Setting: The Ugly Stepchild of my Writing

One of my beta readers (okay, my dad, but he’s a tough critic 😉 ) was giving me feedback on the first fifty pages of my new paranormal romance and he asked, “What about the setting?”

My response: What do you mean?

“Your dialogue is tight. The scenes are fun, but you don’t give much description of the house.”

To which I responded. “Ah. I hate writing setting.”

He paused. “But don’t you think it’s important?”

I got quiet. Well, of course, I know it’s important but frankly, the part I hate most in books is those long paragraphs describing the building or the room. I flip right by them to get to the dialogue, the action, and especially the sex scenes.

But he got me thinking about setting. In my first book, the castle is almost like a character in the story. I spend days plotting out the layout of the rooms and the furniture within the rooms. But this book, the main setting is a house. It could be any house. It wasn’t that important to the story or me. But to the reader, it was. I needed to balance my hatred of long drawn out setting descriptions with the readers need to create a picture in their head.

I gave in to good advice. Last night I sketched out the house. I went back and added details to the scenes to give the reader an image for the room. And I now know one of my weaknesses is setting. I either get too into the details or don’t give enough. No happy medium here yet.

Which got me wondering, what do you think about setting? Do you like the 1-2 page description of a place or would you prefer that it be revealed within the dialogue tags as the scene unfolds? What is the happy medium?

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6 Responses to Setting: The Ugly Stepchild of my Writing

  1. Hi, I am just about to finish reading the Steig Larsson trilogy and during those books I was thinking about this very topic. In fact, these three books could have easily been only one book if not for the great detail he describes things in. (Triple the revenue through great settings?)

    My conclusion was that I also dislike those long details about setting often, but in this case I read them all very closely and enjoyed them.

    I think some of the tips I would say:

    Don’t describe the same thing repeatedly. You don’t need to give the paint color of each new room, describe random things in interesting and deep detail so the reader knows what things are important without getting fatigued visualizing everything. Think how our brain works–we notice some things and ignore 99% of what we see. Nobody is going to read a passage and ask “but she didn’t say whether there was carpet on the floor!” If you ignore a detail, they’ll make it up in their heads. In the girl with the dragon tattoo, for example, I know exactly what her computer is like, its history, what software she has on it, how much it cost, but I have no idea whether she wears shoes (I assumed she does).

    Break up the description among the other plot and character dialogue. You don’t need 2 pages laying out the scene before your character enters the room, but when she does, explain how after getting startled by a ghost, the rug she tripped on was threadbare and faded on one half where the sun panned across it every one of the countless days since it was forgotten (ooh, just came up with that one, you like it? 🙂 It slows down the reader from what they want to find out, like who was the ghost, but that’s ok because it prolongs a very enjoyable part of the book rather than prolonging a boring scene-setting part when nothing is happening yet. Sort of like tantric sex? Haha

    Just some thoughts currently on my mind. Good luck. And I love paranormal books, so let us know when it’s ready!

    • Rob, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on how to work setting in. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who hates prolonged setting (ala Steinbeck)! 🙂 I try to give highlights and let the reader imagine the room. Funny thing was I had this firm image in my head of the room, but hadn’t conveyed any of it on paper. My beta readers were coming back with requests for something/anything to help them imagine the room.

      Great thought about breaking up the description by working it into plot and dialogue–especially the tags. Instead of saying “she said” I say, “she threw herself on the couch and pouted.” Nice imagery with the rug! Do you write fiction? Tantric sex–analogy there!

      Glad to hear you enjoy paranormals. 🙂 My YA book is finished and being shopped to agents. My paranormal romance is 2/3 drafted. It’s a long process to getting published, but I’ll definitely let you know when it happens! 🙂

  2. Sorry, one more thought as I look around my own living room and think about how to do describe it:

    A. There are two green couches and two beige chairs set around the perimeter of the room.

    B. One chair in the corner has just a couple of cat-scratched threads, betraying the fact that the owners’ cat experimented with using it as a scratching post when the chair was brand new, but only until an appointment could be made to get its front claws removed–that chair won the confrontation of cohabitation in harmony with a cat, but it wouldn’t survive the fire that was smoldering in the far corner of the room.

    B is longer, but keys in on what is meaningful to me about my setting here and does what you referred to–turns a part of the setting in a “character”. Man, you are making me want to write!

    • A. reminds me of when I map out the room on paper. I need to know where everything is, so I can consistently talk about the room but not share all those details.
      B is much better, clues the reader in on some backstory without being an info dump. Nice. 🙂 LOL. You should write, you have a knack for it!

  3. Emma says:

    Wow, great discussion going on here. Thank you Rob and Kourtney for sharing your thoughts and ideas! Describing a setting can be quite difficult sometimes. Although you have a certain image in your head, you sometimes just can’t find the right words to make it work. So thanks for pointing out some great ideas. Oh and Rob, you definitely have some talent here!

    • I struggle with that often rewriting a scene a couple dozen times because I used too many words to capture what is in my head, forgetting the reader needs just enough clues to draw their own picture. Emma, don’t worry, we all revise and revise. Just get something down on the page. You can go back and refine it. Rob had some great pointers. Nice to have a little discussion here. 🙂

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