winter landscapeIt’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.

15 Responses

  1. Well, Staci, I think you probably know where I stand on this as a writer who likes to use setting as a plot device and almost as a character at time. However, I believe that balance is essential. We need the characters introduced and an idea of the conflict in the beginning, yet setting interspersed can set the tone or mood of a piece. I love reading beautiful descriptions, and I adore going to the place of the fiction. I am sorely disappointed when fiction doesn’t give me that.

    • You know I’m a fan of Anne Rivers Siddons, who does a beautiful job of achieving that balance. I also love it when setting becomes a character. But I hate it when I have to read four pages of setting only to discover that there’s nothing else to the scene. Description has its place—has an important place—but I think it can be overkill if not used with judicious restraint.

      That said, we won’t all agree. You may enjoy more description than I do. I may enjoy more than someone else. Others may want none at all. Thank God we have so many books to choose from. We can all find something we enjoy.

  2. For me I like to meet the main character/characters straight off. I prefer something to happen, not a room description, sunset, or, well you get it. I want to be captured right away and then learn as I go.

    Thanks for the wake up call.

    • I like to start with characters, too. That’s who I see the world through, so might as well start by getting to know them. NOT THROUGH BACKSTORY, of course. Just by experiencing things through them and moving forward with them. Good point, Michele.

  3. For me, it depends on the book. If I read a suspense novel, for instance, I don’t care for a lot of flowery prose and detailed scene descriptions. However, one of my favorite books growing up was called The Incredible Journey. The descriptions the author used about the Canadian wilderness made me feel as if I was there. Then again, the book was about a journey, so the descriptions were a necessary part of the story line.

    • I agree. Journey books do need descriptive scenes. They still need to be done well, though, and not become a laundry list of details. If that book stuck with you, I’m willing to bet it was handled very well.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. I’m torn on this one, because I’m one of those readers who likes to wallow in prose. A lot of it has to do with the genre, however. If I’m reading suspense, I don’t need lengthy descriptions. I want the scenes to move at a quick pace, and prose can slow that down. On the other hand, if I’m reading a historical novel, I’m fine with all those detail that vividly bring settings to life.

    I remember reading the Lymond Chronicles when I was in my late teens or early 20s. Massive books, loaded with detail and description. To this day, The Ringed Castle stands out in my mind for the descriptive prose of the brutal Russian winters and the court of the Tsar. The author did a masterful job of transporting me there. When I think of cold and winter, I think of that book, all these decades later. In that context, bring on the details, descriptions and intricate-woven settings! 🙂

    • Hi, Mae. Thanks for your take.

      I kind of agree, to an extent. I’m more tolerant of description in the classics and in fantasy. But if I’m reading a thriller, I don’t want or need a lot. And definitely not during the fast parts. Maybe, as a break in the action, a descriptive passage. But not pages and pages of it.

      I guess I’m changing as I get older. I used to love purple prose, probably even LONG after it was out of fashion. Now, unless the description is as wonderful as that in the Harry Potter books, I’m of the “less is more” opinion. =D

      • I hear you. And fantasy is another great example. I’m open to lengthy descriptions there.

        As for thrillers (my favorite genre) have you ever read the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I think they nail it just right–fast-paced writing when needed, with more in depth descriptions when it fits the bill. If there’s a perfect balance I vote for them! 🙂

  5. ICAM. This reminds me of when I was in 7th grade or so and had to read Charles Dickens. Okay, I read some of it but mostly skimmed because I was bored to the point of a near-comatose state by the rambling descriptions. At one point he spent two pages describing every stick of furniture in a room, the pattern on the curtains, and a bunch of other details that didn’t interest me one bit.
    I wrote in my book report that Dickens was too wordy and needed a better editor. My teacher said I should learn to appreciate great literature. I stand by my book report.
    I generally won’t get past the first page of a book that starts with a lengthy description of the setting before I learn anything about the character.

    • I’m so glad you stopped by today, Vivian. While I enjoy Dickens, I don’t enjoy boredom. (Hence the reference to Melville.) But regardless of our feelings about any of the classics, it seems we agree about one thing. Too much description—especially about things that don’t even impact the story—is the quickest way to make a reader stop reading.

  6. Applause here, Staci. I think the reason readers no longer want to wade through great blocks of setting is our world has become so visual already. Immediately, we know what the ocean looks like at sunset because we’ve seen the photos, the movies, the television programs. Back in the day with that type of writing so many readers had never been out of their armchair to travel and there were no National Geographic programs for them to watch. I hate anything that slows down the plot in my reading. Leave all that other stuff to a grand IMAX movie. Description within action is also what I preach. Every time.

    • Velda, excellent point about the world’s focus on the visual. There is almost a mandate to make things easily accessible; unnecessary detail is in direct opposition to what the world is after these days.

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