This article by Joanne Grant is from the December 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

As an acquiring editor, I’ll be honest and say nothing would have me skim-reading over a submission quicker than lengthy descriptions of setting – especially in the very first paragraph of novel. However, passages of lyrical scene-setting prose were once the stalwart of classic novels which are still revered and taught in schools and universities today. So, what has changed, and is it really a complete no-no to include lyrical passages of setting at any point in your novel?

Creating a world in which your reader feels they can step into can make the difference from an okay read to a fantastic read—whereas not enough setting can disorientate the reader and leave them frustrated. It’s a hard balance to make but an important one!

In this article, I will discuss ways to identify how to handle world-building in your novel in a way that will appeal to your reader, as well tips to execute this well.

The 21st Century reader

Recent studies have shown that in the last 20 years, attention spans have dropped significantly. This is in direct correlation to the amount of information that is readily available and always vying for our attention (whether we want it or not!), through our smart phones, for example. It is perhaps of no surprise that this would have an impact on reading habits, trends, and in the way stories are told.

But does this mean readers no longer have the patience for description and world-building in novels? Not entirely, as it all depends on who your target reader is and what reading experience they are looking for – how do they want to feel? Being mindful of who your reader is when crafting your story can help you to world-build in a way they will enjoy. But how can you do this when you are second-guessing the whims of individuals?

Establish the role of setting in your genre

When looking to target your reader, first hone in on the type of book you are writing. There is so much variety in storytelling that thankfully, books are curated for us. Genres, sub-genres, and even broader categories are broken down into themes, tone, etc., all with the view to help readers navigate the bookshelves to select a story and reading experience they are in the mood for.

Read voraciously in the genre you are writing and pay specific attention to the conventions of that genre when it comes to world-building. The way world-building is handled in a category romance will differ from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi or from that in a literary family saga, for example, so notice the style, length and word choice when it comes to creating setting. Also notice:

  • Is it mainly told through narrative description or through character point of view?
  • Is the convention to use backdrop setting (more common in charcter-driven stories) or integral settings?
  • How do the descriptions of setting effect pace?
  • Pay particular attention to how setting is handled in the opening chapter – this is where you will win or lose your reader!

Trends change, so it is important to research current examples of the genre you are writing in – not just the authors who are considered masters in the genre, even if they are still publishing today. Why? Because they are likely selling books based on their unique storytelling style and have a loyal fanbase; they have earned the right to flaunt conventions! Instead, turn your attention to the new and rising stars coming through in your genre of choice.

Now that you have established the current convention and readers’ expectations of how setting is executed in your genre, how do you successfully execute your setting?

Using your setting with purpose

Everything you write (or at least what makes it into your final draft!) must have purpose: by serving the characters, conflicts, plot, and by revealing something new, interesting, and integral to the story. To avoid slipping into descriptive passages your reader skims over, consider the purpose of setting at that point in your novel. Here are some examples where setting can be used to serve a specific purpose beyond simple scene-setting:

  • Giving context and boundaries for your characters and their actions
  • Creating atmosphere and mood, which in turn can influence or reflect character mood
  • Providing foreshadowing of events
  • Creating a theme through symbolism

Whatever the conventions of your genre, it is unlikely that your setting will be “told” entirely through passages of narrative prose which means – yes, you guessed it – the way to execute this in an engaging way is to “show” setting through character action, dialogue and interaction!

As an editor – do I think the art of lyrical prose has gone completely out of fashion? No, not at all. I have read some fantastically engaging books published in recent years that used world-building in a poetic way to amplify or contrast with the themes of the story, or to slow the pace, or to make a wider point on a theme.

But why was I more forgiving of these stories as reader compared to my impatient skim-reading as an acquiring editor? It all comes down to reader expectations. I had the specific conventions of the genre I was acquiring for front of mind, and I knew that lengthy setting descriptions were not what the reader would be looking for.

So, if you find yourself writing a beautiful passage of evocative mood-setting, heavy with symbolism, ask yourself: based on your research is this what your reader wants…or is it exactly what turns them off? And this will help world-build successfully for the 21st Century reader.