Why do the craft books make such a fuss about setting?
Many readers start skipping ahead when they come to a description. Even some writers admit to skipping descriptions. But in On Writing, Stephen King spends seven pages on description—and he isn’t spending those seven pages telling us to skip all descriptions. Instead, he says, “Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.”1
Here’s what Ally Carter has to say about it in her craft book:
“Several years ago, I was watching the director’s commentary of the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. (Hint: You can sometimes learn incredibly cool things by watching directors’ commentaries!) Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene where the hero and heroine are arguing about whether to fight or run—but they’re doing it while lying in a storm drain. You can see and hear the bad guys overhead—just a few feet away—all while Mr. and Mrs. Smith whisper and bicker and try to decide what to do.”2
Carter explains that when they first filmed the scene, the main characters were standing in a room, and although the scene was necessary to the plot, it was boring. The director had to change it.
“So he changed the location of that scene to a storm drain with the bad guys lurking just inches away. He didn’t change a single word of dialogue. And yet it was a totally different (and vastly improved) scene.”3
As you can see from this, setting can make all the difference. Plus, done well, setting can make a reader truly believe they are in the book. One of my fondest reading memories is of sitting in my bedroom as a child, reading the The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, a book that took place in December and early January.
“[Will] went with Merriman to the window. It was mounded to half its height with snow, and still the flakes were quietly falling.”4
The news on the radio grew worse and worse as the cold gripped the country and one restriction followed another. In all records of temperature Britain had never been so cold; rivers that had never frozen before stood as solid as ice, and every port on the entire coast was iced in.
It took the boys two hours to shovel a way through the snow in their own garden to the road, where a kind of roof-less tunnel, the width of one snowplough, had been kept clear.
It was mid-morning, but the snow was coming down as relentlessly as ever ….
Will had turned to look out the window at the mention of the storm, but the snow floating down out of the solid grey sky seemed much as before.
I could find several more quotes, but you get the idea.
After reading several chapters of the book, I looked up. Expecting to see snow and darkness outside my window, I was shocked to see the bright sun and spring flowers. Cooper had done such a good job of bringing me into the setting that I believed it was winter where I was, not just in the book.
Another book I vividly recall brought me into a desert. The Steel of Raithskar by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron begins:
Heat, pain, and blinding light, burning through my skin and my eyelids….
The incredible heat surrounded me…
Above me a thin cloud layer diffused the sun’s light, but had no discernable dimming effect on it. Light and heat beat down on a fierce white desert, which amplified and reflected them. I had never believed that anything could be that hot.8
Here, Randall Garrett used enough detail to make me visualize the harsh, desert. In another book, I traveled between both time and space with Lessa on the back of Ramoth, a dragon:
The cold was intense, even more penetrating than she had imagined. Yet it was not a physical cold. It was the awareness of the absence of everything. No light. No sound. No touch. As they hovered, longer, and longer, in this nothingness … She knew she sat on Ramoth’s neck, yet she could not feel the great beast under her thighs, under her hands.9
Before reading that, I never imagined what it would be like to experience nothingness. More recently, Suzanne Brockmann had me experience the shock and horror of an IED in Afghanistan:
It happened so fast.
The IED—a car bomb, had to be—went off in the middle of the busy neighborhood….
Izzy went from nodding his agreement to soul-kissing the street and inhaling rancid water from a puddle that was part yak piss, part toxic sludge.…
They’d been a mere four blocks away from the former marketplace that was the bomb’s ground zero, and as they approached, the chaos increased.
More than one bus was on its side. Other cars were flipped upside down, one of them burning.
Civilians were everywhere. Crying. Bleeding. Some of them were running away, some not doing much of anything but lying, dazed, where they’d fallen, slapped down by the blast’s giant invisible hand.10
Better, at least to me, than a still photo in a news article. Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer took me into the Kitchen of Death:
Everything in Agnes’s kitchen was neat and professional, but nothing said big money, ransom kind of money. In fact, the only thing that caught his eye was the row of gleaming razor-sharp knives stuck to the magnetic bars on the wall, and next to them long-handled forks that looked sharp as spikes, and beyond those more sharpened, shiny tools, every damn one of them as lethal as hell.
Agnes worked in the Kitchen of Death.
Given the title of that book and thinking again about the description of the kitchen, does it make sense that a hitman is the one noticing how lethal the kitchen is?
Those authors didn’t succeed in making me believe that I was living those moments by writing long, boring descriptions that many readers would skip over. They also didn’t do it by leaving out all descriptions to make the story move. Instead, they did it by blending setting into the narrative in a way that kept the story moving. They did it by writing about the setting in a way that enhanced the story.
But how is that done properly? Techniques authors use to make the setting meaningful and interesting are:
1. Including only details relevant to the POV character.
When you do this successfully, the description does double-duty, both creating setting and also showing the POV character’s personality.
2. Sharing the POV character’s attitude toward the location.
When you do this right, you also do double-duty, both creating setting and also demonstrating the characters thoughts and feelings about the location
3. Including senses beyond just the visual (extra points for scenes where you get to include taste).
When you do this right, you fully immerse your readers in the scene’s location.
Wherever your characters take you—and therefore where they take your readers—whether it’s swimming amongst a school of fish in the Caribbean, exploring a market in Ancient Rome, or doing a spacewalk, these are the techniques you need to use to make the setting come alive.
Check out Tracy’s class starting Monday
 King, On Writing, 174
 Carter, Dear Ally: How do you write a book?, 108
 Carter, Dear Ally: How do you write a book?, 108
 Cooper, The Dark is Rising, 156.
 Cooper, 165
 Cooper, 166
 Cooper, 168
 Garrett, The Steel of Raithskar, 1
 McCaffrey, Dragonflight, 260
 Brockmann, Breaking the Rules, 1-3
 Crusie, Agnes and the Hitman, 29