Setting the scene is vital for placing characters and plot in context, but, regardless of how spectacular the Arc de Triomphe is, the story is about the weary traveller at its base. If a reader is interested in Paris, she will consult a National Geographic.
Keep the description brief, but meaningful. There is a fine line between too little and too much detail as discussed in the following two Writer's Digest articles:
Tip of the Day - Mistakes: Not Setting the Scene
Tip of the Day - Don't Overdue Your Descriptions
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott speaks about describing detail as if you are looking at a polaroid (remember them?), and I think that this is a good approach to describing setting. Think of a family gathering, or a shot of a hiker in the hills, or a scene in a restaurant. The characters are 'doing something' and as the polaroid sharpens, the details of the surroundings become clearer and clearer.
It is up to the writer to decide what deserves description and to describe it in detail. Is there a contrast between the character and the surroundings that are worth mentioning, e.g. the background is tropical, yet the man wears a heavy coat? Do the characters' expressions or body language raise questions, such as if two people appear to be arguing at a dinner party? Or perhaps the character is staring at something that is significant to the story? In all of these cases, the setting is helping to draw the characters and advance the story.
Combining this idea with point-of-view can enhance the effects of describing a setting, and greatly add to tone and mood within a scene or across the whole story.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner advocates the use of images and repetition to add meaning to characters and events. He provides the example of a character introduced in a graveyard; when the character appears later in the story, the reader will automatically associate him or her with a graveyard setting. We can relate to this in our own lives; a person we see every day at the library (or swimming pool, or bar, or whatever), is not so easily recognised when we bump into them at the supermarket.
So what about weather? This can be mood inducing, of course, as evident in all those horror movies where the haunted house is lit up by lightning during a wild thunder storm, or it can be seen as a basic necessity for setting the scene. Ernest Hemingway, for example was a big fan of mentioning weather and apparently used whatever weather it happened to be on the day he was writing. When he got tired of subjecting his characters to hot, humid days, he would retreat to an air-conditioned room to provide relief to his characters.
The following exercises have been taken from John Gardner's, The Art of Fiction.
Exercise 33. Write at least 500 words using the elements of setting (objects, landscape, weather etc), to enhance the reader's understanding of two characters and their relationship. Try different points of view to see how setting can further intensify the characters.
Exercise 34. Describe a setting from the perspective of a bird, without mentioning the bird.
In Week 18, I will take a look at Titles.