Critique Technique, Part 20—Too Much Setting Detail

Cluttered bedroom
Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw /

The flip side of providing vague or insufficient setting detail is providing too much. Drowning the reader in the minutia of a setting not only kills the momentum of the story, it causes readers to lose track of the story. When they do that, they lose interest. For the lucky author, the reader will just skip ahead—a few times.

Brace Yourself

But for the unlucky author, or the one who insists on writing a description like this—deep breath—“the three green sateen ribbons on the head of the second Pekinese from the left, the one with the ghost-grey patch of fur on its back that looks just like a giraffe if you look at it from the right rear, which is hard to do because the dog insists on spinning around—always clockwise, never counterclockwise—to face you, but is now asleep in the brown wicker basket with the braided handle that Rosalee bought for just 50 cents at the neighborhood garage sale over in Johnsonville from that nice lady wearing the darling sundress with the purple and gold iris flower pattern that went so well with her blond hair, that was now sitting on the linoleum with the orange and white pattern of squares and triangles and the 6 inch diameter water stain reaching out from the far wall, in front of the oak veneer bookcase that Rosalee bought on sale for just half price at the dollar store because it was a display sample and they wanted to get rid of it, especially because the middle shelf was missing a couple of screws and so it sagged toward the back and she—Rosalee, not Janetta, the sales clerk with the gold teeth who always wears those big silver hoop earrings—hadn’t had time to go to Lowe’s to pick up the nickel-plated #10 by 1½” hex head screws that would be hanging in the rack down toward the end of aisle 13, up where she’d have to stand on her tippy-toes to reach them, in the dark blue plastic pouch that she found so convenient if hard to open, meaning she’d have to find those Fiskars scissors with the pretty pink plastic handles her Gramma Gemma had given her when she was just six and working on her Kindergarten Christmas card project—the one where she spilled Elmer’s glue and silver sparkles all over the sort-of-brand-new kitchen table—and still had and they were still sharp after all these years, but even after she fixed the shelf the bookcase would still be wobbly and she doubted she’d be able to get her collection of The Great Books with their wonderful brown leather covers embossed with real gold and that still smelled real good, like an old saddle maybe, or Aunt Barbara’s fancy coat with the long sleeves that she wouldn’t wear in the winter because it would get wet, if you put your nose up real close, to stay in it because it would probably collapse in a heap”—that author is going to have the reader throwing the book across the room.

If they don’t fall asleep first.

And that wasn’t even a good bad example!

Over-describing anything—the setting; a character’s features, personality, motivations, or clothing; the past events that led up to the current moment (a.k.a. backstory); etc.—is a sign that the author doesn’t trust the reader to be able to fill in these details, or trust herself to tell the story clearly enough. Unfortunately, over-compensating does not solve the problem.

The point, of course, is that somewhere between that 423-word mass of details and “the bookcase,” there’s a balance point at which the author has given the reader enough information to build the rest of the scene in his head. The fact that the scene he sees with his mind’s eye won’t be—can’t be—exactly the same scene the author saw with hers doesn’t matter, so long as he knows what’s important about the setting.

Your Challenge

The challenge for you as a reviewer is to determine whether or not a particular setting detail—or a whole bunch of them—is important or even necessary. The author may be planting that detail now even though its importance won’t be evident until later. That’s a favorite technique in mystery stories. Or, lots of details may be important for establishing the environment, beyond the immediate moment of the story. Pick up an early Tom Clancy novel, for example, and you’ll find a story rich in details, such as of the close confines, the equipment, the displays, the sounds, and the men in the sonar room of a submarine.

Questions For You

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you review someone’s work.

  • Are there so many details that they kill the story’s forward progress?
  • Do the details provide information but not knowledge? That is, do they tell me things, but I don’t understand why I’m being told them?
  • Are there so many setting details that I lose track of the story?
  • Are there so many details that I stop caring about the story and its characters?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, be sure to tell the author about what you’ve seen and suggest ways they might remove or compress details to make the story better.

What other things cue you to the fact that the author is providing too much setting information? Go ahead and provide all the details you want in the comments box below.

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