Critique Technique, Part 19—Vague Setting

Last time I wrote about authors not providing setting information at all, or not providing it soon enough. Not providing enough detail about the setting is a similar problem. Next time we’ll go to the other extreme and discuss providing too much information.

Foggy scene

Image courtesy of Dan /

It’s easy for an author to fall into the vagueness trap: after all, his mind’s eye sees the setting the characters are in. That knowledge becomes so ingrained that he can forget the reader isn’t right there with him: she doesn’t see what he sees, know what he knows, etc. In the end, details get left out, even when they’re new and important, and the poor reader becomes a member of the Fugawi Tribe. (See Part 18 for an explanation of who they are.)

Setting details do much more than locate the reader in place and time. Among other things, they establish, or help establish:

  • the mood of the story;
  • the relationships between the characters and the time, place, and culture of the story;
  • the relationships between the characters; and
  • the activities that might be expected to take place there.

It’s important to remember, too, that setting details are not just things the reader can “see” with her mind’s eye. The other four senses can convey setting information too.

  • What does the place smell like? Smell is the second most powerful sense, after sight, but one writers overlook too often.
  • What sounds are present… or missing?
  • Texture and temperature can provide subtle but important cues and clues.
  • Taste may not be used very often but can be powerful when it is.

Let’s take some examples.


“It was a dark and stormy night.” While this famously bad opening seemingly fails for many reasons—how dark was it, how stormy was it, and what kind of storm was going on wherever the story was happening—Edward Bulwer-Lytton was trying to establish a mood. And the sentence didn’t actually end at “night,” but continues for another 46 words: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” That’s actually a lot of setting information, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s all in one sentence.

Of course, weather isn’t the only way to establish mood and is probably the most cliché, so writers should use it with caution. Further, the reader’s initial reaction to a dark place or a bright place only begins to set a mood.

Even darkness alone isn’t enough information. Consider the difference in mood for a couple in a dark forest and the same couple in a dark bedroom. That’s still not enough detail: they could be happy to be in the dark forest or terrified in the dark bedroom. The only way to properly set the mood is to provide enough detail.

Culture and Relationships

Think of the differences between, say, the England of Pride and Prejudice and the Florida, Texas, and California of The Right Stuff. The cultures of Victorian England and America’s first astronauts were worlds apart, as were the ways in which they interacted with those environments and each other. The settings in which the characters lived and operated created some of the conditions through which Austen and Wolfe could reveal the differences.


Readers will have different expectations about what is likely to be happening in a hospital operating room (OR) or in a trailer at a construction site. Setting details can either confirm or upset those expectations. What if the OR is a place where people are tortured, or the trailer is where spies are conducting a secret operation? The details—the blood on the walls or the racks of special communications gear—provide the clues without the author having to come out and tell the reader what’s happening.

Who or What Is There… or Missing

This can be an interesting and subtle point. What does the POV character notice, ignore, or miss? Any of these can set up some event later, or be important right away.

Let’s continue with the operating room example. There’s a big difference between an OR that’s clean, well-lighted, and full of modern equipment, and one that’s nearly empty, dirty, and lit by just a single bare 60-watt bulb. Similarly, there’s a big difference between an OR that’s staffed with nurses, doctors, and technicians, one that’s empty and seems abandoned, and one that has just a single man in ratty fatigues holding an electric cord with bare wires at one end. Even these generic details tell the reader a lot. Now add in smells and sounds, or take away the ones the reader would expect to be there.

How Much Is Enough?

Within reason, the more details about the setting the author provides, the more the reader is able to inhabit the world of that moment of the story. In the end, though, this whole question of how much setting detail a writer needs to provide is like the quest for just the right word. You’ve probably heard of Mark Twain’s famous statement that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is “the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” The lightning bolt doesn’t just illuminate, it does so in a sharp and sometimes shocking way (pun fully intended). The lightning bug may be pretty and mysterious, but it literally sheds little light on what’s around it. The right amount of setting detail illuminates just enough.

Questions For You

But since illumination is what we’re after, let’s see if we can shed some light on what you as a reviewer should be looking for when evaluating the setting details an author has provided. Ask yourself:

  • Can I picture the time of the story or scene: the time of day, the season of the year, the century, or the era?
    • Does the author provide what I need to know?
    • Does she provide some detail that brings the setting to life?
    • If yes, what was especially good?
    • If somewhat, what could be changed or added?
    • If not, what’s missing?
  • Can I imagine where the story or scene is taking place: the planet, the nation, the specific location?
    • Are there sensory details beyond the visual?
    • If not, what could be added?
    • If yes, what jumped out at me in a good way?
  • Do I have a sense of what the author wants me to expect is happening there?
    • Does the setting match or defy my expectations?
    • Is there enough information for me to even have expectations?
    • If not, what else would I like or need to know?
  • What do the people and/or things who are there—or absent—tell me about this scene?
    • Do they match or upset my expectations?
    • Can I tell if that’s what the author intended?
    • Is this effective or ineffective, and why?

Now it’s your turn: What kinds of things make you realize that an author’s setting descriptions are too vague? Or that they’re really good? Please share your clear and specific—not vague—suggestions in the comments box below.

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