Don’t Let Your Readers Lose Their Way in Your Story

In the past few months of reviewing and editing novel manuscripts, I wrote “You’ve got to set the setting” so many times that I actually started to feel like Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas:

“No, no, no! Listen, all of you! You’ve got to take direction, you’ve got to have discipline, you’ve got to have respect for your director!”

So, after flagging this issue in several authors’ manuscripts in recent times, I figured I should take a look at yet another common pitfall I come across in my daily work as a fiction editor: neglecting to set the setting.

In its most basic sense, the setting of a story scene is the environment the characters inhabit. The setting for a particular scene can include the more obvious markers: time of day, date, season, geographical location, etc. But it can also include items often forgotten but equally or even more important: which characters are on stage right now, the emotional atmosphere of the scene, key pieces of clothing the characters are wearing, the direction the wind is blowing, the constellations visible in the night sky, and the list could go on and on depending on the specific story.

The pitfall that I keep running into is that authors like to drop their readers right into a scene without taking the time to set the setting. Too often, I start reading a new chapter or scene and find myself having a poor mental image of what’s going on—because the author neglected to set the setting.

It’s easy enough to do, especially if you tend to write at a frenetic pace and just do your utmost to transcribe your own mental images from your imagination onto the blank page. But even if setting is something you don’t address while writing your first draft, that’s no excuse for not taking care of it during subsequent revisions. The trick, though, is to know how much description to include to set the setting.

It’s a fine line to walk—knowing how much description to include without going overboard. You want your reader to have enough that his or her imagination can engage and then take it from there, but you don’t want so much that you’re drowning a reader in the details.

I think we’ve all read scenes that left us sinking in deep waters, flailing for a life preserver—perhaps after reading a line like, “The sun-kissed, billowy-clouded azure sky overhead contrasted starkly with the terrifying obsidian-plated killer android that was sickeningly immune to the 7.62mm M61 150.5-grain armor-piercing rounds that we fired at it like there was no tomorrow.” Gurgle-gurgle … Blub-blub … And the reader has gone under.

When you’re serious about doing your best to set the setting for each scene, aim to not overwhelm your reader with a tidal wave of details that will swamp them under. At the same time, don’t leave them wandering around your scene wondering which characters are present or whether it’s day night or what century it is.

Just enough … but not overkill. It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but you can get there by writing (and rewriting) fiction every day and by reading plenty of novels, which will help you become more familiar with how to skillfully handle setting—and how not to handle it.

Setting is just too important to ignore. You’ve got to set the setting. If Lucy were a fiction editor, she’d say it too.