Setting: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

Before I ever considered taking up writing, I was a reader. A pretty voracious one at that. I’ve read a lot of books. And as a reader, I see writers approach setting in three ways. A bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Too much setting.

Too little setting.

Just the right amount.

1. Too much setting

One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is when an author stops the momentum of the story to lump in a description of the setting. For example:

Susan picked up the sculpted, silver candlestick. The flame flickered. “The only way to know for certain is to check for ourselves.” Danelly followed her into the antechamber. The room was dark and foreboding. A bear skin rug lay before the cavernous fireplace and tapestries lined the wood-panelled walls. Shelves of books neatly arranged stood sentinel at the far wall, flanked by heavy, russet curtains. Gold brocade ties held them back, revealing pane glass windows and the night sky beyond. Lined on the mantel were the framed memories of years gone by, and a domed glass golden clock, the mechanism turning to and fro, the big hand pointing to the twelve and the little hand to the four. The portrait of the lord of the manor frowned down from above the fireplace where the fire roared. A proper painting in a gilded frame. Beside the fireplace sat a poker and bellows, and a cord of wood in a brass bowl. Three velvet wing-back chairs sat around a wood table…etc.

And where are the characters? Still at the doorway? Have they entered the room? Do they remember why they went in there now that so much time has passed, taking in every detail? And with all of those details, which ones as a reader am I supposed to pay attention to? The clock? The books? The night sky?

Stopping a story to give description kills momentum. Too much detail may paint a complete picture, but it leaves little to the reader’s imagination and muddies up the waters. Please do readers everywhere a favor and don’t write like this.

2. Too little setting

Of course, there’s the opposite problem of not giving the reader enough description to hang their imaginations on.

Colin and Angela sat in the diner talking.
“I’m thinking pancakes,” she said.
“Omelet for me.”
“You always order eggs. What do you have against bread?”
He laughed. “Nothing. I just like eggs. Eggs are awesome.”
“Eggs are only good when used to make bread.”
“Bread is for sissies.”
“Eggs are for wimps.”
The waitress took their order and they finished their conversation while they waited for their eggs and pancakes to arrive.

Er… What kind of diner? What was playing on the sound system? Did it smell funky? Did the menus have that scummy feeling?

Even with interesting dialogue (which that certainly wasn’t), characters that go on and on talking without any interaction with the setting end up like talking heads floating in empty space.

Give your readers enough setting to see and believe in the world.

3. Just right setting

And then there are those writers who get setting just right. The right amount of detail. The right amount of intrigue. The right amount of interaction between the character and the setting to make the world real in the reader’s mind.

It takes a light touch. A conscious touch.

It takes work.

I made up the previous examples, and made them obviously bad to prove my point. But here are two examples that, as a reader, I think are exceptionally well done.

The first is the opening paragraph of Drive, by James Sallis:

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at the windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

Hello! Who doesn’t want to read more after that opening paragraph? All of the telling details are there. Everything you need to know. And everything to keep you turning the pages.

The second example is a paragraph from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I chose this example because while Zusak uses more detail than Sallis did in the excerpt above, he still uses a light touch and doesn’t overdo it.

From the toolbox, the boy took out, of all things, a teddy bear. He reached in through the torn windshield and placed it on the pilot’s chest. The smiling bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.

I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.

All that was left was the body, the dwindling smell of smoke and the smiling teddy bear.

Zusak locks onto the details necessary to carry the action and the emotion of the scene along. Though the scene is a heavy one, the author’s light touch allows the story to move and not get bogged down. He could go into the wounds, the blood, the wreckage, what else was in the toolbox, etc. But he doesn’t. And that’s what makes it such good writing.

Take away:

Before writing a word, fully envision your scene. Know the sights, the sounds, the smells, the details. Know your world in and out. Then choose how much of the setting is necessary to include. That way, when you finally place your characters into the scene, they’ll interact with those details you deemed essential to do the work.

Simple? Hardly. But does it work? Yep. It works just right.