Setting Description in Writing

As I remodel my room at the glacial pace of an AOL dial-up, examining closet doors, crown molding, and the proper plywood to build bookcases from scratch (I’m so excited for this last), I’ve been thinking a lot about description in stories, and how one balances narrative with exposition.

Today’s Daily Post prompt, interior, is related, for in many cases I’m describing the interior of a building. Only so many ways exist to explain what a window looks like or the general configuration of a room or that the ceilings are vaulted before those summaries become white noise in the background of the general plot. I’m in favor of arranging description so that the reader is lost in the action of the story, sucking in visual clues without thinking about them, but unless those descriptions are embedded in the action, they can easily become the focus of a reader’s attention–and therefore lose the reader’s attention.

Writing is a lot like Latin grammar: the exception is the rule. But in my case, unless my purpose is to explore the setting for my own, non-readership use, spending more than a couple of paragraphs detailing a scene–and especially when I’m only detailing a scene–isn’t necessary unless the setting is important to the plot narrative. That can mean that it influences how the characters act, i.e. when my rustic MC enters the Versailles-like royal palace, she is not only awed, but has to overcome a base urge to pocket a gold-gilt clock. The clock isn’t just sitting on a table in the hallway, it’s evoking a response in the MC, one that reveals her inner character, upbringing, or experience.

I tend, however, to get too detail-oriented with my descriptions. I won’t stop with a quick sketch or impression of a setting. Before I know it, I’m explaining the crown molding is as wide as a tree, hand-carved into friezes depicting scenes from the kingdom’s prevailing religion, and brushed along the edges with gold, and then, in a series of several more paragraphs, describing in magnified detail everything else in the room, from the bust of an old diplomat carved from marble to the hand-purled rug imported from the country in the north threatening war, et cetera, et cetera.

These details, couched in narrative (i.e. I picked up a blue-veined marble bust of an indubitably important nobleman with the facial hairstyle of my grandfather and shook it like a discipline stick at Louis. “Don’t get any ideas.”) can work to great effect in evincing a more holistic cultural experience of the story and its environment. Characters should not just move through the story in empty space, but should interact with their surroundings, so that their surroundings become part of the story, or are at least portrayed as being a natural extension of the action. The reader gets a picture in his head without it being included in the wordsketch of a still-life.

But listed as part of a series of articles, one static and generic prop among many others, the details become boring to read about. This, I think, is where point of view comes into play. A reader should experience the setting as a character does. My MC is not going to mentally catalogue every luxurious thing she sees in the palace–that is, unless her intent is to capture the picture as a painting or to spell out the decadence of the place to her less fortunate best friend. If this isn’t immediately noted–and I don’t think even in those cases that we as readers need to know every little piece–I stop paying attention and start scanning for the next dialogue quotation marks.

I have a long way to go before I’ve balanced the pacing of my description, action, and character reflection, but my hope is that identifying my weak areas will save me the trouble of struggling through them too long before I catch them. How do you balance action with description, or narrative with exposition?


2 thoughts on “Setting Description in Writing

  1. I consider myself a descriptive writer, so I like to describe everything. However, it’s important to only describe what the reader needs to know. If the reader doesn’t need to know it, then be basic, and let the reader come up with their own descriptions. I hope that helps :3

    1. Absolutely. For me it’s about setting a tone or an atmosphere by sketching out just enough detail to give the reader an idea. Sometimes, as a reader, I’ll envision a scene, then the writer will throw in another detail that I’ll have to integrate into my already created setting. Thanks for the input!

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