How Important Is Setting?

It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s how Snoopy starts his novels as he sits on the roof of his doghouse and types on his typewriter. He never seems to get much further, but maybe that’s because the roof line on his doghouse must be uncomfortable for sitting, or maybe it’s because he’s still using a typewriter, or maybe it’s because he’s beginning with setting. (Digression 1: Don’t you just love Snoopy?)

I can remember going to a writers’ conference back when I was in high school. The panel of speakers talked about the importance of setting. But this was the 80s, and I wonder if what those experts said then is still true.

I find that when I write, I don’t care much to describe where things are happening. Is this a sign of the times or is it just my limited attention span? Personally, I’d rather delve more into the characters and their motivations and make things happen plotwise. I don’t care so much about the weather or what the room looks like. Occasionally my editors will ask me to describe a setting a bit more, and I always oblige, but for my own part, I find I don’t think about setting that much. I’m sure if I wrote stories that happened in alternate universes if would make more sense to ground readers with some sense of where they are and what this strange new world looks like, but my books aren’t in that genre, so setting doesn’t feel that important for the stories I’m telling.

In fact, I’m pretty bare bones about description in general, I think. In my latest book, my editors had me go back in on one of the rounds of edits and describe what the girls in the band were wearing onstage for auditions and shows. It was a good suggestion, but to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it. (Digression 2: Thank goodness for editors.)

In my first book, I explicitly stated that the characters lived in Ohio. Why Ohio? Because the first draft involved the protagonist’s father having a serious girlfriend in New York. I decided not to set that book in the South (where I live) because that’s a pretty far commute for a long-distance relationship, and even true love has its limits, perhaps. The Midwest seemed like a good compromise on distance while still providing a smalltown setting.

Just tossing this out there to see what other writers and readers think about setting. Can readers today tolerate much description, or do they just want stuff to keep happening? When we read online, there are pictures, videos, sounds, and so many colors and fonts…can we sit still for several paragraphs of description on a printed page? I don’t know. What do you think?

 

 

 

 

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