My creative writing students often ask me how much setting and description stories or novels should have. The answer, of course, is: “It depends.” Some authors’ personal style is to avoid description and setting—in some cases altogether—and that’s a perfectly acceptable choice if it’s done well. Also, the shorter the work is, the less room one typically has for such concerns. In flash fiction, for example (generally but not exclusively defined as stories of 1,000 words or fewer), there is typically little to no description, and minimal setting. However, in longer works, the general trend over recent years has also been toward less description and more action.
Some people even insist that writers begin a novel in the midst of action or dialogue. This isn’t always necessary (and in some cases works terribly), but the sorts of extended descriptions that one might find in a novel written 100 or 200 years ago (or even a few decades ago) is no longer acceptable to most agents, editors, and readers. Take a look at Gone with the Wind, for example. It begins with two and a half pages of description and setting: we learn about Scarlet’s eyebrows and
breasts and her dress, in some detail. We learn about the hounds and horses and twins. We know it’s late afternoon and the dogwoods are in bloom. We hear about their upbringing, their socioeconomic status, and how their lives compare to those of others in similar areas in the region.
From my modern perspective (the book was published in 1936), it’s far too much. Not just because of length (it’s nothing compared to the vast swaths of setting and description that can be found in some older books—such as in gothic novels, like Ann Radcliffe’s), but because she is telling us a great deal that could easily be shown through her story. Being able to accomplish such showing is a sign of skillful writing. In addition, Mitchell’s approach can be rather dull, and it risks leaving the reader unconvinced by her statements.
That’s not to say that telling (which includes description and setting) is never appropriate. On the contrary, setting is typically essential, if only in brief. The reader must know what era a story is set in and what rules apply there. This level of setting can be expressed in dialogue, of course, as well as in exposition. When Stuart says, “The Yankees may be scared of us, but after the way General Beauregard shelled them out of Fort Sumter the day before yesterday, they’ll have to fight or stand branded as cowards…” Mitchell has told us precisely what the era is—right down to the day.
Casual mentions of technologies (does your character dial a number on a rotary phone? Have a party line? Use a flip phone? A bag phone? A communicator embedded in a device worn on their uniform?), or world events, or even slang, for example, can convey the time and place without the author directly telling us. The primary qualification—and the reason so many authors like to begin with setting—is that the reader needs to know very quickly what the setting is. If one is imagining 2016, for example, but then discovers several pages in that it’s 1816, that reader is confused, distracted, and maybe even angry enough to hurl your book across the room. (Identifying issues like this is a huge benefit of beta readers and writing groups.)
Another consideration in deciding how much to share lies in what your character is likely to be thinking about. One author who is known for his spare use of description is Ernest Hemingway. As a reader, my personal preference is for more description than he offers—particularly because he is writing about a time and (usually) a place that is outside my realm of experience. This wasn’t always the case for the people reading his books right after they were published, which may have been a
consideration for him–but it’s clearly an aspect of his style, in any case.
With respect to A Farewell to Arms, which is informed by his experiences during World War I, his lack of description is striking. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is seeing many horrible things, and many places and experiences that were new to him. Description and reflection on what he was seeing would have been natural. Unless, that is, he was sufficiently traumatized that he wanted to avoid thinking about or even acknowledging what was going on around him. It’s clear from his behavior—and from that of his companions (drinking, joking, visiting brothels)—that reflection was the last thing on their minds. So, in context, it makes sense. It’s a natural expression of his character’s experience. Here, too, is a sign of skillful writing.
So, the questions you should ask as a writer include:
- What does the reader need to know and when?
- What is the best and most engaging way I can express that information?
- What would my character be experiencing and expressing (depending on your choices about POV)?
- What would my narrator be most likely to express and why?
- And, of course, what is my style as an author—or my style in this story? (Of course, they can differ.)
Most importantly, just keep writing!