Monday, November 4, 2013

Setting: How Much Is Too Much?

With our Monday Word-Whore gallivanting around England, we have a special guest for you today.

Lucy Snyder has writing chops that spans a broad spectrum of genre styles. She is the author of the urban fantasy Spellbent series including: Spellbent, Shotgun Sorceress, and Switchblade Goddess, as well as Orchid Carousals featuring characters from the Spellbent series. She won a Bram Stoker Award in 2010 for her poetry collection Chimeric Machines. Her Sparks and Shadows won the 2008 Editor's Choice Black Quill Award for Best Dark Genre Collection, and her humor collection  How to Install Linux on a Dead Badger was released in 2007.

Setting: How Much Is Too Much?
by Lucy A. Snyder

Hi everyone! I hope everybody had a fabulous Halloween last week!

Knowing that I think a whole lot about world building, James asked me to guest blog this week and talk a little bit about setting. More specifically, he asked me to talk about when a writer has focused too much on his or her setting.

There’s no cut-and-dried answer to the question of “How much setting is too much?” It depends on the type of story you’re telling. If you’re writing a lean, action-packed thriller set in the present day, all you need are a few vivid strokes and you’re off to the races:

The location was one of those sad old mansions in Bel Air. Ostentatious, but had seen better days. Money is so fickle here in L.A. and a big old house is like an aging mistress with a plastic surgery fetish. It’s more economical to just buy a cheap, flashy new one than keep on renovating the old one. Otherwise, you wind up renting the place out for porn shoots just to break even on the roofing bills.

There was a pair of twisted pomegranate trees guarding the open gate and the ground beneath them was gory with broken crimson fruit that crunched and splattered under the wheels of my little black Mini. Pulling into the wide circular driveway, I kept expecting to spot Norma Desmond burying her pet chimpanzee in the overgrown rose garden. I felt better once I saw Sam’s red ‘84 Corvette with its vanity plates that read HAMRXXX. It was parked near a massive wooden door that looked like it ought to open into a medieval Spanish dungeon. 
– from Money Shot by Christa Faust

Faust’s descriptions are vivid and as compact as the narrator’s Mini. She doesn’t spend time describing the shingles, or the windowpanes; she lets the reader fill in the rest because she knows most all of us have seen plenty of Hollywood mansions in movies or on TV. Instead, she focuses on the pomegranates, and in doing so creates great gruesomely foreboding imagery. Even better, she continues to build the narrator’s character as she describes the seedy world she works in.

But in some stories and novels, the setting is so crucial that it functionally serves as another character in the narrative. It could be a fantasy wonderland, an ancient house full of secrets, an astonishing spaceship, or a grim alien dystopia. In these cases, the reader will want to see the setting unfold before them and spend more time in compelling descriptions of structures and landscapes.

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an, idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres. On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory. The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long. It was in fact a quarantine. The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.
Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.
             – from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin spends more words describing a wall than Faust spends describing an entire mansion. But she’s not merely describing the wall, is she? She’s using it to convey the isolated culture the characters live in.

Your setting must above all else serve your story. And if you look at the two examples above, you soon realize that good descriptions of setting keep the story flowing. You don’t just drop everything for the sake of pages of static description; adept writers maintain narrative momentum whether the setting is briefly described or lovingly detailed.

So, what’s too much? Boring is too much. Keep it interesting, and keep it moving.

       For more on Lucy see her website:


  1. great examples. I agree that in fantasy the setting can be another character, like in The Greywalker series. I shy away from historicals because they can get bogged down in every researched detail the author can use. A reader can connect to a scene if they can incorporate their own experience/knowledge into it. If there is too much detailed description there is no room for the imagination to help make it more real.

  2. I couldn't have said it better myself, Lucy and thanks for stepping in! Sincerely, Galavanting Jim.