Cut the Crap: Narrowing Setting Description

Last year I bought a 99-cent e-book.  It had a gorgeous, professionally-designed cover and a great summary.  I wondered how something so lovely could have gone unnoticed by agents and editors. 

And after the first twenty pages, I was still amazed that it hadn’t been picked up.  Then the main character escaped into a forest and the story…stopped.  I’m guessing the author was a serious nature lover because the next twenty pages practically dripped with adjectives, adverbs, and imagery.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a book that helps a reader imagine the setting (feel the sunshine, smell the flowers, taste the kisses), but I learned (from maybe query shark?)  that every word in your story should propel the reader through the plot. Readers can only take so much scenery before they get bored.

Maybe you’re having a hard time deciding whether or not you need to cut the ten-paragraph description of your character’s bedroom (or garage, or hut, or stable, or abs…what?  It happens!) Here are my three quick tips on knowing what to keep and what to kick: 

  1. Why is the character/narrator noticing their surroundings?  Is something out of place, broken, new or changed?  Does the setting influence the character’s emotion or actions?  Can the reader glean something of the plot from the scenery?  Obviously the image that comes to mind is the creepy forest.  The character feels nervous because the trees are dark and twisted, which may  foreshadow something in the future (or maybe the character is chronically paranoid). If you’re spending three paragraphs describing bark, there better be a magic spell/familiar initials/lifesaving moss growing on it.  If not, nix it. 
  2. Does the setting help set the time line?  Rather than using hours on a clock, good writers clue the reader to the time by how the scenery changes.  Is the sun setting?  Is the table set for dinner?  Has the tree grown?  If you’re just describing the setting to use pretty words, then you can probably eliminate a healthy portion of the description.
  3. Are the characters’ action dependent on their surroundings?  Can they run to the store or is it a three-day trip?  Is it hot enough that they’re tired and sweating/dehydrated?  Are they going to trip over that bench in the sword fight?  If the setting isn’t part of the story then it doesn’t need to be developed like it is. 
As a related side-note, I just finished reading DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE.  You want to read a book that has beautiful setting descriptions that are purposeful?  Man, Laini Taylor rocks my socks off with the gorgeous (yet functional) city of Prague.  She writes the setting like a character, one with an important role in the story. 

Love it! Someday I hope to be as masterful!  

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