02 June, 2011

Do You Have To Like The Setting To Enjoy A Book?

Relating to last week's post "Do You Have To Like The Main Character To Enjoy A Book?", this time I'm asking about setting.

(An example of a setting I want to live in. Now. SOURCE)

For me, Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith would be a good example of setting. I really liked the main character. Smith's writing style just drew me straight into the scene, right with the character, so I couldn't help but run with him, laugh with him, fight off the bad guys and struggle to survive.

But. The setting was not only sad and cruel, but there were so many times where I felt like closing the book on the violence and gore. It was the setting that really stopped me from fully enjoying it. The detail was there, the description was there, the execution was good--it was the general idea I didn't like. It's happened before, where I liked the characters, thought the plot was solid, but didn't enjoy the setting.

For another kind of example, there's J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. He describes it in so much detail it's amazing--the world is amazing. In the volume I have in front of me, with all three books, there are 7 appendices and 4 indexes for all kinds of things, relating to the world of LOTR. History, language, calendar methods, alphabets, you name it, it's there. Now that's dedication to a story. (I have to say, though, I've never actually read those 110+ pages systematically. Just referred to them when I had to. I'm not that geek. ;)


Which brings me to another aspect to setting. How detailed must it be? Some series are based on a single world alone, with stories taking up different parts of the world's history, even causing one thing to happen in a future book or vice versa. The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett all takes place in--you guessed it--Discworld, for example, with a total of 38 books, according to Wikipedia. And there are many other examples of a series taking place in the same world: Tamora Pierce (Tortall), Kristin Cashore (Seven Kingdoms), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), etc.

So, do you have to like the setting to enjoy a book? How much detail must there be for you to fully see the setting in your mind's eye, and have you ever come across a book with too much detail? Can you think of any examples of a book that you would have liked more with a better setting?


-----The Golden Eagle

59 comments:

Heather said...

I don't have to like a setting to enjoy a book but it helps, a lot. I love a lot of description. Books that lack description usually mean I won't buy another from that author.

the writing pad said...

I think the setting can make or break a book - I also think of it as ambiance; that indefinable something that makes you feel you're there, seeing, hearing, living and breathing with the characters. And, let's face it, dear old Agatha Christie, as well as being a mistress of plot, got a lot of mileage out of the Cosy Country House Murder setting - and I still love them for setting a mood, defining a period, and just pure escapism
:-)

Luke Raftl said...

I imagine that the setting is only as good as the writer is able to convey it to the reader. There are 'uncomfortable' settings that you would never want to visit, but you love reading about the characters' struggles within them. Then there are idyllic locations that seem cheap or unbelievable.

Like everything, it's not make or break of itself, but how well it is written, used, and relating to other aspects of the writing (character, plot, age, etc) that make a setting truly wonderful :)

shelly said...

Unlike Heather, I prefer little description. I like dialogue with small bits of description in between because I can figure it out all by myself. It's the story, the plot, and the characters who and what pull me into the story. Not neccessarily the lush rolling green hills or the dull yellowing walls of a prison cell.

❉βrooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
❉βrooke said...

I think that the setting in the book can be most important. I love to read the descriptions and feel like I'm actually in the book itself. What I also think is important is that you leave just enough up to the imagination. You don't have to describe every piece of bark or every inch of a room.

Emily Rose said...

I don't think I've ever read a book where I haven't liked the setting, so I don't know if that would change my opinion of the book or not. Great post!

Elena Solodow said...

I'm really bad spatially. That was my problem with LotR, because even though he described the direction they were headed in, where the mountain ranges were, the meadows, etc. I couldn't picture it. So the less technical aspect, the better. If you tell me colors, and other general descriptions, I'm good to go. I think it all comes down to personal preference, of course.

Rogue Mutt said...

I don't think I've ever really hated a setting all that much.

GigglesandGuns said...

Ah, sometimes there's a lot of detail to the setting and because it's done well and I "see" it I'm drawn in naturally. Other times the setting detail hits me like filler bricks and the book loses me.
Overdone setting can definitely ruin a book for me.

Sash said...

Hmmm setting is difficult to get right. I tend to overwrite in my first drafts and then have to cut out most of the descriptions... I also found that Tolkien has lots of flowery setting descriptions, and it took me quite a while to get into the writing style. Made for slow reading, but it was TOLKIEN, so I read on. I don't think many books would have gotten that sort of preferential treatment from me....

Also, THANK YOU for signing up for my Blogfest!!

*ahem* I don't know if you noticed but I made a mistake on the graphic...it should read June 26th not July 26th. I put a new one up on my blog with the correct date...just so you know... ; )

Sash

Tere Kirkland said...

I need to be able to picture the setting to feel comfortable in it, if that makes sense.

One of the reasons I loved Leviathan/Behemoth was due to the illustrations. They helped my mind fill in the blanks when it went a little spastic trying to imagine Klanker machines and Darwinist creatures.

On the other hand, too much description that's not worked into the narrative in a way that takes me out of the story is just as bad as too little. I try to make my characters interact with setting in my descriptions, and it's worked pretty well so far.

Beverly Diehl said...

Ursula LeGuin's The Left hand of Darkness was set on an icy planet just this side of freezing to death, and the MC's spend considerable time on a glacier. I hate hate HATE being cold - but love the book.

On the other hand, Tolkien & LOTR - I know, it's heresy, but IMO, all those gory fight scenes could have been trimmed down by 30% and they would have been much better books.

I don't want to spend my time ankle deep in blood & gore, either figuratively or otherwise. Other people feel the same about explicit sex in books, of course.

Writing in Flow

Old Kitty said...

I don't think I've ever put setting above the story itself. I mean I love when worlds are created for me (Discworld series, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) but it's the stories, the people and how they interact and the narration that works above all for me. On the otherhand the setting is a starting point where all of the narration flows - so like in Orwell's 1984, Animal Farm etc - the story springs from the setting - so I guess that's how important having a convincing setting is. I am rambling as always!! Off I go to get some more chocolate. Take care
x

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm not as picky about the setting as I am the main character. (Though I don't like them too vile either.) I just don't want my setting spelled out for me. Give me a feel for it and my imagination will fill in the blanks, I promise.

Rob-bear said...

As long as the setting fits with the plot and characters, I'm OK with it. Too much detail in the setting holds up the action, and bogs down my mind/imagination.

VaishVijay said...

Setting creates the mood and triggers my imagination, but if its lengthy I skip it as I don't like to be diverted with too much details!

TQ for visiting and commenting on my blog post Shuttle Hope - Meet the Captian

Medeia Sharif said...

If a setting doesn't agree with me, everything else (characters, plot, dialogue) has to keep me interested.

I don't like too much description with setting. I've put books down because when an author gets carried away with that it slows the action down.

Sarah McCabe said...

As a dedicated reader of epic fantasy, I have to enjoy the setting. The setting is kind of the point of reading fantasy, for me at least. I love a well built fantasy world and if I enjoy the world enough I can even overlook problems with plot or character.

Liz said...

The only time I really have a problem with the setting is with a specific setting--stuck in the wilderness. If the characters are stuck on a deserted island, trapped in the woods, or otherwise dealing with nature, I can't deal with the book. Just can't.

This is the reason I stopped watching Lost after two episodes.

So, I guess I can say that setting does make a difference in whether or not I like a book. But only in very specific cases.

Theresa Milstein said...

Yes, I do have to like a setting to enjoy a book. I sometimes shy from anything much before our time because I don't want to be bogged with an old society's conventions.

I just read Divergent by Veronica Roth, but I had a hard time with the violence employed in the "Dauntless" world. But I guess that was the point to a degree. Still wound up loving it.

Sarah said...

I can't think off the top of my head of any books I didn't like or couldn't read because of setting. I mean, unless the whole book was say...set in a toilet bowl...I'd read it if the characters and plot were well done.

That being said, there are certainly books where too much detail turned me off. I love it when there is the appearance of lots of setting description, but without paragraphs and paragraphs of it.

And also, can I say, I want to live in that picture too!

RaShelle said...

I DO need to like the setting OR at least be interested in it. If I'm comfortable... excited... intriguied... I'm much more likely to love the book.

Priya said...

I think the setting matters! Not if you like it or not. I mean, if it is does such a great job at seeming violent, gore - it's good, even though you don't like it! Think of it this way - the writer wants it to be violent, but it seems all weak, and you actually like it! Now I wouldn't enjoy that!! :)

Melissa Kline said...

Wow! What an interesting topic. I think for me, number one is connecting with the characters. The characters guide you through settings and some are not always favorable, but maybe necessary? If I were to choose a book based on only setting, then yes, it would make a difference. Ambiance is very important!

Thanks for stopping by my blog today. :)

~Melissa

Madeleine said...

Great post. I think if the author makes it believeable enough that is the most important thing. I can understand that a setting which is all gore and violence can be difficult to read. Gaiman's Neverwhere could be described similarly and yet I was surprised by how readable it was. Trash was an unpleasant setting and I found the book not so satisfying as some YA/MG bks I have read. If you think about Tolkein, Rowling, Pratchett and others who are classics they really know their setting inside out, so it I think it is important for the author to know their setting well.:O)

Misha said...

I must say that, while setting isn't the most important thing to me, it can make a difference between an average read and a good one or a good read and a great one.

:-)

Rebecca Bradley said...

I suppose it depends on the genre of book you are reading whether you need a great setting. If it's not integral to the story then it's just meaningless and words used for no reason. A couple of sentences should suffice. If however the setting is important, then it's obviously needed and needed to be done well.

KatieO said...

I've never thought about setting this way, really, although you're right about it being important. You need enough description and detail to be able to picture it, but too much and my eyes tend to glaze over.

I'm with you on Tolkein - I used the references when I was confused - I also used the maps that were on the inside covers - but I never got "into" reading just the appendices.

Margo Benson said...

Great post. I love detail and description but not if it holds the story up unnecessarily or doesn't leave room for my own imaginings.

Alexander MacCall Smith has sets of books in various locations (Botswana, Edingurgh) and uses the MC's thoughts and feelings to convey them without describing every brick etc. This method can change the pace of the narrative too, which I like.

Ellen said...

I don't think you necessarily have to like the setting -- I mean, the arena in the Hunger Games was traumatizing, not sure anyone "liked" that... but I think as long as there's a strong picture of it (though it made me cringe at times I could always picture the arena perfectly in my head).
also, going overboard with the dark/dank/horribleness can make a setting unlikeable too... another great thing about the arenas was how from the outside they looked so peaceful and serene. ramped up the creepy factor for me :)

Liz Fichera said...

I think I have to believe a setting in order to like it. Striking the right amount of world-building--not too much detail but just enough--is a true art form.

Charles Gramlich said...

I like a lot of detail in my settings. Love to get good visuals and to settle into the landscape. I probably like least those stories set in an urban landscape. I'm just not a big fan of cities.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

You raised a really good question. I personally can only take so much gore in a book. I review books for a paper, and I review what they send. (I request them, of course, from the title alone.) Recently I read a book that had such a horrible setting and was so distasteful, that if I hadn't had the job of reviewing it, I wouldn't have finished it. The writing was excellent, but I didn't like spending time with so much gore and violence. I think readers instinctively do stay with books if they like the place they inhabit while reading it. Or at least care about it. I couldn't care about the characters or the setting. I just wanted to "relocate", if you know what I mean.

Nicki T. said...

What kind of stuff are you writing?

Sun Singer said...

One thing I've noticed: we can state the rules and trends as often as we like, but then an author will come a long and break them and still sell a ton of books.

When it comes to the setting, we're told to make it real, but NOT to use the kind of description authors used years ago: the endless kind.

Yet, both THE SWAN THIEVES and THE HISTORIAN are overly detailed in the descriptions of the settings--and both have a lot of settings. Apparently, all this description didn't cause the agent or publisher to send the MSS back for a rewrite. So, the books are long and they break our rules about how much detail a setting should have. Go figure.

The Golden Eagle said...

Heather: I find a lot of description can bog down a story (more than a few paragraphs is too much fore me unless it's really important) but I agree, liking the setting helps.

Karla: Good point! Setting does affect the "feel" of a book, doesn't it?

Luke: I agree! The setting has to relate well to all the other aspects of a story for it to be really good.

Shelly: I usually like some description--not a lot though. But I agree, some things are easily figured out by the reader without needing to be described.

Brooke: Definitely!

That's one of the problems I have with some older "classic" books. The authors tend to write down every small detail.

Emily: Well, that's good. :)

Thanks!

Elena: I usually like it when the author describes things the way Tolkien did (maybe not so extensively as he did, though) but general description can carry along a story well.

Rogue Mutt: Interesting! I had wondered if setting affected a story as much as something like characters or plot did.

Mary: It can for me, too.

Sash: I do that, too! I describe things with a lot of detail, then cut out the unnecessary stuff later, or just rewrite it.

J. R. R. Tolkien just has that kind of reputation. I felt that way about Moby-Dick; interesting story, but chapter after chapter of endless whaling description. :P

Oh! No, I didn't notice that. Oops. I'll be sure to fix it!

Tere: I loved the illustrations in that series! It's one of my favorite; and definitely the best Steampunk I've read.

Interaction with the setting sounds like a good way of making sure the reader can "see" the place where the story happens; that way, they'll be able to know what people actually do in the world, not just see.

Beverly: I've never read that book; I read an anthology of her short stories, and just found them strange. But great point--sometimes settings that would be completely unappealing otherwise are part of a great story!

He did use a lot of description. I didn't mind them much, although I've never read LOTR more than a few times through.

I'm the same with violence--and sex. Leave that to it's own genre, please!

Old Kitty: I agree. I almost always consider the story above the setting; unless it's extreme in some way or uninteresting.

I must read those books sometime! I've heard a lot about both 1984 and Animal Farm but have never read them.

Enjoy your chocolate. ;)

Rob-bear said...

You haven't read both 1984 and Animal Farm? Oh my goodness; you education has been sadly neglected. Mr. Blair (aka Mr. Orwell) is probably rolling over in his grave as I write.

Quick; haste thee to a local book store or library!

The Golden Eagle said...

Alex: I'm the same way. If there's too much detail, then it leaves nothing to the imagination. It's like being forced into a mindset; which I really don't like.

Rob-bear: I've come across several scenes where the action is slow or choppy because of piece of description. It has to flow right, with few details, for it to be effective.

Vaish: I've skipped over some description, too.

Medeia: Same for me.

Sarah: I love Epic Fantasy; I don't read much of it comparatively, but the world-building is so important in that genre!

Liz: Wilderness does get old, doesn't? Especially if the way the character's struggling to survive is similar to something else. :P

Theresa: I actually find it interesting when older technology comes into play--do you feel the same about modern/SF inventions?

I must get around to reading Divergent! I've been hearing a lot of good stuff about it.

Sarah: I actually read a book where the characters occupied a toilet bowl for a short chapter . . . ahem.

A lot of paragraphs gets on my nerves, too.

Who wouldn't? :D There are BOOKS.

RaShelle: Same here.

Priya: LOL. Good point! I wouldn't really want that as a writer.

Melissa: I usually put characters above setting, too--ambience helps a story, but it's not everything.

Madeleine: Thanks! :)

I haven't read Neverwhere, although I aim to in the near future; it's violent?

I agree! The more you know your setting, the more the reader will be able to digest it, I would think.

Misha: Definitely. It can make a lot of difference!

Rebecca: True. The importance of setting varies from genre to genre, and from story to story; sometimes setting's important to the plot and sometimes not.

The Golden Eagle said...

KatieO: Mine, too. :P

It was too much information; I know I wouldn't remember much in the end, unless I started speaking the language!

Margo: Thank you!

I like to have room to add details in my imagination, too.

That sounds like an effective method; that way the reader experiences what the character experiences.

Ellen: I don't really remember the description from The Hunger Games; all I remember is some of the things I didn't like about the MC and the plot.

I love that sort of contrast in a story! It can add a lot of tension to a story.

Liz: I agree!

(Just another thing for us writers to strive for.)

Charles: I don't like cities much, either--although I don't mind them that much if the story that takes place in them is written well.

Elizabeth: That's what happened to me with Lockdown. It was a good story, I really liked the writing, but the violence was too much.

Nicki: Me? Science Fiction. So I guess that's part of the reason why I want to hear everyone's opinions; SF has so much building on its setting.

Malcolm: True!

I don't usually like a lot of setting, and I've never read either of the books you mentioned--however, sometimes a lot of description does work, and quite effectively.

Rob-bear: I'll be sure to make haste! I'm definitely interested in reading them, now. :)

Michelle Merrill said...

I think the importance of the setting depends on how much it influences the main plot. Sometimes the setting itself is like another character with details and little ticks that create depth. You know what I mean?

I love when author's use the same setting for different books. In that case, the setting has been established and the depth of the setting is increased with each one.

Thanks for the post. That was fun to think about :)

Canyon Girl said...

I recommended Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler to my friends, because I loved it. They did not, however, and I think there may have been too many details to the setting for them. In the setting where I found the book fascinating, my friends didn't want to stay. I don't know anything about writing a book, I just love to read, so you have educated me here. Thanks.

Brian said...

I think it depends on what the writer is able to do with the setting. Hopefully they can pull me into the story, even if I don't like where it takes place. Have a great weekend!

Abby Minard said...

Gosh, I don't think I've ever noticed a bad setting. But maybe it's because I read all fantasy, that usually the setting is marvelous. To be a good fantasy author, you have to have worldbuilding skills or else it'll fall flat. I love series using the same world with different stories. I get so used to it, and feel like I know the world like the back of my hand. That's what I like about series that take place in the same world.

laughingwolf said...

a lot depends on the genre, obviously

then, whether the tale is plot or character driven, both kinds work, done well... setting is important, the story, everything!

M Pax said...

To me, setting is as big as the main character. I have to like being there more than I have to like the MC. To me, setting is the main character.

catherinemjohnson said...

I like a book that describes like a close up of the setting with enough details that you are intrigued but not slowing the place. The last book I read captured that perfectly: Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

The Words Crafter said...

I think, for me, it depends on the story. Tolkien did an amazing job, for sure. But I don't always have to know everything about the setting, especially if the story and characters are good.Excellent post, very thought provoking!

nutschell said...

Setting definitely adds another more enticing layer to the story. It adds mood to the scene and makes it come alive. :D
nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

N. R. Williams said...

In today's world we would be hard pressed to take the time that J. R. R. Tolkien did. Readers don't have the patience with a few rare exceptions. Movies and T.V. have made action king. I can't think of a book that I felt the setting was bad, there are other things that irk me.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

Susan Kane said...

I think the setting is really necessary for an enjoyable read. I want to feel the place, breathe in the atmosphere, have a sense of what the character is experiencing.

Carol Kilgore said...

I prefer books where setting is fully integrated into story, almost another character - where the story must take place in that particular setting or one someplace similar. Setting, however, is only one aspect. If done well, only a drop here and there is perfect. If not done well, even those drops are too much. And vice versa.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Looking forward to your game picks for Monday's blogfest!

Dorothy Evans said...

What an interesting topic for a post. It's not something I'd ever consciously thought about before and now I am I'd have to say that I can't remember reading any books where the setting itself has put me off, though great chunks of description can have me skipping pages occasionally. Now if you were mention head-hopping changes of viewpoint ...

The Golden Eagle said...

Michelle: Exactly! It tends to make the world a bit more . . . real, doesn't it? When the characters are actually living in the world, and not just occupying in.

I don't mind either--so long as it's well-written, whether it's something I've visited before or something entirely new, it's good with me.

You're very welcome! I'm glad you had fun with it. :)

Canyon Girl: I've never heard of that book--but seeing as I don't mind a detailed setting (most of the time) I'll have to check it out.

I think most writers start out as readers; and I'm glad to hear writers and readers alike find something interesting in this discussion! :)

Brian: Authors that can do that are often some of the best!

Thanks! I hope you're having a good one.

Abby: Genre does play a part in setting, doesn't it? Fantasy and Science Fiction are based a lot more in the world than, say, Realistic/Contemporary Fiction.

I agree. That's one of the best things about reading a book in the same world!

Laughingwolf: Definitely! All the parts of a book have to come together to be make a really enjoyable book.

M: I think you may be the first person here to say they put setting above character!

Any books that have had a setting you really liked?

Catherine: Me, too. A balance is good!

The Words Crafter: I agree--in many cases, you don't have to know absolutely everything about a setting, especially to the extent Tolkien went to.

Thank you! :)

Nutschell: It does!

Nancy: If you want something to really sell, no, not really. You're right--action has taken the front seat when it comes to a lot of stories.

Carol: True! It's only one part of a story; there's plot and character, writing style, and many other things that can have a greater impact.

Alex: When I signed up for it I thought "Oh, there's more than a month to go! I can handle that."

And now: "OH. Only 2 days! Must write something!"

But I'm really looking forward to this blogfest--it sounds like there's going to be a lot of fun and games. :D

Dorothy: I don't like that, either, especially when it's awkward and jolts me from scene to scene.

Donna Hole said...

As with "liking" the MC, liking the setting depends on the book. I don't have to necessarily like the MC, as long as I can connect with them somehow.

For instance, Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels; I seriously dislike Snookie. But the characters that surround her are likeable, and I can connect with her through them, and the world building.

The setting is the same for me; it has to have character in its own right. How much detail I need depends on the uniqueness of the setting. World building, setting, era, all have their place in the story concept.

Each builds on the other for me.

.......dhole

Talli Roland said...

Hmm. I don't think I *have* to like the setting, but I might enjoy the book more if I did! Interesting question.

The Golden Eagle said...

Donna: Good point! The concept of the book does have a lot to do with setting.

Talli: If I like a setting, I usually enjoy the book a lot more--it just helps boost everything overall.

Arlee Bird said...

There is a great deal of variability in this. I like a detailed setting so I can see where I'm reading about, but a good story or well constructed characters can trump setting. If the story is good or I really like the characters then the setting might not matter that much to me.


Lee
Tossing It Out