How much description and setting is too much?
Detail and setting may be what transports readers into your story, and yet when it comes to best selling novels these days, more wax light on setting description.
Don’t believe me?
Crack open a few novels from some of the biggest names: Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, and Stephen King. You won’t find long meandering descriptions of setting in their novels.
What you will find in these epically popular novels is plot and suspense in heaping spoonfuls. No light changing on the trees or long descriptions of a character’s clothing. Instead, these kinds of details take a back seat to the fiction elements that move the story along: tension, conflict, pacing.
That’s not to say there aren’t best selling novelists out there who can invoke an atmospheric mood. Anne Rice describes New Orleans so well, you can almost breathe it. And her novels rank in sells alongside some of the biggest names. But Rice tends to be the exception.
Here’s the bottom line. Setting and description is often the dividing line between literary and popular fiction. Literary swims in it. Popular fictions don’t. And knowing this could mean the difference between getting published and not, because it pays to send your work to the publication that’s interested in the type of fiction you’ve been writing.
That doesn’t mean popular fiction can’t be beautiful or character-driven or Art with a capital A. John Green, for example, is a popular YA fiction writer who captures the poetry of the human condition with accessible prose. The most casual of readers read John Green, which is part of why Green’s novels sell so well. You won’t find paragraphs of setting description in any of his novels.
Part of Green’s accessibility comes from his simple sentence structure (which Hemingway would applaud) and that description takes a back seat to tension.
But you won’t see prose resembling John Green’s in a literary magazine like Tin House or Glimmer Train.
Maybe it’s a symptom of modern life. Readers have less patience for the stop-and-smell-the-roses experience that is setting and description. And if technology and social media has truly reduced our attention spans, that would explain the whirlwind popularity of stories like Zola’s, which hit the essential story elements—like character arc, tension, and voice—while skipping the weighed down element that is set description.
Maybe technology and its effects will inspire the next literary era the way industrialization inspired Modernism. Of course there will still be room for literary, the way you and I define it today, for those of us who love it. For those of us who can’t imagine literature without those rich depths of experience or those meandering details that make us thrill with recognition.
But for some, this mode of writing may come to feel outdated. Maybe, for so many, it already has.
As we move forward, “literary” could come to feel outmoded, formal, stilted the way old grammar rules can make prose feel outmoded, formal, and stilted.
It’s an unfair comparison, maybe, because “literary” often means a luxurious and relaxed pace in favor of character development. And reading them feels like wrapping up in a snuggly blanket next to the fire.
There’s room for both in any one writer. It’s important for writers to develop range after all, so practice both. And you will, of course, tailor your style to the publication you’re writing for.
Before you write an angry email to me that writers should never tailor their writing for a specific publication, consider this: would you write a Fifty Shades type tale for publication in Highlights for Kids? Yeah, probably not. So you understand the all important lesson that is writing with your audience in mind.
So write what you want to write. But be aware of the distinction when you submit your work for publication. There’s a distinct dividing line between what we call literary and what we call popular fiction. Where is that line? It cuts right through setting and description.
So which side do you write on? Is it okay for writers to switch sides? Is there really a difference between literary and popular fiction? Share your insights in the comments.
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