Castle on a distant hill surrounded by trees

How to Describe the Setting of a Story

15 Mar 2024 Fiction, The Writing Craft

One of the toughest nuts for you to crack as a novelist is where to start.

Two-thirds of my more than 200 published books are novels, so I’ve faced this dilemma more than 140 times.

Trust me, starting never gets easier, no matter how many times you’ve done it. But there are common errors to avoid. I know because I’ve made them. And I’ve also asked agents and editors what mistakes they see in beginners’ manuscripts.

Ready for one of the most common errors?

Starting by describing the setting of your story.

Don’t get me wrong — settings are important. But we’ve all been sent napping by novels whose covers and titles promise to transport us, and yet begin with some variation of:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…


Now, of course, it’s important to give readers a sense of where you are. Readers need to feel grounded.

But here’s a Pro tip: Readers have little patience for description, especially as a separate element. They want to dive into the story, the action, what’s happening. In fact, readers often skip over paragraphs of description to get to the heart of the story.

If your main question is how to describe the setting, I have a simple answer:


But, you say, how do I then establish where we are?

Well, like any other reader, I feel an immediate feel to know where and when things take place. The problem comes when we novelists make that mistake of describing the setting as a separate element.

Sorry, but that’s the very definition of what professionals in the business call literary throat-clearing. It’s on a par with an information dump, unloading a cargo of backstory because we don’t give our readers credit for deducing the story from the opening scene. That can quickly bore your reader to death — the cardinal sin of storytelling.

So how do you set the scene without describing it?

You layer description in as part of the story. That way it becomes almost invisible, because mentions of what things look and feel and sound like register in the theater of the readers’ minds while they’re concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension and drama and conflict that keep them turning the pages.

As they read, they’re picking up all the details they need to be drawn into your setting, though they may be unaware how you worked all that in.

Consider these setting examples:

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Describing the setting of a story before starting the action:

London in the 1860s was a cold, damp, foggy city crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and pedestrians carefully dodging the droppings of steeds that pulled all manner of public conveyance. One such pedestrian was Lucy Knight, a beautiful, young, unattached woman in a hurry to get to Piccadilly Circus. An eligible bachelor had asked her to meet him there…

Now, I shouldn’t have to inform you that such an opening is all telling, no showing, and that the question of how to describe the setting has been answered, but not correctly.

So here’s an example of describing the setting by layering it into the story.

Describing the setting by layering it in to the story:

London’s West End, 1862

Lucy Knight mince-stepped around clumps of horse dung as she hurried toward Regent Street. Must not be late, she told herself. What would he think?

She carefully navigated the cobblestones as she crossed to hail a Hansom Cab—which she preferred for its low center of gravity and smooth turning. Lucy did not want to appear as if she’s been tossed about in a carriage, especially tonight.

“Not wearin’ a ring, I see,” the driver said as she boarded.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nice lookin’ lady like yourself out alone after dark in the cold fog…”

“You needn’t worry about me, sir. I’m only going to the circus.”

“Piccadilly it is, Ma’am.”

First, the location tag, flush left before the first paragraph and saves us a lot of narration, allowing the story to emerge.

And yes, the second sample is longer, but that’s because we’re not telling, we’re showing.

But notice how readers learn everything they need to know about the setting, and about the main character, from the action and dialogue, rather than from just being told these things through description.

This is also what we writing coaches mean when we urge you to show, rather than tell. 

Show, Don’t Tell

You’ll have to remind yourself of this daily for the rest of your life, but once you add it to your writing toolbelt, you’ll find it adds power to your prose and keeps your reader’s interest.

The key, as you can see from the examples above, is to layer in your description.

Maybe when Lucy meets her new gentleman friend, he grabs her and pulls her into an alley, saying, “Come here where no one will see us.”

There she might scrape her knuckles against a brick wall and wish both hands were free so she could tighten her coat against the wind.

Incorporating description that way — showing rather than telling — can revolutionize your novel.

Apply this setting technique immediately, and see how it picks up the pace and adds power.

Immediately Applying This Description Technique

It forces you to highlight only the most important details, triggering the theater of your reader’s mind. If it’s not important enough to become part of the action, your reader won’t miss it anyway.

But you’ve read classic novelists who use description exactly the way I’m advising against. What gives?

Two things:

1—If those novels were written before TV and movies (let alone smart phones), they were aimed at audiences who loved to take the time to settle in with a book for days at a time.

2—If those novels were written in our generation and still succeeded with that kind of writing, it’s because the author is a master. If you can write at that level, you can break all the rules you want.

I can’t, so I’ll stick with what works for today’s readers. How about you?

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.