Today's setting example comes to us from Leona Bushman, longtime friend of the blog. If you're not already following her on twitter, consider adding her because her feed is big fun. Let's take a look at her sample.
No. They wanted the person in the file they were holding. She leaned back on the old wooden chair and put her feet up on the matching desk. She had a moment's unease as she wondered if that brown stain was coffee-or blood. These men were an unknown to her.
The blue suit, as she thought of the slightly shorter, more dour of the partners, held her file. She recognized it from her stint in the military hospital after some freak biological substance had leaked in their neighborhood.
That was back when she was still married--she put an abrupt stop to that train. It had left the station long time ago. She stubbed out her cigarette in the small old-fashioned glass ashtray on the desk. They obviously didn't have an updated dossier on her or they never would have left her with such a hand weapon, much less matches.
Leona presents us with a great opportunity to talk about narrative balance. The setting details are sparse, but that doesn't undermine the piece. In fact, I think this is probably a very good balance for this excerpt.
Why? Because there's emotional tension in the moment that results from the character interaction and premise, and if we were to pause to describe the architecture, it would siphon off some of the tension. Instead, the setting details as presented contribute in subtle ways to the tension. There's a file -- we can't see inside it, but the character recognizes it and actively wonders if the contents have changed. There's a stain -- we don't know where, or how large or dark, but we know it could be coffee or blood. There's a lit cigarette and matches -- weapons in the hands of this woman.
The only setting details that don't ratchet up the tension are the ashtray, desk and chair. Everyone take a look at those particular details and then compare them to the other setting details. Notice anything different between the two groups of details? Really look and see what you notice. This is a chance for you to practice using an editorial eye. :)
Done looking? What did you notice? The tension details are presented very cleanly, but the non-tension moments have adjectives. Those adjectives add narrative weight to those non-tension details, with the result that the tension and non-tension details carry a similar amount of narrative impact. The tension details will still feel more oomphy than the adjective details, but adding those adjectives evens things out a bit.
Why would this be a good thing? If we want to create the impression that this character doesn't miss a trick, that she's on permanent high alert, this will get you there. And you won't have to slow the pace to let her absorb a lot of details in a static way. It's incorporated into the action of the moment.
The downside is that it does slightly dilute the impact of the "pow" moments -- bloodstain, weapon -- but those moments are strong enough, and balanced well enough, that they don't disappear. So this is probably a good choice in terms of narrative balance IF the character is meant to be a hyper-attentive type.
My one slight quibble with the setting details derives from this sentence:
She recognized it from her stint in the military hospital after some freak biological substance had leaked in their neighborhood.
Has this backstory been referenced elsewhere before now? This kind of sentence is a cheap and easy way to sneak in a bit of backstory, but there's a problem. We don't know why she recognizes it. What makes this file look different from any other file? Are there markings on it? Because, of course, she doesn't recognize it from her stint in the military hospital. She remembers it from then, but she recognizes it from its size, color, markings, etc.
So we're not getting a visual on this prop, and I think we ought to. If the backstory has already been presented elsewhere, you can pare it down here and replace it with a visual. You probably still want to link the file to her industrial accident somehow, but shift the focus off the backstory and to the present scene moments.
If the backstory has not already been presented, then keep this sentence more or less as it is, and give us a visual on the prop earlier, perhaps in that first sentence or even earlier.