Less Is More When It Comes to Setting

On Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at excerpts from past posts on Live Write Thrive.

Today’s post is from A Peek inside the Envelope:

Sol Stein, the famous editor, author, and writing instructor, has a very short chapter in his classic book Stein on Writing that he calls “Creating the Envelope.” As I looked through my numerous books on writing craft, I drifted toward his book (which happens a lot), and was reminded again of the best advice to give writers regarding setting details.

Here’s what he says: “Writing fiction is a delicate balance, On the one hand, so much inexperienced writing suffers from generalities. The writer is urged to be specific, particular, concrete. At the same time, when the inexperienced writer gives the reader detail on character, clothing, settings, and actions, he tends to give us a surfeit, robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination. My advice on achieving a balance is to . . . err on the side of too little rather than too much. For the reader’s imagination, less is more.”

Less Really Is More

I’ve often said this very phrase to my editing clients, and I really believe it’s true—not just in description but in just about every aspect and element in a novel. Less spoken, more implied. Less shown, more left up to the imagination.

Go ahead and freewrite a page or two about a new setting your character has entered. Maybe she’s just stepped out of an airport terminal in a foreign country. Play with her immediate reactions, the smells and sounds that trigger memories and make impressions. Describe everything and everyone she sees until you have the whole picture before you.

To Stein, that would be stuffing the envelope—to overflowing. and that’s a great exercise to do to get your visual camera up and running.

Sometimes if you close your eyes and picture your setting as if you are your character sitting on a bench or chair or some appropriate seating, you can just wait and watch things happen. You may start to hear people speak and birds call out. You may start seeing little details, like the bits of grass growing up in the cracks in the sidewalk and the way old tree roots have pushed up the concrete and made an abandoned child’s tricycle sit at a funny angle.

But once you are done exploring your setting, you want to look through all those little bits in that envelope that you’ve dumped out on the table and just pick one or two things that stand out.

Stein says, “I have sometimes described the reader’s experience to students as an envelope. It is a mistake to fill the envelope with so much detail that little or nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. The writer’s job is to fill the envelope with just enough to trigger the reader’s imagination.”

Some Bits of Setting

I thumbed through some novels I love, and here are some little bits of setting the authors give us:

  • “Harold’s place looked much like ours, flat as flat, though the house was more Victorian in style, with sunrise gable finishes and a big porch swing in front. Harold didn’t have as much land as my father, but he farmed it efficiently.” (Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres) From that brief description she moves on to an event that took place involving Harold and his farm. You notice she only used two sentences to evoke the setting, and since the reader already knows much about her story-teller’s farm, just saying his place looked “much like ours” except for a couple of small differences is enough to set the stage.
  • “Leaphorn noticed it immediately—the cold, stagnant air of abandoned places. He was standing beside Thatcher when Thatcher unlocked the door to the apartment of Dr. Friedman-Barnal and pushed it open. The trapped air flowed outward into Leaphorn’s sensitive nostrils. he sensed dust in it, and all that mixture of smells which humans leave behind them when they go away. The park Service calls such apartments TPH, temporary personnel housing. At Chaco, six of them were build into an L-shaped frame structure on a concrete slab–part of a complex that included maintenance and storage buildings . . . a line of eight frame bungalows backed against the low cliff of Chaco Mesa.” (Tony Hillerman, A Thief of Time) From there, Hillerman’s characters enter and the scene begins, but the setting has been nicely established in just those few short lines, giving the reader a clear sense of the place, yet allowing for the reader to use much imagination to picture the details.
  • ” . . . And then we fell out of the sky and into the verdant fields north of Sacramento. Stunning. absolutely stunning, the vastness of a world so intense with growth and birth, in the season of life between the dormant winter and the baking heat of summer. Vast, rolling hills covered with newly sprung grass and great swaths of wildflowers. Men working the land in their tractors, churning the soil, releasing a heady brew of smells: moisture and decay, fertilizer and diesel fumes.” (Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain) That’s pretty much all Enzo the dog tells us about his first impression of Sacramento, and of course you’d expect a dog to particularly notice both the smells of the area and all the wide-open spaces in which he’d love to run. Next week I’ll talk about that very thing—making setting personal to your character, which is the best way to bring setting out in your novel.

Think about establishing setting the way Sol Stein encourages—by just putting a few little bits in the envelope and letting the reader use her imagination to supply the rest. Go through a scene or two that you’ve written and take a look at your description of setting.

See if you can cut it down and leave just a line or two (rewrite if necessary) that gives not only the essence of your setting but is felt by your character. Chop out any unattached narrative (meaning it isn’t being observed and filtered by your POV character).

Set that material aside, and if you feel there’s something in there that needs to be in your novel, find another place in which to put it, and reveal those details through the eyes of your character. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can go also through your whole novel and highlight your passages of dry narrative to go through later with this same process.

Share how you felt about doing this!

This, and more about setting, is explored in rich detail in Writing the Heart of Your Story.

Heart_of_Your_Story_ebook cover

A fresh and motivating take on conventional wisdom, but with unconventional heart. This is highly accessible teaching that transcends ‘how to’ and goes deep into ‘why to’ in a way that will force you to choose between reading it again and jumping on your own project. Bravo.

—Larry Brooks, best-selling author of Story Engineering and Story Physics

As authors, our job is to make people feel, and to do this we need to connect with our own deepest selves in the hope that we can meet the reader where they are. This book will teach you how to delve into your own heart in order to impact those who read your words.

—Joanna Penn, best-selling author of From Idea to Book

Get yours here!

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  1. Thanks so much for this! I’ve shared it on social media. I’m going back to my YA short story in progress and trim the scene. This will allow some word space for internal dialogue. Thanks, again!

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