Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 47

Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 47: Ineffective Setting Descriptions

You can’t write a good setting without a good description. That’s the way it rolls. In written literature, what is setting if not description? How do you convey it without description of some sort? For something so relatively intuitive, setting descriptions can end up being surprisingly tricky to detail effectively.

For one thing, you have to be able to perfectly visualize the setting in your mind (yay, Pinterest!). For another, you have to be able to choose only the most pertinent details and then—hardest of all—organize those details into some kind of coherency that will allow your readers to share your perfect visualization.

(And we won’t even get into the fact that you first have to choose settings that are relevant, interesting, and thematically pertinent. Oh, and accurate.)

Today, let’s examine each of these possible pitfalls and how they might be rendering your setting descriptions less effective than they could be.

3 Ways to Ruin Your Setting Descriptions

1. No Filter on the Details

If you’re like me, you have a cinematic imagination (when I was young, I called the stories I imagined “my movies”). You see every detail of your settings in larger-than-life Technicolor (complete with light filters and slow-mo when necessary). Quite admirably, you want to share that vivid sensation with readers, down to the very last detail.

So you write something like this:

Rose tiptoed into Max’s office. Now where would he keep top-secret spy gadgets?

The room was perhaps thirty feet square, the walls a serene shade of blue somewhere in between a springtime sky and a robin’s eggshell. The carpet was two shades darker.

A monstrosity of an executive desk sat in the middle of the room, in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, curtained in velvet that looked to be two shades darker itself. Behind the desk, an eerily empty leather-padded chair stood guard over the humming black HP computer with its 36-inch touch-screen monitor. A printer, a scanner, three phones, even a fax machine filled up one side of the desk.

Bookcases lined the walls, crammed so full that hundreds of extra books had to lie sideways along the shelves’ front edge. Above the bookcases, fully a dozen framed photographs glinted from behind glass: three diplomas, five awards, two pictures of family, and one of a fluffy cat.

The back of room, near the door, was tastefully crowded with overstuffed furniture: a couch, two glass-topped end tables, three gorgeously comfortable leather chairs. Flowers in blue and purple cut-glass vases wafted scents of rose and jasmine from every corner.

Ready for some action yet? This isn’t a terrible description. It definitely creates a detailed picture of the office. It even offers a few interesting insights into Max. But it’s also excruciatingly long (and I’ve seen ones that are even longer!). Readers were ready for Rose to find the super-secret spy stuff after the first paragraph.

Even worse? This much detail at the wrong time, in the wrong place, can actually end up stunting your readers’ ability to evocatively visualize the scene. The most powerful descriptions are those that give readers the tools to build their own settings, rather than force-feeding them the author’s vision, detail by detail. All you need are a few well-placed telling details to help readers see the whole scene at a glance.

2. No Organization of Details

Setting descriptions in a novel are all about spatial visualization. The reader’s imagination is a blank canvas. Like in Ender’s Game, we might even say, “There is no down in space.” You might be handing readers incredibly vivid details, but you also have to help them make sense of where to put those details.

You can’t approach description higgledly-piggledly. You have to begin with a decided sense of direction. You have to immediately establish a pattern within your description to help readers know where to place each of your details.

Otherwise, you end up with something like this:

Rose pushed through the secret door behind the second bookcase. There it was! It had a three buttons, side by side. The barrel wasn’t narrow, like a rifle’s; it looked more like a vacuum attachment. The whole thing was about the size of a Newfoundland dog, and it rolled on wheels, from the looks of it. A computer screen—dulled in sleep mode—flickered above the buttons.

What are you visualizing right now? Kind of looks like a Picasso panting, doesn’t it? One part here, another there, and who knows what it’s supposed to be because, honestly, we still don’t know what it looks like. There’s no rhyme or reason to this description, no big picture to orient readers before funneling down into the specific details. (It gets points for being shorter than the office description though.)

3. Forgotten Setting Description

Finally, there’s the possibility the author has forgotten altogether about the necessity of assisting his blind readers in visualizing the story setting. This is an easy pitfall to stumble into, for two reasons:

1. In the mad haste of telling your exciting story, you simply forget to stop at crucial junctures to add or reinforce the setting.

2. Because the world of your story surrounds you so vividly as you write, you forget readers won’t automatically be seeing the same thing.

As a result, you might end up dumping Rose—and your readers—into a disorienting setting such as this one:

Rose grabbed the super-secret gadget and ran. She made it outside when they caught her.

And … that’s it. Okaaaay, she’s outside. Got it. But where’s outside? Mountains in the background? Palm trees? What’s the weather like? Is she in the backyard, front yard, sunken garden? From what direction did her captors come? What does she see—any escape routes?

Readers are provided no important information and are left to visualize nothing more than a murky gray background.

3 Steps to Writing Streamlined, Powerful Setting Descriptions

Let’s take those sloppy, ineffective descriptions of Rose’s misadventure and turn them into something that will impact readers in the most efficient way possible.

Step 1: Concentrate on Pertinent Details

Rose tiptoed into Max’s office. Now where would he keep top-secret spy gadgets?

Bookcases lined the walls, crammed so full that hundreds of extra books had to lie sideways along the shelves’ front edge. Except for one section. The middle section, next to the desk, was perfectly organized.

Bingo.

Step 2: Start With the Big Picture, Then Zoom in on Details

She crossed the room and pushed through the secret door behind the second bookcase.

Within was a tiny closet of a room, lit with white LED spotlights. The room was empty except for the padded display pedestal in its center.

Atop the pedestal sat a gray box the size of Newfoundland dog. On top, a computer screen—dulled in sleep mode—flickered above a row of three red buttons. A gun-like barrel protruded from the front, ending in a broad attachment, almost like a vacuum cleaner’s.

Four wheels marked each corner of the base. Perfect for a fast escape.

Step 3: Never Forget the Setting

Rose grabbed the super-secret gadget and ran. She left the office and raced down the hall to the back exit. Alarms triggered as she burst outside into the scented warmth of the Caribbean evening.

Max’s guards—dressed in black and carrying automatic weapons—stepped out from behind the palm trees that edged the garden. “Hold it!”

A fabulous setting used well can set your story apart from the rest of your genre. Watch out for these three pitfalls of ineffective setting descriptions in your story. Nip them in the bud, and you’ll be on your way to that coveted compliment of writing a setting that is “a character in its own right.”

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Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your greatest challenge in writing setting descriptions? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 47

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Mornin’ Sunshine!

    Rats. This here post sure put a hitch in my giddyup! 🙂

    This is a timely post. I’ve struck out in the setting department as well. Definitely a skill to be learned. How do you know when and how much of the setting to sprinkle into scenes? Is this more intuitive and fluid as you write? Or something more methodical?

    Thanks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For the most part, it *is* an intuitive skill. Most scenes will need to be opened with a certain amount of grounding in the setting, but beyond that, you pretty much just have to feel it out. Studying how your favorite authors do it is a great way to become consciously aware of what can be, otherwise, a very unconscious usage.

  2. I don’t use much description, as a rule, but I try to filter it through the character’s eyes, i.e., to have the characters react to their setting: sometimes via their opinions about the setting, and more often, by having them play ping pong with setting details, i.e., to move within the setting, revealing details with their body language.

    I thought your comment about accuracy, especially, was right on. In my first novel, one of my beta readers couldn’t visualize the scene so my critique group and I acted it out. The problem was the height of the bed. I changed the height of the bed by saying it was a four-poster, which tends to be higher than a regular bed, and that solved the problem.

    The one time I described a lot of the setting was a capture scene because I felt that the reader had to have more details to be able to understand how the capture took place.

    When analyzing the first draft of a scene, I first make sure the structure is right, and then I make sure I’ve used as many of the five senses as possible, e.g., a courtroom with scuffed cement floors that give off the smell of bleach or highly polished wood that still smells of the polish, etc. (Along with other ‘scene tests.’)

  3. Great article. There is always that fine line between too much and not enough. I try to keep all your points in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is a fine line, and it definitely depends on the context. In certain contexts, either bad example #1 or bad example #3 might be just what the scene needs. It’s all about the author being in tune with the rhythm and needs of his story. But these are good guidelines to follow.

  4. Bodil Hov says:

    Unfortunately I believe I am an avid breaker of #3. Though not as obvious as your example I still have so many ideas in my head concerning the story and dialogue that the scenery gets downprioritized. Not intentionally of course.

    For the time being my current project makes it too obvious where I have managed writing the scenery and where I have ignored it mostly.

    A writing friend gave me the advice to go more towards #1 for a while to force descriptions, and then relax it as the two oposites balance themselves out, hopefully ending with something useable. I find that turning it down a notch is easier than the other way around, but I might be mistaken.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your friend’s advice is good. Sometimes we need to overcompensate before we can find a comfortable and natural balance.

  5. As always K.M. your newsletters are very helpful. So I have a question. Am I using too much scene description in this sample from one of my chapters:

    She shielded herself from the rain with the hooded cape and walked over toward an iron railing. She opened the small gate with Gothic railing and onto what looked like a garden area. The trellised moonlight through the treetops was more than enough visibility to reveal the flashlight left by the grounds-keeper. She picked up the flashlight and tested it. Oh good it works

    Better take this with me in case I need it

    Lighting revealed moss clinging in the shade of the ancient walls like a straggly beard. The once proud turrets had crumbled in places giving the impression of a bedraggled ruin. Its battlements glistened with the flashes of lighting in the cold fall air, their ragged outlines blending into the rocks behind. Windows like great slits in the thick walls, central open air courtyard, and a pond choked with weeds, Shaldorn Manor reflected in the pond. The trees surrounded the Manor like great armies defending their citadel. Their armored trunks and branches reached out in the air as if to protect the grounds. This great expanse of green enhanced the Manors creepiness and beauty as its portcullis made out of hard iron guarded its passages. The grey stone outer walls seemed eerie in the night.

    The symphony of the lighting and thunder, and the eerie sensation of an ominous present being veiled behind the darkness, watching her every move caused her heart to beat faster. It was so acute; she could feel eyes examining her frame. She went inside a door across from the garden leading into another part of the Manor. All at once, a fierce gust of wind blew through, rippling the mighty oaks surrounding her, and chilling her to the bone.

    Startled Jennifer made her way through a doorway at one of the tower ruins and into a long hallway. With her hand she flapped the water droplets off her cloak and pulled it over her head. The storm outside subsided at least for now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is nice. I was right there with your character. The only segment I would consider deleting is the following:

      “Windows like great slits in the thick walls, central open air courtyard, and a pond choked with weeds, Shaldorn Manor reflected in the pond. The trees surrounded the Manor like great armies defending their citadel. Their armored trunks and branches reached out in the air as if to protect the grounds. This great expanse of green enhanced the Manors creepiness and beauty as its portcullis made out of hard iron guarded its passages. The grey stone outer walls seemed eerie in the night.”

      Note how the paragraphs before and after this one are directly pertinent to the character’s interaction with the setting (both physically and emotionally), while this is just narrative observation. You get the essence of the scene across prior to this, which means you can safely delete this without endangering readers’ perception.

  6. Writing a setting description can be so difficult to do right. I like your examples because they show exactly what can go wrong.

    I know I personally try to keep my setting descriptions as minimal as possible and let the reader do the work in their head, mostly because I fall way too far into “telling” when I describe with too much detail.

    Thanks again for another great post!

  7. Thanks, K! 🙂

  8. This post has been a great eye-opener to what I’ve been doing wrong in my debut novel. Thank you 🙂 It’s a great boost of confidence for me!

  9. I am often guilty of neglecting setting, so much so that it is a major point I look for when doing my first read through of a new draft. I work on what I call active description, which is pretty much where you end up. The idea is asking how the character interacts with the setting and writing that rather than the stand-in-the-door description of a room or space.

    I have similar struggles with character description and use a similar solution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Active description” is a great phrase. Although there will be a time and a place for “doorway descriptions,” when the overall setting is particularly important, the best option is usually to let the setting come to the character, so that the shared details are never forced upon the readers.

  10. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks for reading!

  11. Ok thanks Katie much appreciate the feedback on that.

  12. Another great post!

    I take your point about forgetting that the reader doesn’t have the same view of the scene that is in your head as the author. If I err, it’s probably on the side of putting too little description in my novels and mostly I try to express it through the characters’ dialogue if possible. So this post has been a timely reminder. Thanks.

    The late/great Elmore Leonard had a different take on description. Quite often he would start a scene with dialogue and let the reader work out where and when the dialogue was taking place throughout the course of the next pages in the novel. He was particularly good at that method of scant description, so I’m not sure I would recommend it. It’s a bit risky, and can easily confuse the reader.

    Keep up the good work!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hard to argue with Elmore Leonard, but honestly that’s not an approach I would recommend for most of us. :p Still, if you can be brilliant, break all the rules!

  13. My biggest challenge s that it always seems to be raining in Dundee where I set my books. Trying to vary the weather and visualise different weather conditions can be difficult when it’s pouring with rain outside my window. This means I need to employ my imagination to make scenes come alive. Thanks for this. It has been useful.

  14. What great timing! This is something I struggle with when I write. As a reader, I hate very long descriptions, without any action, just details! So I leave descriptions slowly,piece by piece, during dialogues, but then I get carried by the conversation I forget to, as you wrote, reinforce the setting!

    Bought your Outlining Your Novel and I’m so excited to learn so much from it! Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for grabbing Outlining Your Novel! I hope you enjoy it. One of the absolute best rules of thumb any author can follow is: Try to write what you like to read. Being conscious readers makes us more conscious writers.

  15. Great post. Thanks!

    I sometimes try to filter a scene description through my characters’ eyes so one character might notice (for example) that Max’s office has lots of books and a cozy place to read them while another might notice the oceans of blue walls and rugs, and another might notice the authoritarian size of the desk. It can help set the mood of the scene and keep that darn omniscient narrator in my head at bay.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this is one great advantage of multiple POVs. Different characters will always bring slightly different perspectives. For example, Max himself would see his office entirely differently, since he’s so familiar with it and probably doesn’t even consciously notice the details that our narrator picked up on.

  16. I’ll piggyback off of what Alex McGilvery said above but I’ll use slightly different terminology. When I see fit, I try to incorporate action into description. Eric had some good examples of this in his submission.

    A writer can “tell” the reader that Jacob Morrison has blue eyes, or, the moon can glint off of Jacob Morrison’s blue eyes. One is telling vs. showing. Bringing the description out through action is a nice way to paint that picture for your reader without overwhelming them.

    I also think there’s such a thing as passive watching, which shouldn’t happen all that often in narrative but can sometimes work, and that is when a character is taking it all in. I liken this idea of passive watching to that scene in Back to the Future, where Marty McFly walks into his home town only it’s 1955. I, however, would use passive watching very sparingly and only if it helps drive the story somehow.

    There are so many ways to convey description. I think a common pitfall for a writer is to get too attached or too comfortable with one way, which endangers your piece of feeling monotonous.

    Another great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree with you on passive watching, and the Marty McFly scene is actually a great example. It works not only because it’s an important scene, but because the character is in a shocked state of mind, where all he can do is passively observe and process for a little while.

  17. This is very helpful. Honestly, I sometimes don’t even know where to start with setting descriptions, so this is very much what I needed to read.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Basic, bottom-line rule of thumb: start as big as necessary, then work down to the pertinent details.

  18. Catherine says:

    I’m writing a story that I intend to later illustrate, so most of the blanks regarding setting description will be more than adequately filled in with pictures. (In theory, anyway.) In the meantime, I send the WIP to critique partners with a disclaimer: “Yes, I give few visual descriptions of setting and characters. Here are some rough sketches for now.” …A later edit will probably have to pare down the few longer descriptions I have written, lest the bit of setting be overemphasized by being described in words instead of pictures.

    I think I definitely tend towards leaving out describing the setting altogether… or under-emphasizing it, at least. I’m quite a visual person — you’d think that’d be an advantage, eh?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just a thought about illustrations: readers love being able to *pick out* visual details in the illustration that they already just read about in the author’s description.

      • Catherine says:

        Indeed. But in moderation, I imagine. It feels redundant to me to go into much detail in description when I know a picture could get across the same idea so much more clearly. Except when describing that thing *from the MC’s POV* says a lot more than the picture could on its own.

        Covers that get those visual details — clearly described in-book — completely wrong, can be so irritating. But that’s another issue entirely, so I’ll avoid getting onto that particular soapbox. 😉

  19. Hey there, Weiland!

    So…I was busy reading posts of yours and some short (kinda long) novels. And busy writing one. I’ve outlined, structured, written, and edited it, and I only thing I desperately need of is a very great-sounding title. It should make the people attracted.

    So I kindly request you to launch a post regarding something like ‘How to Decide A Cool Title’. I, Kushal, would be grateful to ya.

    Please suggest some ways to keep good titles or something and launch a post.

    Please, I hope you do it asap, ’cause I have a deal of completing it till 31 January 2016.

    Thanks!

    Always busy reading your books and posts,
    Kushal

  20. Great tips, thank you! My biggest problem with descriptions (both setting & character) is that my novels are illustrated, so I never quite know how much is too much or too little. Do I describe things as if there are no illustrations and risk redundancy, or do I use as little description as possible and risk the story being seen as poorly written? It’s quite the conundrum…

  21. Commenting again so I can get notified of a response. Feel free to delete this one 😉

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