It used to be that novels would lavishly describe the setting. But with today’s focus on tight pacing, a few details here and there usually have to be enough.
Here’s how to make those details count.
If you’re writing in close third person point of view, or first person point of view (most novels today are one or the other), the setting should directly reflect the mood, point of view, agenda, and personality of the character. When your character, say, walks into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, what is it about the world that they notice? How do they interact with the world?
Compare these examples of making coffee:
Sam stumbled into where he thought the kitchen was, and felt around for the light switch, anxious to get coffee brewing before the others could wake. After an agonizing moment, a buzzing fluorescent came on overhead. He’d found the kitchen, at least. On the aging Formica counter sat a crusty-looking French press. It would have to do.
Jessica stood at the sink and flipped the switch on the coffee machine. A feeling of horror bubbled up inside her stomach. She’d done this every day for years, spoon the grounds into the paper cone, use the carafe to fill the back of the machine with tap water, and press the button. Only today the red light on the switch stayed dark.
In each example, the setting is directly tied to the problems each character faces. The details of how they interact with the setting reinforce who the characters are and what they want. Showing how a character interacts with the world helps establish not only the unique world, but also the conflicts that fuel narrative tension.
Setting can be thought of as boring, especially to writers who are eager to hook the reader, and it’s true that some readers will skim or skip description of the setting in favor of dialogue and action. But when done well, setting will clue the reader in to who characters are, what they want, and what’s at stake, as well as creating the voice or tone of the story.
Establishing a convincing setting is an especially important goal in science fiction and fantasy, indeed, setting is a big part of what makes a story science fiction or fantasy. The writer Nancy Kress taught me that the story should be intrinsically linked to the setting: the novel should need to be set, say, on Mars, or on a space station, or in Belfast in the 1970s. Any other setting would not be enough. In SFF, the setting can even be referred to as a character. Dune by Frank Herbert is an example of a novel where the setting is so deeply important to the story that it takes on the significance of a character.
But whether your story is deeply saturated by the setting, or you’re just looking for a way to build in the setting without distracting the reader from the action, consider this. I see a lot of manuscripts where writers will stop the story to explain, often for paragraphs at a time, the setting, the history, the geography, the social politics, or other world-building, in a way that is detached from the protagonist or protagonists. That kind of writing is useful for the writer, because it takes time and thought to build a coherent and engaging setting, especially in fantasy and science fiction worlds that are so deliberately different from what’s seen as mainstream contemporary society. But if you can make the setting personal to the characters’ experience, show how it affects them, you’ll be able to draw the reader in and use the setting to maximize your opportunities to develop the plot and characters.