We always want specifics in description. We try to choose the ones that help us know the why about the story’s characters.
Lisa Cron, the teacher of storycraft on Lynda.com and elsewhere, says “Scenery without a subtext is travelogue. (read: boring) Ensure your specifics are story-related, rather than floundering in the dreaded realm of “just because.” All the rules about “setting” and “place” are irrelevant without this: if a description doesn’t give us specific, necessary insight into the characters in the story you’re telling, that description will stop the story cold.”
So there you have it. The three things are
- Relationship to a character
Without them, the writing will be as flat as any backdrop on a theatrical stage. And so the beautiful prose is just travelogue. Pretty, yes. Story-stopping, too. Here’s an example of travelogue, from YouTube. It’s one of the old TravelTalks shorts from the 1930s that gave moviegoers a look at many places, but no characters. (You see lots of people in these little films, but no characters.) Plenty of visuals. So if you include something like this in a story, it will stop — no tension, no insight.
Also, here’s a nice definition page for milieu It’s a nice word to trigger a description that includes culture. (Characters = culture.) Your settings should be doing work to help us experience your characters.