In fiction, the setting is the location where your story or novel takes place; setting includes elements such as geography, ecology, architecture, culture, and the historical period of the narrative. If the setting is someplace other than modern or historical Earth, world building becomes a major concern. The setting provides the backdrop for a story and also helps set the mood. It (along with plot, characterization, theme and prose style) is one of a writer’s main concerns when creating a story.
How many or how few words you should spend describing a setting depends on the type of story you’re telling. If you’re writing a lean, action-packed thriller set in the present day, all you need are a few vivid strokes and you’re off to the races:
The location was one of those sad old mansions in Bel Air. Ostentatious, but had seen better days. Money is so fickle here in L.A. and a big old house is like an aging mistress with a plastic surgery fetish. It’s more economical to just buy a cheap, flashy new one than keep on renovating the old one. Otherwise, you wind up renting the place out for porn shoots just to break even on the roofing bills.
There was a pair of twisted pomegranate trees guarding the open gate and the ground beneath them was gory with broken crimson fruit that crunched and splattered under the wheels of my little black Mini. Pulling into the wide circular driveway, I kept expecting to spot Norma Desmond burying her pet chimpanzee in the overgrown rose garden. I felt better once I saw Sam’s red ‘84 Corvette with its vanity plates that read HAMRXXX. It was parked near a massive wooden door that looked like it ought to open into a medieval Spanish dungeon.
– from Money Shot by Christa Faust
Faust’s descriptions are vivid and as compact as the narrator’s Mini. She doesn’t spend time describing the shingles, or the windowpanes; she lets the reader fill in the rest because she knows most all of us have seen plenty of Hollywood mansions in movies or on TV. Instead, she focuses on the pomegranates, and in doing so creates great gruesomely foreboding imagery. Even better, she continues to build the narrator’s character as she describes the seedy world she works in.
But in some stories and novels, the setting is so crucial that it functionally serves as another character in the narrative. It could be a fantasy wonderland, an ancient house full of secrets, an astonishing spaceship, or a grim alien dystopia. In these cases, the reader will want to see the setting unfold before them and spend more time in compelling descriptions of structures and landscapes.
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an, idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres. On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory. The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long. It was in fact a quarantine. The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.
Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.
– from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin spends more words describing a wall than Faust spends describing an entire mansion. But she’s not merely describing the wall, is she? She’s using it to convey the isolated culture the characters live in.
Your setting must above all else serve your story. And if you look at the two examples above, you soon realize that good descriptions of setting keep the story flowing. You don’t just drop everything for the sake of pages of static description; adept writers maintain narrative momentum whether the setting is briefly described or lovingly detailed.
So, what’s too much? Boring is too much. Keep it interesting, and keep it moving.