works and doesn’t for each of us, as well as basic structure and unspoken rules. I just want to share tips from things I’ve experienced, and hope they can help others understand their own writing (or reading) better.