The confusion of setting

One thing I see happening a lot is micromanaging. You may think that this would be a good thing, getting the reader to see exactly what you want them to see. It seems like that’s the goal, right?

Not really. Description does not equal physical setting.

You might be getting comments that say you need to describe more. While sometimes this may be true, I think what most people are really trying to say is not that they want you to tell them what look a character  has on their face or what they’re doing with their hands. Readers don’t even really want you to tell them what direction your MC is pointing in. That kind of description can get clunky and awkward and often doesn’t actually contribute to visualizing a scene or engaging the reader. It mostly serves to make the reader notice the hand of the author by taking the reader out of the story and into thinking about looking left, or they’ll skim over the nonengaging description instead of being in the scene.

The real purpose of description is to make the reader connect. You can describe one thing in a room, do it well, give the emotions and thoughts behind the character, and you’ve established a setting far richer than pointing out that on the far right wall was an old hutch, to the left were two wooden chairs, and under the bay window was a comforter with tiny pink flowers thrown over a twin bed. I can picture it. I see it in my head. But it’s not very engaging.

Those commenters are really asking you to make a connection with the reader, so they can feel it and visualize it in a much more internalized way. The color of the wall is far less important than what walking into that room feels like. It might contribute, but it’s hardly worth spending too much time on these details when there are so many more interesting ways to spend your word count that will provide much more bang for your buck.

If you get into your characters head, show how that splotch of red paint on the bare white wall reminded your MC of his first homicide scene that went unsolved, haunting him, you’ll engage the reader, and they can visualize that room a million times better than anything you could describe. They’ll not only see it, they’ll feel it. That’s connection.

You want your description to make the reader connect to their own experiences of that same emotion. No, not everyone has seen a bloody wall. But they do know what fear and sorrow feels like, and many people are haunted by their past in varying degrees. So make your description connect to those feelings, and they’ll reach into their own emotional vault and pull it out.

Next time you find yourself describing every facial expression, every gesture, every step, and every detail to make a reader see exactly what you want, ask yourself if that’s really your goal? Sometimes describing every detail does serve a meaningful purpose, so it’s a legitimate question to ask yourself. Then ask, is it actually engaging? Are you’re micromanaging details the reader doesn’t need? Are you treating your reader like they are smart or like they need it spelled out for them?

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t describe anything or that you should describe only one thing. It simply means there’s more benefit when you put it into a context that allows a reader some room to get involved. Setting isn’t just a physical thing; it’s the atmosphere you want to create, and the process of immersing the reader in that atmosphere. Make your description a sensory experience to gain that connection. An engaged reader keeps reading.


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Cheryl Murphy is Asian with brown hair in a single braid and a smirk.

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