The World Around Us

As a writer, I am terrible (terrible) at setting.  I know in my head what I want, and I see it all very clearly, but I often forget to actually relay it to my readers through the written word.  For example, in ‘Tweens, Timothy has a recurring dream where he starts standing at the top of a spiral staircase that descends deep into the earth.  I know for a fact that I have relayed that the staircase is wooden, rickety, and painted white.  The white paint is chipping and peeling off, and it leaves little flakes like dandruff on the creaky steps.  That’s what I tell the reader.  But there is so much to setting that I don’t tell.

I don’t tell that there are pine trees and elm trees in the distance, and the sky is a dull, grayed twilight.  There is a gentle wind, but barely enough to move the stagnant air.  The air itself is warm and heavy with humidity, but the breeze, when it does come by, is cool and refreshing.  The abyss itself is an anomaly.  It’s a hole in the earth with crumbling dirt walls that harden to rock the deeper into the earth one travels.  The air smells like rotting meat and honey from a buzzing bee-nest that is buried in the ground a few feet away from the hole.  The land all around the hole, until it stretches out of the trees and to the distant mountains, is grassy plains.  In some places, there are dandelions, and in some areas the grass is much taller.

All those things are beautiful and they paint the image in my own head.  Where, in writing setting, should we draw the line?  I’ve learned through photography that no matter how good the camera, how good the photographer, we cannot grasp the true image as our eyes see it.  What is enough?  What is too much?  Great writers, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien spent pages devoted to the setting.  How much does it take for The Modern Reader to get bored?  That, in the end, is where the line is.  If The Lord of the Rings had been written in 2010 exactly the way it was when Tolkien first published it, I don’t think it would get the same response, because The Modern Reader doesn’t have the same patience as he used to.  Two pages into the twelve (twenty?  fifty?) at the Council of Elrond would be enough to make the reader put the book down.

How much time do you spend devoted to setting?  How important is setting to your work(s)-in-progress?  How many details are too many details?

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7 Responses to “The World Around Us”


  1. 1 Daryl July 26, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Excellent question, and a great post. Except, er, uh, well, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer, either.

    Even I, a reader since the days of black-and-white television and a diehard LoTR fan, skip through some of Tolkien’s longer sections of descriptive prose – although I wouldn’t want to see them cut from his books, either.

    I personally try to find ways to weave some of the descriptive stuff into more active places, like having a character see movement through that twilight gloom in the far off pines and elms. But I can’t say it always works. I’ll be interested in seeing what others might say and suggest.

    That stairway dream your character, though – I know one much like it from my own dreamscapes, and that’s a big part of why I felt compelled to reply. Mine seem endless, descending maybe a thousand feet into a dark, dank cellar with algae-flecked walls, leading down to some nameless, shadowy horror that lurks behind an old furnace at the very bottom. I’ve been trying for years to capture that feeling, that image, in a story, but it always stays just out of reach. Sounds like your Timothy might know the place!

    Good luck. I’ve been enjoying your blog.

  2. 3 Daryl July 26, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Oops – sorry. I forgot to click the “notify me” button before I submitted that. My brain stayed in bed and sent my body out to try to get through the day alone.

  3. 4 Travis Lambert July 27, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I’m no expert, but I find that there are two ways to describe the visual setting in a story. The first is to describe it in great detail (like Tolkien). The benefit of this first way is that you relate more of the picture, but no one detail will stand out. The second is to describe it in suggestive detail (like Lewis). In this way you only give a few details, but those details you give must be poignant enough to suggest an entire atmosphere to the reader. A knife or a rose in a cluttered room will not draw much attention; but one on a pedestal under a spotlight in a large, dark, and empty room will elicit a strong response.

    I don’t think that either way is necessarily better than the other, only that writers are more disposed to one over the other. I too thought that I had to write scenes with great detail until I found out that I wasn’t very good at it. I’m much better–so my wife tells me–at creating a visual setting from only a few well-conceived details.

  4. 6 Cassandra Jade July 28, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Too little. Like you I see the settings very clearly in my head but find it tedious when I see it written in the novel and so end up pruning the setting severely. Probably too much.
    I think I need to work on being able to integrate description of the setting into the story so it stops feeling like an info-dump but the picture becomes a little clearer.

    Best of luck with your writing.


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something to think about

"You know, I don't know if you'll understand this or not, but sometimes, even when I'm feeling very low, I'll see some little thing that will somehow renew my faith. Something like that leaf, for instance - clinging to its tree despite wind and storm. You know, that makes me think that courage and tenacity are about the greatest values a man can have. Suddenly my old confidence is back and I know things aren't half as bad as I make them out to be. Suddenly I know that with the strength of his convictions a man can move mountains, and I can proceed with full confidence in the basic goodness of my fellow man. I know that now. I know it." ~ End of Act I in the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

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