The Building of a Setting
We all know that showing is generally better than telling. How you do it is a trickier question, and passages that establish setting have the highest risk of suffering from info-dumping. It’s a dilemma, because setting is one of the most important things in writing. Not knowing where a character is is extremely distracting and can lead to confusion. The obvious solution to that is to describe the setting.
But you can’t just say the character’s in a kitchen. It wouldn’t be very dynamic. You have to give details. But you can’t just give any details, you have to only give details that are pertinent to the story.
This, for example, is pure “telling”, a massive info-dump:
The back room was a small parlour. A thick creamy carpet covered the floor. The oval rosewood coffee table was surrounded by a loveseat and two chairs, and a small pianoforte sat in the corner by the window. The pianoforte’s white keys were yellowing ivory with a few chips from years of use. They were illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the gardens, whose heavy red drapes had been pulled back by hefty gold cords of silk. The mirror between the two windows was old and smoky, reflecting the fireplace on the opposite side of the room.
Well I’ve established setting, all right, but that’s all I’ve done. I haven’t made clear why you would need to know what’s in this parlour. I don’t have a single character using it, so all I’ve ended up with is a room with a bunch of stuff in it.
This is where the principle of Chekhov’s gun comes in handy. According to Chekhov, only the things that are relevant to the story should be in it. Everything extra is dead weight. In other words, as he said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.” So by this logic, in this parlour, somebody must use the carpet, the furniture, the pianoforte, the drapes, the mirror, the fireplace, etc. in a way that drives the plot. If one of these things isn’t being used, take it out of your descriptions. It's not important.
But then you still have to be careful, because too few details can put your character in setting limbo and confuse the reader. You can also lose a lot of your world’s richness. If your world is set in a historical time drastically different from ours, talking about the sunlight lighting up the chipped ivory keys of a pianoforte in a parlour is pretty romantic, and gives a clear sense of an older time. So how do you tell us about the piano? Make your character use it in a significant way. They don’t have to play it; they just have to interact with it.
However, then you have the problem where an entire chapter is just a character wandering around a parlour using and touching things and experiencing revelations about themselves and their quandaries through contemplation of window drapes. In that case, you stop, take a deep breath, and accept that this parlour can’t be adequately described all at once. The key is in breaking it up. Have several scenes that happen in the parlour, and each time, give it new details. If you don’t have several scenes in the parlour, then it’s likely not important enough to be so heavily described. It’s not the lavish tomb your character finds at the end of the story whose riches will end world hunger. It’s just a parlour.
The first time your character enters the parlour might go like this:
Their tour took them to the back of the house.
“This is the private parlour,” he said, opening the door for her.
She took a few steps inside. Her slippers sank into the lushness of the cream carpet. It felt especially soft after the hardwood of the hallway. She went past the furniture and stepped up to the large windows to look out to the gardens.
What she saw made her uneasy. In the middle of a paved circle surrounded by rose bushes, a person was standing with his back to her, arms outstretched, face to the sky.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
He looked where she was pointing, paled, and said, “Nobody.”
She shifted on her feet.
“He’s just the landscaper,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Let me show you the second floor.”
In the first scene, the parlour isn't important. The man in the garden, however, is. Waxing lyrical about the contents of the room would divert attention and power away from the man, so you leave it for the next time she's there.
The next time your character enters the parlour might look like this:
She went into the parlour and shut the door behind her. It was very dark. She tossed the sheet music onto the bench of the pianoforte and heaved the red drapes away from the windows, securing them with their gold silk cords. Sunlight poured into the room.
Lifting the lid of the pianoforte, she ran a finger along the edges of the white keys. Chips in the ivory bit into her skin. She rubbed the ache away, sat down, and began to play.
She hadn’t been practicing long before someone knocked.<
“Come in,” she said.
In was the man from the rose garden. He gave her a small smile.
“Coffee?” he said.
She nodded, clasping her hands in her lap. A servant was ready at the door and entered to set up the coffee table. Delicate porcelain clinked against the polished surface of the rosewood. The man moved with a cool grace and eased himself into one of the dark pink chairs. She stood and went to the loveseat opposite him.
This scene focuses more on the furniture in greater detail. I’ve pretty effectively furnished the parlour by now. The only things I still haven’t mentioned are the mirror and the fireplace. I have, however, given my character a reason to become familiar with the room: the piano. By the time she needs to use the parlour to save herself from whatever dangers Creepy Garden Man is cooking up, the reader will know its layout as well as she will, including whatever stuff she can use to fight back, or what might be a hindrance to her safety. By pointing out new details each time the parlour is introduced, the compounding information builds a room with a rich setting.
The last thing that must be taken into account with setting is your character’s mood. How your character is feeling will affect what the character notices. If they’re anxious, they notice the ticking clock on the mantle. If they’re self-conscious, the mirror looks blotchier and older than usual, marring their appearance—or they can’t stand their reflection at all and actively avoid looking at it. The sun that made everything bright will just expose dirt and grime if they’re in a bad mood, and heavy drapes stop being elegant when they’re preventing them from opening a window to make a desperate escape.
Each and every thing in the parlour can be manipulated towards the character’s state of mind. Yesterday the parlous was rustic, quaint, and loved with its chipped-keys pianoforte. Today it’s dusty, old, and out of style, trapping them in a past they can’t escape. Tomorrow it’s a comforting safe haven of the known protecting them from the dangers of the unfamiliar.
And exactly that is the difference between showing and telling. Showing is borderline clinical. No matter how well you describe something, if you info-dump like I did in the first example, you’ll be locking the description of the setting into place. But if you make the reader experience it through your characters and their moods, and build the parlour up from scratch by adding new details each time you revisit the setting, you create a space that’s alive. It goes through transformations parallel to the growth of the character, giving you a setting whose fullness rivals reality.