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Author Resource Round Table > How important is setting?

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message 1: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 361 comments It depends on how you roll. Some writers need to have everything laid out, but only in the broad stroke -- a map of Middle Earth, let us say. Others need to really dial it in -- a layout of the dashboard of the Millennium Falcon.
I am in the middle. I do need maps and stuff, and if a work is set in a house I will draw a floor plan. But I don't get into furniture and picture placement!

message 2: by Ed (new)

Ed Morawski | 229 comments I think the big picture setting is important - i.e. the city or the country or another planet. Someone's room? Not so much.

I mean I like to know if it's dingy and dark or sunny and bright to set the mood, but that's about it.

Maybe just concentrate on the 'mood' of the setting?

message 3: by K.P. (new)

K.P. Merriweather (kp_merriweather) | 276 comments all depends. if it's contemporary, most readers will fill in the blanks. but in a fantastic or historical setting, some details are required, but not a whole lot, just enough to set the 'mood'.

message 4: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Eaton | 53 comments Well let's face it -- most people now laugh at how John Michener would take 7 or 8 pages just to describe a sunset. Or a beach.

That said, I definitely like more than a minimal description of a location. Take the suggestion of a "bright room". Is it bright because it is filled with fluorescent lamps overhead? Or because it has floor to ceiling windows offering a view of a barren southern exposure? Note how much difference those two definitions of "a bright room" are in giving the reader a feel for the room.

However, I don't believe one has to go into great detail about EVERY setting in a book. In one of the opening chapters of my mystery novel, I have the group of architect/detectives in a hotel ballroom as they unveil their latest building design. I do not describe that ballroom much at all, for the reader arrives onto the scene in mid-presentation and I want the focus to be on the dialogue. Most people know what most hotel ballrooms look like.

However later in the book, the lead detective has a mysterious rendezvous with someone in the back room of a deli. Here the atmosphere is essential and the reader walks into the room and encounters it as the detective does. Its mood is very very different from the hustle and bustle of the front of the deli, so I am fairly painstaking in describing the setting.

If you don't see a reason for the setting to evoke some sort of emotional reaction in the reader (i.e., you view it to be a very generic classroom, ballroom, etc.) then no need to paint a specific setting. But if you do have a crystal clear view of the setting yourself and you want the reader to feel the same joy, intrigue, fear, mysterious attraction, nostalgia etc. then I say paint the setting vividly. Hope this helps!

message 5: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 361 comments The trick is not to describe the entire sewers of Paris (as Victor Hugo did in LES MISERABLES, a whole chapter of it). The trick is to select the one detail to confide to the reader, that will create the entire network of sewers in his mind. Oh, let me see. The silver glint of moonlight, filtering down through the grating, that reflects off of the open eyes of the dead revolutionary floating slowly down with the tide, soon to be swept into the Seine and eternity. In an instant, as the open-eyed corpse passes through and beyond the shaft of silver light, it is gone.

message 6: by R.F.G. (new)

R.F.G. Cameron | 443 comments If you write in a visual way, helping the reader see where the characters are, then being in-depth about the setting is a must.

If the setting isn't that important (as in the reader doesn't need the virtual smell of the characters' sweat) then minimal works.

message 7: by Victoria (last edited Jan 25, 2015 04:05PM) (new)

Victoria Zigler (toriz) | 2886 comments I think you should go somewhere in the middle.

Don't go over the top and have pages and pages of description about the setting, but give us some details to help us visualize it. You don't need to give details like how clean the carpet was in a new car, but give us the colour of the cars interior.

Also, don't assume everyone knows what certain things and places look like. One of the reasons I prefer to read than watch movies, for example, is that being blind I expect to get a lot more out of a book than a movie, since the setting is described for me in at least partial detail. Now, I know most people who read your book won't be blind, but when it comes to books everyone's as blind as I am, so while some details need to be left to the imagination, for the reader to really become part of the story they'll need some details to work with, and to help them feel like they're there.

Besides, whether we're aware of it or not, we always interact with our surroundings; even if it's just to acknowledge that the only source of light comes from a window that's ahead of us as we enter the door, or that the thick carpet is muffling our footsteps, or that the car we're about to get in to has black leather seats. So your characters should do so too.

Another point to note is that detailed descriptions matter more the first time someone's in those surroundings, and you can be more vague about the details every other time the characters are there.

For example:

"She left the living room and went to her bedroom."

Could be written like this:

"She left the living room and made her way down the carpeted hallway to her bedroom."


"She left the living room and headed down the hallway to her bedroom; her bare toes sinking in to the thick blue carpet with every step."

Then, later, when she's going down the hallway again, we'll already know the hallway has thick blue carpet in it, and she has to make her way down it to get to her bedroom, so you can just go with the original sentence.

message 8: by R.F.G. (new)

R.F.G. Cameron | 443 comments @Tammy,
I tend to write visually because that's how the stories unfold for me -- for others not so much.

There are times when a drop of sweat falling to hit the floor is important, and there are times where the room is just a room and therefore unimportant.

The main point is the amount of detail depends entirely upon the story you're trying to tell.

message 9: by Dwayne (last edited Jan 25, 2015 08:04PM) (new)

Dwayne Fry | 349 comments Tammy wrote: "I just wanted to ask you guys, other writers and avid readers, when it comes to settings, how important are they to you?"

Really, it all depends on the story.

In one story, "The Asphalt Carpet", a young man sets out on a journey across the U.S. He has not traveled much in his life and isn't even sure he wants to leave Colorado, so the setting became very important. I tried to use the changes in his surroundings to emphasize how alone he was and how foreign the rest of the country seems.

Setting can often say as much about your characters as their clothing, dialogue, actions, etc. You mentioned a bedroom. If the bedroom is the place one of your main characters sleeps, description of it could really help the reader see more in your character than you reveal in her actions and dialogue. What is on her shelves? Books? Athletic trophies? Stuffed animals? Photos of friends? Human skulls? Handcuffs? Do you see how each of those items says a lot about a character? Each one individually gives a strong impression as to who the character might be.

message 10: by R.F.G. (new)

R.F.G. Cameron | 443 comments @Tammy,
Glad to have been of help.

Alistair MacLean often had an interesting balance between setting and story.

message 11: by Steven (new)

Steven Malone | 43 comments I write Historical Fiction so setting is essential but I consider setting as if it was a character whose place in the story effects and affects the other characters and well as the story itself.

message 12: by Victoria (last edited Jan 26, 2015 05:29PM) (new)

Victoria Zigler (toriz) | 2886 comments Tammy wrote: "Victoria, you stated, "Another point to note..."

Exactly! Personally, I think only essential details need repeating, or things out of place (which would only happen if it matters for the story - like if someone's been looking through stuff and didn't put things back properly - so should therefore be mentioned). Unless someone's memory is absolutely dreadful, and most people - even those who don't claim to have good memories - have a reasonable memory, they should retain a basic idea of the description you originally gave.

Also, I think you're absolutely right that you should always try and take something from the different oppinions expressed when you ask a question to a group. In fact, even if you just ask one person who has a different opinion to your own, you should come away from the discussion with things to ponder , and should take the time to ponder those things; no point asking a question if you're not prepared to listen to the answer(s). What you then do with the information is totally up to you.

message 13: by Steven (new)

Steven Malone | 43 comments Tammy wrote: "I'll have to check out his work, R.F.G!

Hi Steven! I certainly consider settings a character in certain pieces. You mentioned writing historical fiction, so I'd need the scene created in the piece..."

You're welcome.

message 14: by Jim (last edited Jan 26, 2015 05:50PM) (new)

Jim Vuksic | 1072 comments The setting in a book is as important as the scenery in a play or movie. It must contain sufficient detail to allow the reader to see it in his mind's eye and sense its impact within the story, yet subtle enough so as not to distract from the characters and plot.

message 15: by Christine (new)

Christine Hayton (ccmhayton) | 324 comments R.F.G. wrote: "The main point is the amount of detail depends entirely upon the story you're trying to tell. ..."

You nailed it - it's all about the story. Stories need a pace that reflects the plot and genre. Do not bog down your pace with too much unnecessary detail or leave too much out and confuse the readers.

Many times the description of settings affects the pace of the story. Include details and settings at the point in the story where your pace is slower. That way details can be provided without disturbing the faster paced sections of plot development, suspense or intrigue necessary to the storyline.

I write horror and many times I cannot slow the pace or break the suspense by adding setting details. I have to allow the reader to engage their own imagination and deliberately leave out minor details to keep the pace fast, maintain high tension and drive the story home. In this genre the readers' imagination is far worse than anything I can write anyway.

Its all about writing a great story - details have to drive your story, or they are of no benefit. Keep that in mind when dealing with Beta readers and editors. Sometimes their suggestions are spot on and other times they are dead wrong. It's your story and your style. The decision to make any change has to be yours alone.

message 16: by Pratik (new)

Pratik Deshpande | 31 comments If you have a compelling story to tell, trust me, the reader's imagination will take care of the surroundings. I think its the story that matters the most. Keep it simple straight forward.

Until and unless the scene demands excess discription that might connect the dots or play an important roll, dont move away from the main story line.

The number og pages might increase, but hovering around the plot too much might take the reader's interest away.

Describe things in the beginning, thats fine.. But when your story starts turning the pages on its own.. stick to the story. Everything else is secondary after that. Because sometimes the readers may say.. "lost the pace" phrase.

So Story is the body whereas setting is the make up you put on. :)

message 17: by Amber (new)

Amber Foxx (amberfoxx) | 246 comments I think the setting has to be written as the POV character would notice it. The part of it that gets his or her attention--beloved and familiar, strange, exciting, or alarming--is what's important. Sometimes that means a fair amount of description is appropriate to the scene and at other times a minimal amount is needed.

message 18: by Dwayne (new)

Dwayne Fry | 349 comments Pratik wrote: "If you have a compelling story to tell, trust me, the reader's imagination will take care of the surroundings."

I somewhat agree with what you're saying, but not completely. It would be difficult for the reader's imagination to take care of the surroundings if the story is set in a place or time they are not familiar with. I am not sure, for example, that I'd be able to fill in the details if I were reading a story set in 8th century China. If the story is set on another planet or a fantasy world, the reader will need to be shown this place or they will be lost.

I do agree that excess descriptions of surroundings will slow a story down. I am all for trying to keep the setting as minimal as I can. Sometimes, though, the setting is almost a character itself and will warrant some attention.

Sometimes I read stories just because the setting sounds interesting to me. If I start to read a story that is set in a carnival and I don't get a sense of that carnival, I'm going to be very disappointed.

message 19: by Chris (new)

Chris Garrett (chrisgarrettofficial) | 12 comments I think setting is important only if you want it to be important. If your character come back around to be a specific setting for a turn of events for the character . For example if you have a character walking into a dark ally and later that character dies in an ally then a in debt description of the setting could set the tone for later but if has no meaning in your story then just let the reader use their imagination.

message 20: by Pratik (last edited Jan 28, 2015 01:25AM) (new)

Pratik Deshpande | 31 comments Dwayne wrote: "Pratik wrote: "If you have a compelling story to tell, trust me, the reader's imagination will take care of the surroundings."

I somewhat agree with what you're saying, but not completely. It woul..."

Yes, completely with you, but where the story is a modern day setup.. and say, where the character is running for his life... than it is better to let the reader take control of the situation. Because if the story is "on fire" than it doesnt matter what kind of hotel room the protagonist is using for hiding.. the life and the inter-related facts matter the most.

And yes.. if the story demands.. we can add the setting as per the needs... like pay per use system.. where the protagonist is using the room as a defensive shield.. then everything in that room must be properly explained..

It also depends on the kind of the reader.. as an author.. if you are writing for readers in a place where people aren't accustomed to a lavish lifestyle.. than they might find a luxurious set up somewhat larger than life.. so if we are writing to entertain people.. it should be according to their way of living too.. a story surrounded with the way they live will definitely attach them more... hence i believe in leaving the extra details with the reader's mind..

And i think when it comes to the climax of the book.. surroundings should be kept away as far as possible.. because as a reader all i want in the end is "what happens now" :)

message 21: by Victoria (new)

Victoria Zigler (toriz) | 2886 comments Tammy wrote: "Thanks for the additional input, everyone! I really appreciate it. I’ve been reviewing my notes, taking down some of you guy’s thoughts, and discussing the topic with others. Setting is extremely..."

Sounds like the perfect way to go about things!

message 22: by Theresa (new)

Theresa (theresa99) | 483 comments Tammy wrote: "Thanks for the additional input, everyone! I really appreciate it. I’ve been reviewing my notes, taking down some of you guy’s thoughts, and discussing the topic with others. Setting is extremely..."

I'm glad you found some helpful advice. How much detail to put in my settings and writing has always been my nemesis as well. I am very plot and character driven so I have to be reminded to add in details. Whether I have too few or just enough seems to vary on reader taste. :)

message 23: by Rory (new)

Rory | 104 comments R.F.G. wrote: "@Tammy,
Glad to have been of help.

Alistair MacLean often had an interesting balance between setting and story."

Loved Alistair MacLean. :o) He was one of the first authors that sparked my interest in writing. Often the setting is a major contributor to conflict in a story. MacLean was a master of that as was Tony Hillerman. Rory

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