“Your choice of setting and the way you manipulate it can have a powerful impact on the way the scene reads.” –Theresa Stevens
Theresa Stevens has been a literary attorney agent and the chief executive editor for a small romance press. Her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. She has a long-running, award-winning blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ and writes the monthly Ask An Editor column for Romance University. She and her co-blogger , Alicia Rasley, also work as acquisition editors for a publisher of fiction of various lengths.
Romance University was voted one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers 2016. Their purpose is to help writers establish and advance their careers, introduce readers to a variety of authors, and delve into the ever-inscrutable male mind.
You’re Writing Fiction, Not a Catalog
Have you ever picked up a book and gotten totally engrossed with the characters and story, only to have everything come to a screeching halt while the hero or heroine begins listing every single thing they can see? Whether it’s the furnishings of a living room, the contents of a kitchen pantry, or even the view from a mountain top, setting is usually only useful as a means to answer the Where part of Who-What-Why-When-Where. (There is an important, specific exception to this, which I’ll mention later.)
If the average reader expects there will be chairs in the living room, spices in the pantry and rocky outcrops on a mountainside, what is the point of mentioning them? Now if there were a stuffed boar’s head on the wall in the living room, or hundreds of unopened, duplicate spice jars in the pantry, or a wall of smoke filling the valley at the bottom of the mountain — those might be details worth mentioning. Might be.
Theresa Stevens also recommends a writer should…
“Look for the unique personal details that would act like conversation pieces in real life. These are the things that stick out in an ordinary environment, and they can be described in your book without a loss of tension or reader interest.”
This is generally a good rule of thumb, especially in scenes where a POV character interacts with another character. “Personal details” can include unique clothing choices or accessories, but they can also include such things as a character’s choice of furnishings, pets, color schemes, background music, books, etc. Such details may help the POV narrator, as well as the reader, understand the other character as well as the place and time.
The rule doesn’t work as well, however, when it’s the POV character simply surveying his/her own familiar domain. That’s often as intrusive as the POV character looking in a mirror and surveying his/her own appearance.
Make Purposeful Choices about Details
Even if the details actually are interesting and unique, they might not fit just any old scene. It’s probably not a good idea to interrupt the life-and-death tension in a thriller — in, for instance, a scene where a girl is begging for her life from a serial murderer — by having the heroine notice that all of the items displayed on the fireplace mantel are Victorian antiques. Who cares? The villain is raising his knife for the killing blow!
There should be a purpose to mentioning the details of setting–such as revealing a clue to some mystery, hinting at motivation or personality, adding tension, enhancing mood, or inserting humor.
Examples of what your hero/heroine/narrator might notice and describe for the reader
“Something is different. Something has changed. Something might be wrong here.”
- Characters are interacting with the setting, giving readers a clue to their emotional state. Stevens’ examples:
“They kick at rocks in the street. They fuss with decorative items on the coffee table. They fiddle with the radio dial in the car.”
- The setting is unexpected for the action (e.g., afternoon tea on a tree stump, a crowded subway terminal for a business meeting, a nursing home for a political rally). Stevens recommends writers should “[take] a moment to think through the geography of the characters’ world” and question where the most effective setting for the scene would be…. because it isn’t only the fictional characters who will notice unexpected surroundings.
The simple act of picking an unexpected setting can make a reader more alert and engaged, even when the setting isn’t particularly important to the plot.
The Important Exception
As I said earlier, details of setting usually provide only enough of a Where — a backdrop — for your characters to act out their arcs or stories, which are the focus of your book. But sometimes the setting is so important it almost acts as another character. In these cases, the setting directly impacts the storyline. The setting and the characters interact with each other.
Think about the approaching stormfronts at sea in “A Perfect Storm,” the dark and menacing mansion in a gothic horror story, the vast and empty moors in “Wuthering Heights.” Can you picture any of those stories working as well without constant extensive descriptions of the setting and its impact on the characters?
Donna Maloy is a published author of fiction and plays for adults, teens, tweens and young adults. Her first book for middle grade, CELIA AND THE WOLF won the Lyra Award for best juvenile fiction in 2014. She has been teaching writing at the college and community level for more than ten years.