Writing Do’s And Don’ts: Room Settings

There are so many things to include when penning a book.

Not only do you need to create relatable characters, a plot that works, and a world that is believable, but you need to fill that world with details.

One thing that can be easy to overlook when it comes to details is room settings. We tend to either info-dump the description or not give any at all. To strike the right balance, give these do’s and don’ts a try.

Writing Do’s And Don’ts: Room Settings

Don’t Describe Everything At The Start

While it may seem logical to get the room settings out of the way and describe every inch of the surroundings as soon as your character enters them, this can drag the scene down. Instead, try spreading the description throughout.

Get into the habit of only mentioning what’s necessary first, such as the door the MC walks through, or the couch they sit on. Then, as the scene plays out, have your character notice the other objects around them. This way the room setting still gets described, but it doesn’t happen all at once, or right at the start of the scene, potentially boring the reader or robbing your scene of tension and pacing.

Do Build A Picture

A known piece of writing advice for setting descriptions is no white rooms. If you haven’t heard of it, this is when the writer has the character in a place but hasn’t described it in enough detail, or at all. It happens. The characters end up floating around, carrying on in a scene that has no grounding because the writer has left out the room settings/surroundings.

Even if it’s basic, build a picture of where characters are in a scene. It could be as simple as having a character sit on the edge of a bathtub and stare at themselves in the mirror above the vanity. You’ve only mentioned three things, but every reader will build the picture of a bathroom in their minds.

Don’t Sound Like A Salesperson

Hands up if you’ve read a book where the character walks into a room and every piece of furniture is described in such detail, you have to wonder if the writer’s day job is working as a furniture salesperson. Sometimes it’s possible to get too detailed with your settings.

If you find yourself describing all the items in a room and in such detail that the reader knows the exact shade of midnight blue fabric on the MC’s two-seater, duck feather stuffed, gold thread trimmed couch, you’ve gone too far.

There’s nothing wrong with writing that there’s a blue couch. If that’s the only time the setting is mentioned, and it’s not relevant to the plot, you don’t need to channel your inner salesperson and describe the room as if your book pages are a furniture catalog. Keep it simple unless it’s really relevant to the plot, or that’s the consistent style of your book/writing.

Do Remember The Little Things

While you don’t need to go over-the-top with a detailed description, if you want to build a good picture of the surrounding in the reader’s mind, do remember the little things. Floor coverings, windows, curtains, bookshelves, knick-knacks on said bookshelves. If it’s a living room, it should feel lived in.

A plush blanket the MC has draped on the armchair of their well-worn couch is a nice touch that doesn’t take paragraphs to describe. Think of all the little things that make your own home feel like home, such as a dog-eared book on a coffee table next to a steaming mug of tea, or your 7-year-old’s socks left in the middle of the floor. Little things create the big picture.

Don’t Forget The Senses

This tip is especially important when your characters are in restaurants or cooking in their kitchen. If that’s your room setting, take it to the next level by remembering to add in the senses.

Describing the setting of a cafe becomes more authentic when your MC hears the clang of cutlery, diners chatting, drinks being poured, and smells the saucy goodness of the pasta dish placed before them.

For other room settings, your character might notice the way the light filters through their window and how the brightness makes them squint.

Describe the smells, sounds, tastes, and sights of your room setting. Pair it with the little things, non-salesperson descriptions, a built-up picture, and pepper each detail throughout the scene and you’ll make it easy for your readers to immerse themselves in your world.

— K.M. Allan

Are you a pro at dropping setting descriptions, or do you forget to add details? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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23 thoughts on “Writing Do’s And Don’ts: Room Settings

  1. Ha Ha, oh so true. I suppose that I wish to add to this otherwise great bit of advice. And that is unless you can conjure a feeling from the description. I say this only because In a very few cases, the complex description becomes part of the tale.
    I have never succeeded in doing this myself and mainly use rather sketchy descriptions but a couple of really cool exceptions to this rule (and I think it should be a rule) from authors much better than I are Peter Hoeg’s “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” and JP Sartre’s “Iron in the soul”. where the description becomes an emphasis of the tale being told.

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  2. A great and timely reminder, Kate. Sometimes I get lazy and think “everybody knows what a kitchen looks like” or “who needs to be reminded about the scent of roses?”. I don’t think most readers would complain if I skip here and there, but I imagine they will enjoy the story a lot more if include enough details to make it come alive.

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  3. I find it easy to describe a room in a residence. Yet, trying to describe a store setting or an outside area can have me perplexed. What is obvious to one person is sometimes hidden for another. The variations are almost endless.

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  4. Room settings are what I usually struggle with because I focus on the plot the most and then on the character. Then, when I try to make up for it, I tend to info dump, which makes me hate the whole thing so I go back to not doing it at all. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s definitely something I will pay more attention to in the future.

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