Writers Wednesday: Setting Great Expectations


I’m in the middle of reading a rough draft from a family member. It’s amusing, in a nature-or-nurture way, to see how similar our writing styles have become over time. We’re not big on longwinded passages dedicated to nervous Ralph inhaling the scent of the yellow tuberoses entwined about the trellis on Annabelle’s columned front porch, no matter how heavy with heady fragrance their blooms might be. Nor do we much care about the stately columns gracing the front of the antebellum mansion and the Spanish moss drooping from neighboring trees. We like stories, and we like getting to them fast.

red pen and ink
It’s Wednesday, writers! You know what that means.

Writers who spend half their novels on setup and backstory, working in endless lovely details, run the risk of finding themselves with beautifully boring books. Crafting literature that will stan

d the test of time is an immense art, perhaps too lofty a goal for the average writer. For those with such a strong literary bent, however, less is still more. The purpose of a novel is to tell a story, preferably an interesting one. Anything that does not enhance the story takes away from it.

What of setting, then? Surely we must include some descriptions in our tales. How else would readers know where or when they were? It’s really quite simple. Setting is how your readers connect to the world in which your story takes place. Think of it as the opening moments of a play, the beginning camera shots of a movie. In theatre and film, we call it “mise-en-scène.” When you write the setting portions of your book, you are effectively setting the stage for the reader to witness the action that is to come.

In that respect, setting is at once paramount and marginal. The details of setting are essential to guide the reader through the narrative. Yet setting’s proper place is in the background. It is there to inf

orm, not to take control. Like seasoning, setting requires finesse: too little, and the reader is lost; too much, and the reader is overwhelmed. A book overloaded with setting is out of balance. Too often, it comes at the expense of story: The reader is getting style over substance.

Setting is not difficult to get right, but it is time consuming. Writing a setting that will immediately deposit readers into a front-row seat takes specifics and attention to detail. Ultimately, setting is about answering some very important questions, hopefully before the reader thinks to ask them: Where are we? When are we? Who is here? Why are we here? What are we doing here?

If your setting isn’t answering those questions quickly and concisely, without detracting from the story itself, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Is it uselessly vague? Or is it chock-full of meaningless details?

What setting difficulties have you encountered?

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