Setting in Your Novel: What to Include?


How do you decide what to include and what not to include when you are describing the setting in your novel?

I read Ken Follett’s novel Whiteout, and realized I didn’t skim a word. I started thinking about why I wasn’t skimming the narrative, something I tend to do because I’m not that interested in flowery descriptions. Others love it, but I like a fast paced story where I can relate to the characters.

After I finished the novel, I opened the first page of Whiteout and got out my pink highlighter. I highlighted every setting description. Since I’d already read the book, on my second reading I knew how the setting would be used.

I discovered that Follett spent time on setting description only if it was relevant to the story. This may seem obvious, and sometimes I need an idea to hit me on the head, but it became clear that I didn’t skim because I needed to know what the setting looked like to understand the latter scenes.

Try this with a novel where you didn’t skim any text, and see if you discover the same thing I did. There are so many ways to learn 🙂

Now when I’m describing a place, I do it twice. Once in full detail, so I understand and know it. Then I write it a second time, cutting what doesn’t need to be there and leaving the bits that will end up in the novel. These bits are the parts the reader needs to understand in order to believe and be engaged in the story.

When proofreading, I check for description that isn’t needed. Cut – cut – cut and into the garbage it goes. (Okay so really, stored in a folder on my computer but you get the point.)


12 thoughts on “Setting in Your Novel: What to Include?

  1. I am that kind of a reader, too, Kristina! Tends to make me want to leave out a lot for my reader. Yours is an excellent method to getting just the right amount of setting details in.


  2. That is a useful method! I tend to skim over descriptions when reading, but I unconsciously include them in my own stories. I’ll be sure to keep that in mind when editing. =]


  3. Great methods here. I like a balance between description and narrative, not so much to take away from the plot but enough to let me see the scenery. I do like to know what a person looks like and what they’re wearing but only in its smallest details. I like to know if we’re on a canal or a river and if either of them stink. I’m the type who needs my sense filled. I also tend to write that way. I’m working on fixing it. 🙂


  4. I write YA and I think YA settings can be overdone. I like to suggest the setting through subtle clues rather than delve into a large description of it, just enough to set the emotional tone and mood.


    1. Jamie, sounds like you have the perfect balance. Part of the value for YA readers is that they use their imagination instead of watching TV and having all their senses filled for them. I think YA novels are great way for kids to develop their thought process.


  5. I know that I describe way too much in first draft, but that is sometimes what I need to do to discover what’s most important about my story. When I go through to edit, I’ve noticed (and learned) that three items of description per setting feels about right for description in a finished piece, and luckily, I seem to have no trouble parting with my excessive wordage–sometimes in a separate file, like you say.
    I like your idea about using a highlighter and am going to try this on some of my favorite books!


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