How Much Setting Description Is Right for Your Story?

Sometimes certain writing directions can make setting description sound like a bad thing, to the point that writers don’t dare include more than a skimpy paragraph of setting description lest readers cry foul and claim the book is boring. However, the far side of this slippery slope is also a pretty boring place.

Setting is integral to every story, and the more vivid and memorable a setting, the more vivid and memorable the book. So how can you balance the restrictions on description with the need for a well-realized setting?

>>Click here to read “16 Ways to Make Your Setting a Character in Its Own Right

To some extent, the answer is found in the question itself—and that is balance. Readers don’t mind setting description so long as it entertains them. This may seem counterintuitive at first, since few readers would seem likely to be entertained by paragraphs of description about, say, a dusty field. But think about it. Isn’t one of the reasons we read (and write) because we want the opportunity to explore places that might otherwise be off-limits to us?

Do not shortchange settings in the belief readers don’t care. They do care—but not so much about the way things look as about how it feels to experience them.

>>Click to read “Most Common Writing Mistakes: Too Much Description

Assume that, no matter what kind of setting you’re writing, at least some readers will be unfamiliar with it. This means that describing that dewy mountain morning smell you take for granted will either be a new revelation for readers who have never visited the mountains or a reaffirmation of the familiar. In short, don’t cut corners on setting description in the belief  readers will fill in the blanks on their own. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your best tip for bringing setting description to life? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I think that’s one of my pet peeves about a lot of books these days is that they’re lacking in description leaving me wondering just where the heck am I? But, it isn’t easy writing good interesting description that pulls the reader into the world and makes him look around in wonder. I’m currently reading The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and have almost drooled a couple of times in admiration of her descriptions. They are just amazing. Practice, methinks.

  2. I like to verbalize setting as almost as a literal character onto itself. In this case the characters are an existentialist god, and his henchmen named greed. Obviously of the universe collapses on itself, its because God was tired.

  3. I’ve read a few books lately that lacked any sort of description. They were very bland and very boring. I think balance is key.

  4. @mshatch: They definitely take practice. It’s all a matter of finding the perfect details to give readers enough material on which to build their imaginations’ own version of the story world.

    @Sarah: It’s become almost a cliche to talk about setting as “a character in its own right,” but it’s true. The more prominent and personality-laden a setting, the more vivid it becomes.

    @Vanessa: “Bland” is a good word for it. This post was inspired by Suzanne Arruda’s The Mark of the Lion, set in Kenya. Her descriptions leapt off the pages and made me feel like I was right there with her characters. Fabulous stuff.

  5. The descriptions you used in Dreamlander were outstanding. By using vivid details, you yanked me right into the story. Awesome stuff.

  6. Thank you! Interestingly enough, it wasn’t really until the last major rewrite that Dreamlander‘s setting completely came together. Since it was a fantasy, the entire fantasy world had to be completed from scratch. I learned a lot about description from that one.

  7. Well said! I feel cheated without well written settings and descriptions. Good post! 😀

  8. So do I, particularly if the book is one that offers an otherwise interesting setting.

  9. Also on meditating on it for a bit, I think I’ve found the problem to why it used to be easier to get word count.

    Writing a set up is a bit like setting up dominoes, and the falling of these blocks is the third act. I tend to focus less on the middle, but just having a nudge or moment of decision. So I’d either have to reset the dominoes or buy a new set.

  10. Beginnings of anything – books, chapters, scenes, descriptions – are always the hardest. Once you’ve got the ball rolling, the momentum picks up on its own.

  11. one of my fav’s of many of your posts!

    re “no matter what kind of setting you’re writing, at least some of your readers are going to be unfamiliar with it” –

    plus, as you mention, letting the reader in on what the character is experiencing, even if in a familiar setting, is not only important, but i think, fun 😉

    thanks so much for such an interesting post!

  12. Readers love to see something they’re familiar with reiterated in a story. It’s like the they’re in on a private joke with the author.

  13. Describing setting is something I really struggle with (I’m more of a dialogue person). I think it is partially because I feel pressured to write really unique, creative descriptions and not use…well, any sort of cliche-type depictions. But I love what you said here: “Isn’t one of the reasons we read (and write) because we want the opportunity to explore places that might otherwise be off-limits to us?” You’ve encouraged me to start trying to write more descriptively – there are always revisions to enhance or take away! 🙂

  14. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself in the beginning. Just write what comes to mind. Get the words out on paper first, then go back and edit for cliches, etc.

  15. I try not to include more than three sentences describing a specific place at that moment, or a look on someone’s face, or an inanimate object. That way I am forced to make the most out of those sentences and I learn how to effectively and efficiently convey description.

  16. Description for the sake of itself is boring. The best description weaves itself into the narrative and the characters’ concerns and points of view. It represents what the book is all about w/o waving its arms and telling the reader that’s what it’s doing.

    Beyond Acadia
    Jan at Beyond Acadia

  17. @Karoline: Good exercise. A solid paragraph of more than three sentences, here and there, isn’t a bad thing, by any means. But we’re usually better off with a short description, a bit of action or dialogue, then another short description.

    @Jan: Absolutely. Everything should be filtered through the lens of story and character. Why is a certain description important? Why does the narrating character care about what’s being described? How does he react to it?

  18. I like to disperse descriptions throughout a scene, whether it’s a twinkle in someone’s blue eyes, or a quick description of the lobby of a hotel. Normally, unless the setting is new or I’m trying to make a point, I don’t like to spend a lot of time at once on description.

  19. Unless the setting is really exotic and unusual, a few well-placed details are probably all we need. And, as you say, a second benefit of the dispersion method is that it keeps readers oriented with the characters’ movements.

  20. When I see the setting of a character’s world while he is reacting to fear or emotion it pulls me into the story, so that’s how I try (and hope) to write.

  21. Emotional connection is what successful fiction is all about. If we can make readers feel something about our settings, half our battle is won.

  22. Very timely vlog! Just received a content edit back and one of the main point for improvement is to add in more setting. I was initially thinking, as you said, that everyone’s been telling that description kills the novel. Now I know better. Thank you!!

  23. I appreciated this one, since I am opening a story with some crucial setting information. I also don’t mind the measured pace this establishes–as you say, balance. Not every story has to begin “in the middle of things.” Fairy tales, in particular, are usually clear about setting at the outset, rather than making readers puzzle it out as they go along. Thanks!

  24. @Melanie: I often find that the best technique is to layer in the description. Pile it on thick, then go back and trim it down to important essentials.

    @Lucy: In this case, as in most others, it’s important to study your chosen genre. The “rules” for one type of story don’t necessarily apply across the board.

  25. I agree with you, setting is important and it´s hard to find a balance… but it has to be done. I DO read to travel, as you said, so as long as the words pull you into the experience they will always be great 😀


  26. Some stories I end up loving, not so much for the story itself or the characters, but just because the setting is so wonderful. We can’t underestimate it.

  27. Oh, yes, I agree. Books ae a wonderful way of traveling (of living a secret double life!) Aren´t we, readers, so blessed?

  28. Absolutely. And writers doubly so!

  29. Can I share a secret? About being a writer, that´s what I love the most.

    I do think you naile it, it IS all about balance. Too much action won´t do the trick either.


  1. […] reading: Margot Kinberg, I See the Place Lives ; K. M. Weiland, How to Create a Surefire Awesome Setting ; Gillian Mary Hanson, City and shore : the function of setting in the British mystery, McFarland, […]

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