If readers don’t have enough sensory detail to go on, they can fail to engage with the story. Not knowing the story setting is very frustrating for the reader.
In The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke says a scene with inadequate setting details “is like one of those experimental theatrical productions with just gray geometric shapes on the stage.” Of course, those theatrical productions are done that way deliberately. So let’s be clear: we are talking about two different things.
Sometimes, for artistic reasons, we want to keep descriptions to a minimum at the opening of the story. While this can be a valid technique—in novels as well as theater—it is unusual and hard to accomplish excellently, and therefore must be used with caution.
Some readers, especially if your genre positioning and product description have set them up for a literary, experimental work, will stick with your minimalist drama long enough for you to reach the part of the story when things become more clear. But you will lose readers who just don’t care for that kind of reading experience.
If your purpose in minimizing setting details at the outset is to focus on things that are more important, that’s an acceptable technique. You might, for example, have two politicians in an office arguing about some policy decision that’s going to set the plot in motion, and not bother describing the room enough for us to know what era or city it’s in. But understand that the longer you continue that way—the longer you leave the characters on a blank stage—the more readers you will lose. If readers reach the end of the Amazon Look Inside feature—or about the first ten pages—and still have no idea where or when they are, they are unlikely to purchase the book for the privilege of finding out.
More often, however, the reason we encounter blank stage syndrome is that the writer has simply failed to provide enough sensory detail to ground the reader in the setting. This usually happens when the writer is more focused on character or plot than setting. This is fine in first draft mode, but in the developmental editing phase we must fix this kind of shortcoming.
I think historical and speculative fiction writers are more likely to err in this way, because when the viewpoint character is fully immersed in his environment, he may not be thinking about it. Nevertheless, you can and should use the viewpoint character’s experiences to convey setting. Nathan Bransford recently wrote about the importance of describing your setting enough to satisfy readers.
A big paragraph of exposition is neither necessary nor desirable. The main tools to employ are sensory details, dialog, and the viewpoint character’s internal monologue. A sentence or two of each, woven together within the context of your story, can deliver enough information to keep the reader engaged.
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