A romance novel is the one place where an author can wax lyrical about setting and description…one would assume. And yes, that is probably true. In the past, long descriptive paragraphs describing a setting, or an era, were de rigueur. Think of Charles Dickens and his 119-word opening sentence of A Tale Of Two Cities. Or his 163-word ‘fog’ description in Chapter 1 of Bleak House.
While only one is a love story, albeit a tragic one, they are both worth looking at when it comes to description. Charles is wordy. There’s no getting away from that. A 119-word sentence would be hard to get past an editor, publisher, or the reading public these days. And 13 consecutive sentences, the majority of which all start with the word ‘fog’, has probably even less chance.
But there is no denying that once you’ve read A Tale Of Two Cities’ opening line, you are left in no doubt about the times in which the book is set. ‘It’s complicated’ springs to mind. And you’ll never quite forget the setting and description of Bleak House thanks to the claustrophobic, smothering denseness of that fog.
If you like the action in books to be separated by vast swathes of lyrical, infinite detail of settings and descriptions, then Elizabeth Goudge will be your cup of tea. Her descriptions are so long you may be forgiven for forgetting the actual plot.
Has Anything Changed?
Oh yes. Today, descriptions are less wordy. ‘Cut to the chase’ being the guiding principal. But why? Mass media.
If one says the word ‘India’ today, there are few people on the planet who wouldn’t instantly have an image in their mind’s eye and they would, most likely, be correct. Or at least close enough. Unlike almost any reader in Charles’ day. The same can be said of political situations. So how do you know how much setting and description to write to build your setting?
Worldbuilding At Its Core
Worldbuilding is usually described as something that need only be done in fantasy or speculative fiction. But that’s not strictly true. Stories don’t happen in a void. Readers want to be sitting at the table, riding in the bus, standing on the misty quay with the character in your book. But, because we now have a global picture library in our collective imagination, we only need a few, deft touches to feel that heavy, cloying mist on our clammy, shivering skin.
As authors, we don’t have the benefit of a soundtrack in our printed works. We have to use our words. But just as a soundtrack evokes sensation and doesn’t, usually, fire cannons into the audience, neither must your writing. Subtlety is key.
There are a number of blogs that extoll the virtues of setting a romance novel in ‘romantic places’ – France, Italy, New York, Los Angeles, the English countryside etc. Sure, why not? But love can grow anywhere. Think of Karen Blixen’s Out Of Africa. For some, that is as exotic as the hinterland of Outer Mongolia. For the rest of us, it’s home.
Jane Austen set all her books in the small villages, the manor houses of the gentry, and the grand estates with which she was familiar. But her stories are universal. Because of that, they have been successfully adapted, sometimes very loosely, into the modern era – Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, or to other locations, such as the aforementioned India – Bride And Prejudice. Time travel (Lost In Austen) and the living dead (Pride And Prejudice And Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith) have also been added to the mix.
But France, I hear you cry. Moonlight dinners on rose-petal strewn rooftops with a violin quartet warbling in the background!
Oh absolutely. But have you noticed that when those types of events happen in movies the romance has already been sparked, developed, and is blossoming into deep, real love? It’s the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Even in a romance novel!
Setting & Description In A Romance Novel
- Read, read, read, and study the paragraphs devoted to setting and description.
- Take note of the ones that held you captive and ones that bored you.
- Delve deep and find out why, then apply that to your own writing.
- Work hard to use as few words as possible in your setting and description, but make them the best, most evocative words you can create.
- Try to avoid using the same words as everyone else for the same locations. Even descriptions can become cliches. ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, for example.
- Setting and description is important, but only so far as it propels plot forward, informs decisions made by your characters, provides context for their choices, behaviour, and backstory.
- A few deft touches – that’s the phrase to write by!
- Pick your moments to write setting and description in your romance novel with care.
- Instead of littering your novel with them, work at embedding them deeply into the sub-text. Every action, conversation, thought, etc. of the book builds on this.
- Keep reminding yourself that romantic scenes bestrewn with rose petals surrounding roof-top candle-lit diners are not to be found in Pride And Prejudice. And yet it’s one of the most romantic books every written!
by Elaine Dodge. Elaine is the author of The Harcourts of Canada series. Elaine trained as a graphic designer, then worked in design, advertising, and broadcast television. She now creates content, mostly in written form, for clients across the globe, but would much rather be drafting her books and short stories.
More Posts From Elaine
- How To Pace A Romance Novel
- 9 Must-Have Ingredients In A Romance Novel
- 5 Things To Remember To Do When Publishing A Romance Novel
- 5 Things To Remember Not To Do When Publishing A Romance Novel
- What Is The Meet-Cute And How Important Is It?
- 5 Things To Remember When Outlining Your Romance Novel
- 5 Ways To Get You Through The Middle Of Your Romance Novel
- 5 Ways To End Your Romance Novel
- 5 Ways To Begin Your Romance Novel