As a writer, I am terrible (terrible) at setting. I know in my head what I want, and I see it all very clearly, but I often forget to actually relay it to my readers through the written word. For example, in ‘Tweens, Timothy has a recurring dream where he starts standing at the top of a spiral staircase that descends deep into the earth. I know for a fact that I have relayed that the staircase is wooden, rickety, and painted white. The white paint is chipping and peeling off, and it leaves little flakes like dandruff on the creaky steps. That’s what I tell the reader. But there is so much to setting that I don’t tell.
I don’t tell that there are pine trees and elm trees in the distance, and the sky is a dull, grayed twilight. There is a gentle wind, but barely enough to move the stagnant air. The air itself is warm and heavy with humidity, but the breeze, when it does come by, is cool and refreshing. The abyss itself is an anomaly. It’s a hole in the earth with crumbling dirt walls that harden to rock the deeper into the earth one travels. The air smells like rotting meat and honey from a buzzing bee-nest that is buried in the ground a few feet away from the hole. The land all around the hole, until it stretches out of the trees and to the distant mountains, is grassy plains. In some places, there are dandelions, and in some areas the grass is much taller.
All those things are beautiful and they paint the image in my own head. Where, in writing setting, should we draw the line? I’ve learned through photography that no matter how good the camera, how good the photographer, we cannot grasp the true image as our eyes see it. What is enough? What is too much? Great writers, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien spent pages devoted to the setting. How much does it take for The Modern Reader to get bored? That, in the end, is where the line is. If The Lord of the Rings had been written in 2010 exactly the way it was when Tolkien first published it, I don’t think it would get the same response, because The Modern Reader doesn’t have the same patience as he used to. Two pages into the twelve (twenty? fifty?) at the Council of Elrond would be enough to make the reader put the book down.
How much time do you spend devoted to setting? How important is setting to your work(s)-in-progress? How many details are too many details