It’s wintertime. I think this is a popular season for reading, mostly because sitting under a blanket with a book and a cup of coffee sounds a lot better than going outside and shoveling snow. Summertime is great for being outside. Not winter. (To those of you who enjoy skiing, snowboarding, building snowmen, or making and throwing snowballs, I apologize. I just don’t get it. I hate being cold.)
But I digress.
I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking about some of the books I’ve read brings me to my next pet peeve. Settings in fiction. Please be patient with me on this one. I know setting a scene is necessary. But there is a right and a wrong way to do it.
1) I don’t like it when a description of the setting is the opening of a book.
Yes, there are some people who could describe the contents of my refrigerator and make it sound like a wonderland. (J.K. Rowling, I mean you. Herman Melville, I do NOT mean you.) But notice that the greats of our time start with something more exciting than the dirty gray brick of the bank the POV character is about to enter. I’m not a huge fan of in media res beginnings. I want to meet the character before the building explodes. That way I know how I should feel about the explosion. But given the choice between the soot-stained walls or the explosion that turns them to rubble, I’ll take the explosion. Every. Time.
2) Purple prose is pretty, but it’s out of place in contemporary fiction.
I know I’ve been guilty of writing like this in the past, so I almost hate to mention it. But descriptions that turn poetic just don’t fit in today’s genre work. We’ve all read probably every adjective possible to describe a sunrise or sunset. And shorelines. Forests. Mountains. Fields of wildflowers. Those descriptions had their day. Now, unless a writer can focus on an unusual detail or give me a reason why this area is unique—or at least important to the POV character—just saying where the character is probably is enough. Save the description for things we’re unfamiliar with. Or for things that are important to the characters.
3) Big blocks of writing to describe the setting can slow my reading pace.
Again, I know setting a scene is important. But it can be done with less intrusion. Do you want a description of the room written like a list? No. But if you have a character interact with things in the room, we’ll get the picture without the dictionary entry. I like it when setting is revealed by a character tripping over a red oriental rug, slamming her knee off the corner of an antique table, and knocking a Tiffany lamp onto the floor. That way, we see the action and we see the decor. And when that same character worries not that she might have chipped a bone in her leg (even as she limps to the camel-backed sofa to sit) but how she’ll pay for the damage she caused? Well, then we get character information, too. It’s a win-win.
So, there you have it. Things that bother me about poorly-handled settings in fiction. Yes, every scene should ground us in the space. But not to open a scene, not with dozens of useless details, and not as a boring list. I’ve read too many novels lately that fail one or more of these criteria, and that bothers me. New York should know better. We should expect better. (And yes, we, as writers, should strive to write these settings better.)
What about you? How do you feel about opening a book or scene with description? Purple prose? Lengthy lists of detail? Is there something I missed? Share this with other readers and writers, and let’s all talk about it.