Avoid generic fantasy/sci-fi settings with description

It seems that in writing circles there is an increasing war against the process of description. Description is boring, they say. Get to the action! Modern readers skim over all the non-action bits anyway.

I must confess that when I read, I am a skimmer myself. But the thing is, just because I skim a description doesn’t mean that some of the details of that description don’t enter into my brain. I can visualize the setting because the author bothered to describe it, even though I didn’t read the description as attentively as I read the swordfight bit with the giant talking sewer rats.

Lately I’ve run across a couple of books in which description has been wholly banished in favor of dialog and action sequences. And reading that made me feel that I’d gone blind.

The genres of fantasy and science fiction, being set in worlds unlike ours, have the most need of description. If the writer does not give us the setting through description, we the readers tend to place the story into a generic-fantasy or generic science fiction setting.

Now, an author who actually uses a generic setting tends to be seen as a hack writer. Such things are not admired. But what about the clueless author who spends hours on world-building and then doesn’t give us enough information to visualize the world they created? The reader is in the generic setting all the same.

I find that when a setting detail is important to the story, I need to have it mentioned more than once in a novel-length work. However, writers who avoid any description of the setting will have a hard time fitting that more-than-one mention in without feeling awkward.

I think it is about time for the war against description— which is also a war against unique story-settings— to end. We have gone as far as we can in the no-descriptions-allowed direction. We need to have authors with the courage to buck the trends and give us some images of the story world.

I don’t promise to read these descriptions carefully. I skim. That’s just the way I read. But a story without any descriptions— a book of dialog taking place in a mystery setting that is never revealed— is a lot more boring than a book with an ‘old-fashioned’ level of description.


Take a book in your favorite genre that you know to be well-written— perhaps an award-winner from a few decades back. Get out a colored pencil and start reading. Underline anything in the way of description that helps you picture the story. Or hear it or smell it.

Now— when you first read the book— without the colored pencil— did you realize there was that much description in it? Did it help you picture the unique story world? What would the book have been like if someone had taken all the description OUT?


2 thoughts on “Avoid generic fantasy/sci-fi settings with description

  1. I struggle with getting the right amount of description in my writing. But you’re right when you say it needs to be there. The allure of writers like Tolkien is their ability to create a vivid world, which is why I love them. And as much as people like to disparage those old school writers and their description, there are so many readers who love them! Sometimes I think us writers tend to judge works too harshly, without realizing that there are many readers who love the very things we reject.

    Bring back the overabundant description and beautiful worldbuilding! 🙂

  2. I’ve read a few books recently that didn’t give much description of setting. The result was that everything seemed to be happening in plain, white rooms with no furniture. That’s an odd reading experience. Let’s not strive for that.

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