Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives

This is a throwback post, originally published about a year ago. 

Gasp. What?! What about all of those writing workshops where we stuffed one hundred adjectives into every sentence?

I am not saying there is no value in learning how to be descriptive and expand your vocabulary. But you can describe every single detail of a scene and still lose your reader. Why is that?

Settings are made up of more than just detail. There are thousands of details to any setting and I don’t think I need to explain why it is unnecessary to go into all of them. Just looking around my room right now I could take up ten pages describing every detail of every book, color variation, piece of clothing, and knick knack. But my reader doesn’t want to know that. They couldn’t care less.

I have learned that the very best authors really only have to mention two to three details about a setting to make it come vividly to life. Why is that? Well, I’m sorry to tell you that I can’t fully explain it. But we all know that objects, colors, textures, and even weather patterns can hold significance beyond their physical qualities. I don’t think it will surprise you when I say that objects influence tone. You probably knew that. After all, a gun lying out on the card table sends a completely different message than a vase of flowers. But are you using this to your advantage?

I am definitely not an expert at this, but I will offer you a few tips.

What affects your character/ what would your character notice? 

This is a great way to differentiate between characters. One may notice details like the paint chipping on the wall. Another may notice how the room makes them feel. (You’ve already formed judgments about those two characters, haven’t you?)

Sometimes you can say a lot about your character by what you leave out of your setting descriptions.

What is most significant to your plot? 

Try and keep a consistent tone. If you are writing a gritty mystery novel it may not be appropriate to always describe the flowers.

It might be hard work, but every object, color, or sound can be ultimately tied into your theme or your plot. Be aware of the mood you are setting, and how these details can be significant later.

What is unique and unusual? What immediately distinguishes this setting from similar settings? 

When it comes down to it, the reader really doesn’t need to know every detail about the setting. They need to know the significance of it. Is it dark and foreboding? Is it safe and comforting?

If it’s a place they’ve never been, they need to be able to relate it to something familiar. We may not all have been to Spain, but you can describe Spain in words and feelings that the reader will identify.

I am a fan of the “less is more” club. That doesn’t mean I hate good description. I love good description when it is inserted at the appropriate moments. Sometimes writers tend to lag on and on in descriptions when I just want the plot to move forward.

Instead, take a quick sketch of the room (or place) and describe how it impacts the character. After all, the setting is almost a character of its own. But don’t just use a bunch of adjectives. Find the heart of why the walls are painted blue, or why the carpet is old and ragged, or how the humid weather impacts the citizens. Don’t just give your reader descriptions. Give them insight. 

3 Replies to “Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives”

  1. Definitely agree that less is more when it comes to descriptions. If a book overly describes the setting, I often skip those parts. But if the description contains two or three details, I often hunt for clues there. Either about the current scene or about the characters themselves. Description is tricky. It takes balance. But if done well, it can really add to the story.

    1. I think some people make the mistake of thinking they have to describe the entire setting. As an author you have to be more focused than that: you have to only describe what you want the reader to see. You have to direct their gaze the way a cinematographer directs the camera.

      1. Exactly! You know enough to have an idea of where the character is, and what’s important about that setting. Then use that to keep the reader engaged in the plot. Cinematographers have to make sure that the audience stays engaged, or the movie won’t be as good.

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