Posted On January 21, 2011 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor: Dos and Don’ts of Settings

Welcome to Theresa Stevens’s monthly Ask an Editor blog! Today, Theresa gives us the lowdown on settings.

Very commonly, writers want to know what separates the publishable-but-ordinary book from the publishable-and-great one. The answer is that there are many markers which separates an almost-great from a great. Point of view, tension, voice – give any two writers the same set of story elements to work from, and the better scene will come from the author with better control over those elements. And it’s not exactly a secret. We talk about these things pretty frequently.

One marker of excellence which we talk about less often, though, is setting. Your choice of setting and the way you manipulate it can have a powerful impact on the way the scene reads. Here are my top tips for writing a well-set story.

Don’t Use Block Descriptions

A character walks into a room and describes the furniture and walls and windows for a five-sentence clump of text. The entire story comes to a dead stop for this description. Nothing happens. The cast is frozen on the stage while the spotlight moves from the couch to the draperies. This kind of description is a pace-killer, and what’s more, it’s almost always unnecessary. Instead of block descriptions, drop in setting details when they become relevant to the scene action. The couch doesn’t matter until someone sits on it, and that’s when you can safely reference it.

Don’t Narrate Ordinary Details

They’re in the bedroom, so you describe the bed. They’re in the dining room, so you describe the table. Why? It’s probably a safe assumption that bedrooms have beds in them and dining rooms have tables in them. Is there any need to elaborate? Probably not, and if you spend page space on unsurprising details like this, you’re at risk of boring the reader.

But Do Describe the Unusual Details

Now, if that dining room table is built from the bones and skins of the villain’s victims, then it might be worth a mention. Don’t think of the ways your character’s rooms are typical – a blue sofa in the living room, a roller shade over the bedroom windows – unless the point is that your character is so ordinary as to avoid particular notice. Instead, look for the unique personal details that would act like conversation pieces in real life. These are the things that stick out in an ordinary environment, and they can be described in your book without a loss of tension or reader interest.

And Do Show When the Environment Changes

Your character is ordinarily as tidy as a surgeon, but on this occasion, his desk is a litter of paper, pens, clips, and there’s even a plate with a dried-up half sandwich in one corner. Sure, we expect to see desk items on a desk, so the paper and pens, at least, ordinarily wouldn’t rate a mention. But in this specific case, they’re worth describing because they create tension. “Something is different. Something has changed. Something might be wrong here.” Throw in the nasty leftovers, and we know it’s more serious than just a busy day. He’s so busy that he’s distracted. Forgetting to eat. Willing to attract vermin rather than clean up his lunch. And we instantly want to know why.

This trick works best when character has already been established, but it can also be used with minor and new characters. Just make sure you communicate to the reader that this setting detail is unusual, or build in other contextual details that connect to the emotion you’re trying to raise.

Do Opt for Unusual Settings

Sex in the bedroom? There are times when a bedroom setting is necessary and says something about the plot and characters. Think, for example, of the couple in an erotic romance that sneaks sex everywhere and anywhere but pretends they’re not emotionally invested in each other. Doing it in a bed for the first time might signal an emotional acceptance of the true nature of their relationship. In that case, the ordinary setting advances the internal plot and becomes meaningful.

But in ordinary cases, don’t just automatically put the sex scene in the bedroom, the dinner scene in the dining room, the picnic in the park, and so on. Take a moment to question why the scene is set in this location. Brainstorm a list of possible settings – they don’t have to be logical or even likely, but taking a moment to think through the geography of the characters’ world will soon show you that there are almost infinite setting possibilities. The simple act of picking an unexpected setting can make a reader more alert and engaged, even when the setting isn’t particularly important to the plot.

Do Let Characters Interact With Setting

They kick at rocks in the street. They fuss with decorative items on the coffee table. They fiddle with the radio dial in the car. When we say, “Give your characters something to do in this scene,” we’re not always talking about turning them into gardeners and chefs while they have important conversations with other characters. Sometimes, the solution is to have the character signal his internal state with the way she moves through the world around her. Keep the main focus on the character interaction, but incorporate setting details with action and emotion.

An added benefit of this technique is that it will help you avoid cliched gestures. A hand through the hair when frustrated? Or shredding a tissue into careful squares? Which feels more fresh? The second, I think. Don’t you agree?

    * * *

    What other setting tricks do you use? Do you have any examples of a setting which was particularly interesting or well-written?

    Join us on Monday when Mills and Boons New Voices contest finalists Leah Ashton and Heidi Hormel share their after the contest stories.

    Theresa’s Bio:

    Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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    34 Responses to “Ask An Editor: Dos and Don’ts of Settings”

    1. Hi Theresa,

      Setting tends to be an area I struggle with. For a historical writer, that’s not good. How much is too much? What did they call a couch in the early 1800s? Did they wipe their mouth with a napkin or serviette? Did they walk down the hall or corridor? All these decisions take extra thought and time. I’ve learned to put “XXX” in areas I’m unsure about and keep writing. During the 2nd pass, I’ll layer in more setting.

      Thanks for the great tips!


      Posted by TraceyDevlyn | January 21, 2011, 5:48 am
      • Hi, Tracey! I do think you have a bit more leeway with an historical because world-building is vital to the story. But it’s so easy to fall in love with the research and use too much inessential detail. Using an archaic but accurate term to describe an everyday object is a great way to signal setting and era without loading the page down.

        Simple, short references to obsolete items — carriages instead of cars, candles instead of light switches — can also build the world. Think about action beats that rely on props which are no longer in contemporary usage. You know, instead of having her pace the floor angrily, have her attack the quill point with a trimming knife. Both actions convey an emotion, but one conveys it in a way unique to that time period.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 10:18 am
    2. Thanks Theresa for a great post. Gives one pause. The backbone of my stories, mystery, romance and all combinations thereof, is New York City. I am fOIS In The City and my women are the stuff that Frankie sang about. One might think that everything happening in one place can be restricting. First, my characters do get to travel to other great places and second, New York is the most diverse and complicated place in the country.

      I love to use the different neighborhoods. Places my readers would not know about. Everyone can relate to the “new” Times Square or the famous landmarks of Manhattan. How many who have visited New York, as well as many who live there, know about our ancient forest, a place where the National Park Service watches over tulip trees, where falcons fly and Swans mate for life? Or to use the wonderful vistas of the Narrows that lead into New York Harbor and the amazing changes as it winds its way into the City?

      For me, setting is as integral as the story themselves and my characters interact with the places they were born and their visits to other boroughs. A kid from Queens who never knew of the rambling roads along the Hudson River in a place called Riverdale.

      I so enjoy coming here to help learn my craft and find new ways to do what I love. Funny how many of us when we begin feel compelled to “tell” every single detail. It took this compulsive talker quite a while to learn, talk less and do more. Thanks again for wonderful post 🙂

      Posted by Florence Fois | January 21, 2011, 8:07 am
      • Florence –

        Oh, you make some wonderful points! And I’m right there with you on talking too much, therefore, I often write too much :).

        I used to hate writing setting, but I’ll think of it a little differently now. And I want to check out more of NYC!

        We’re so glad you enjoyed Theresa’s post today!

        Posted by KelseyBrowning | January 21, 2011, 8:13 am
      • New York is both a great city and a great setting. As with many historical periods, some of the world-building has already been done by some of the other writers in your subgenre. Manhattan in a chick lit book has a certain vibe to a regular reader of chick lit, right? And it’s different from the vibe built up in mafia crime stories. So think, too, about how some of the neighborhoods have been used by other writers in other subgenres, and think about how those reader expectations might work for or against you.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 10:22 am
      • Hey Florence!

        Do you follow Pale Male, the falcon who roosts on Fifth Avenue? I heard he has a new honey!

        Posted by jennifer tanner | January 21, 2011, 1:00 pm
    3. Theresa –

      All your lectures are keepers, but this one really resonated with me this morning (possibly because I’m actually writing again??). 🙂 I also laughed aloud at attracting vermin. My mom would tell you that was my normal MO when I was a kid.

      I was wondering if you’d be willing to let commenters post two-three lines out of a scene where they think they’ve done something right (or wrong) with setting?

      Thanks and happy Friday!

      Posted by KelseyBrowning | January 21, 2011, 8:07 am
      • But don’t you love getting so absorbed in your work that you forget about everything, even lunch? Those are the good days. 🙂 I’m so glad that you’re writing again!

        Yes, maybe what we should do is have people send their setting bits — no more than, say, 150 words — to the ask an editor inbox, and we’ll use some of them as examples next month. Would that work? Let’s ask for setting bits that illustrate one of the principles we’re talking about today, and then we can build on these concepts by showing how they work (or need work) in actual prose.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 10:27 am
    4. Morning Theresa!

      Great post as always. Setting is a tough one for me too. I never think of the little tidbits like playing with a knickknack on the table or stirring a pot with a spoon. My last chapter I had a character drinking coffee and holding a mug. That was a HUGE step forward for me, lol… characters tend to walk about in a gray world doing nothing until about the third draft.

      I think Nora Roberts is a great one for setting, because you never feel it’s taken over a story, but you have a great idea of exactly what it looks like where they are…



      Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 21, 2011, 8:27 am
      • Carrie, try this trick. Before you write the scene, sit in the chair quietly with your eyes closed for a moment. Imagine you’re the point of view character, and take a moment to just “look around” the scene location. What does the character notice? Just notice it for now — you’re in the character’s head space, so you just want to experience it.

        But when you open your eyes, you can get back into writer head space. Think about what your character noticed and how that might influence the scene action. Is there a pretty view out the window? How might that change the way she sits, stands, or moves? Do the other characters also notice it? Do they notice her noticing it? How does it change the action?

        You won’t use everything your character notices, but you might find some details interesting enough to build into the scene.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 10:34 am
    5. Hi Theresa. This one is going right into my editing binder. Fantastic tips. It makes me want to go back and rewrite certain scenes!

      I can admit setting descriptions have always been a struggle for me. I tend toward being very lean on my descriptions and try to sprinkle them in. As a reader, I tend to skip big clumps of setting description so I think I have a phobia about too much description that makes me go the other way! My question is, how do you know when you have enough?

      Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 21, 2011, 9:18 am
      • Hi, Adrienne! You do write taut, lean prose. That’s a good quality because the plot moves quickly and the tension level stays high. The key idea for you is to “ground and orient” the reader. You don’t want the prose to read like floating speech balloons. Anchor the dialogue into the setting with beats. Make sure at least some of your beats incorporate details that show where the characters are (grounding) in relation to other setting elements (orienting). If a character turns her back on the door, for example, we now have an active visual of how she operates in that space.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 10:52 am
    6. Theresa, thank you for this excellent list of Setting Do’s and Don’ts.
      I enjoy wrting about outdoor setting because I focus on a particular rural location in California. I want the locale to resonate with the reader. And that’s a challenge, as you noted above.
      I’ll review my manuscript to be sure I haven’t slipped and included a Don’t!


      Posted by Sheila Tenold | January 21, 2011, 10:01 am
      • Hi, Sheila! Outdoor scenes are fun because you can incorporate a variety of details that have a direct impact on the characters — temperature, wind, light, sounds of nature, all of these things can influence a character’s behavior and mood. Think of bird songs and wolf howls. Each signals something about the environment and helps set a different tone.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 10:55 am
    7. Theresa – thank you so much for these incredibly helpful tips. I wish I could just copy and paste this blog straight into my brain so I don’t forget it.

      I’m going to use your suggestions as a reference and do a quick check on my current WIP, because I’m darn sure I’ve made a few of these mistakes. I’ll be more conscious of these details in the future!

      Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | January 21, 2011, 11:02 am
    8. All these are great points. I especially wanted to read it because I write historical. And I’ve gone back and forth and between about what to include and how to include from a world building stand point. I use the technique of characters interacting with their setting the most. And through that interaction I try to bring out the five senses wherever possible.

      I really enjoyed this post and will reread what I’ve written with this post in hand.


      Posted by Christopher S. Ledbetter | January 21, 2011, 11:18 am
      • Excellent point, Chris! Sometimes we get so wrapped up in visuals that we forget the other senses, but a setting with an unusual or strong scent, a particularly loud or hushed setting, and settings that draw on other senses can also feel very vibrant when we read them.

        Posted by Theresa S. | January 21, 2011, 4:13 pm
    9. Great post, Theresa!

      And I love what you said to Adrienne. “Ground and orient.” I’ll remember that.

      I’ve read books with hardly any setting details and when I’ve reached the end of a chapter, I’ve forgotten where the events took place. Are they still on the plane? Wait, maybe they’re in the office. But then books with richly described settings are some of my favorites (Shadow of the the Wind). When this is lacking, I feel lost.

      However, setting description is easy to overdo and can slow pacing. Your tips on how to add it are great to keep in mind. I’ve tried to dissect why some of these stories are fast paced and why some drag. You’ve helped answer that question. The details we choose to write about need to matter.


      Posted by Laurie London | January 21, 2011, 12:00 pm
    10. Hello Teresa!

      I tend to over write so I’ve learned to keep my descriptions to a minimum. One thing I learned was how men and women see things…i.e..a sofa. The man would see a light colored sofa that he couldn’t put his feet on while a woman would see a sofa covered with lustrous cream silk fabric that reminded her of a sofa she’d seen in a magazine.

      It’s hard for me not to include all the details especially after I’ve done a lot of research! I care that the room has high ceilings and original plaster mouldings, but do I need that description to move the story along? Usually not!

      Posted by jennifer tanner | January 21, 2011, 12:58 pm
    11. Excellent!! You’ve got me going thru the scenes of my WIP looking for problems and ways to make them fresh.

      Posted by Wes | January 21, 2011, 3:34 pm
    12. Theresa –

      Just wanted to quickly pop back in and say thank you for such a great post yesterday.

      Hope you’re having a great weekend!

      Posted by KelseyBrowning | January 22, 2011, 7:12 pm
    13. Happy New Year everyone,

      Theresa, as usual you’ve written a great article that I’m getting ready to tell several writers to come over and read.


      Posted by Dyanne Davis | January 25, 2011, 3:11 pm

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