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

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.


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.”

Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 47


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