My story takes place in a city during a hard winter: streets are covered with snow, the wind is blowing, the river is frozen. I describe all the setting in the very first scene. My character leaves his coat behind in a closed pub and later suffers from cold in the streets on his way home.

How many pages could a reader remember it is winter? Should I remind him of the setting each time my character leaves his appartment?

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    My gut feeling is that if you have to construct forced reminders of the setting (rather than things that naturally pop-up during the story), then the reader doesn't really need to be reminded, because perhaps certain aspects of the setting are not so important to the story. – Jason C Jun 14 at 15:05
up vote 59 down vote accepted

Each time it makes sense, no more, no less.

You do not need to make recalls. Consider your character's POV. When does he think about the weather ?

Closing the door of my house, I looked at the sky. It will not be long before it starts to snow again.

or

Walking on the sidewalk, he was careful not to slip.

or

He looked at the landscape, beautifully wrapped in a coat of snow.

If weather is meaningful for your story, that should naturally show in concrete facts, not arbitrary reminders.

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    Just be careful not to accidentally drop Chekhov's gun. After the first of your examples I would constantly wait for it to start snowing in the story... ;) – Polygnome Jun 13 at 23:51
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    Or the character could be really bad at predicting weather from observation. ;P – Sara Costa Jun 14 at 13:14
  • @Polygnome Indeed, it had snowed during the part missing between the first and the second example ! – Stéphane Mourey Jun 14 at 14:15
  • Ugh. I recently read a book that dropped Chekhov's gun a couple of times. Provided statistics about who died and when and where and then it never came up again. Probably will in their third book or something -_- – Wayne Werner Jun 14 at 17:06
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    @Polygnome: Exposition by itself is already a valid usage, and therefore exempt from Chekhov's gun. If you overly apply Chekhov's gun, you're effectively going to end up with a barebones story. – Flater Jun 15 at 11:40

+1 Stephane. My own take is that if you are mentioning something like the weather, an emotional state, an article of clothing, a weapon, anything, it should have consequences in the story.

So yes, describing winter in your story does have consequences, a forgotten coat creates some hardship, a form of conflict that sustains interest in the story during a transition from pub to his home, that you chose to describe for some reason: perhaps a little world-building, or time to think or see something that has consequences later in the story.

However, all the consequences of winter can follow without further describing itself. There is a maxim in computer coding called DRY, meaning Don't Repeat Yourself, which applies to writing as well. Keep your story DRY!

If you are going to repeat yourself and keep telling people it is Winter, then each time you do that should have some consequence. Otherwise, you are treating the reader like a child by constantly reminding them of it. Tie those description to something that happens; even if the something is pretty minor, but if nothing else it can cause sensory or emotional reactions.

So YES and NO: I wouldn't mention it is winter every time he leaves the apartment. But the fact that it IS winter surely changes his behavior. He has to bundle up for winter; he is careful descending stone steps, he wears sneakers and thick socks, and keeps his office dress shoes and socks in his briefcase or a satchel. He has to walk around a dirty snowman on the sidewalk, he is wary of the icicles hanging off the porch overhang, and uses his umbrella to knock a few loose. Winter, ice and cold temperatures, should affect behavior (for everyone) and emotions; be it irritation or joy.

Pick some concrete consequence of the weather and describe it. "Winter" alone is vague and not concrete, you make it concrete through the specific conflicts or opportunities it inflicts or presents, respectively. Don't leave it up to the reader to guess what Winter is like for your characters, show them what it is like by how they deal with it.

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    +1 Wish I could upvote more than once. This is great advice. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 13 at 17:40
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    After the 3rd or 4th time a book reminds me about something it has already told me, I get really angry and often stop reading. I def do not buy a second book. – WendyG Jun 15 at 8:38
  • @WendyG For clarification, do you feel that way about consequences of the weather, as I described above? So I advocate one time I spend a page describing Winter in the city, after that winter only comes up in the various inconveniences and dangers of ice, wind, snow, sleet, hail, getting around and surviving these consequences of winter. I consider the characters dealing with those consequences of winter to be reminders; and like any natural hardship they might have great influence on the plot. Do you object to that? – Amadeus Jun 15 at 10:26
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    @Amadeus I like the hints system, as long as it is relevant and actually adds context. Some books are just too blunt Using Jays list I love C, have read books that use A and they are the books I am referring to. For reference I am a reader not a writer. – WendyG Jun 15 at 11:15
  • @WendyG I think it is unrealistic to claim it is the dead of Winter, and have somebody running down the sidewalk to catch a bus as if it were Spring. Or wearing a short skirt, for that matter. Winter (in the North anyway) has consequences (or it should not be mentioned). One of them is the hiding of bodies and faces behind something bulky and warm; another is caution in walking and navigating steps, curbs, streets, and sidewalks; another is misery and inconvenience for being outside, and storing all this gear once inside. If there is a reason to make it Winter, it should be made plausible. – Amadeus Aug 7 at 22:56

Ditto to Stephane and Amadeus, let me just add:

I think there's a difference between blatant reminders and subtle reminders.

Using your coat example, I see three ways you might say this.

(a) Blatant reminder. "Jack walked out of his apartment wearing a light shirt and sandals. It was still winter. This meant that Jack should have been wearing a coat and so he was very cold." Well okay, I've exaggerated the goofiness of it, but you get the idea.

(b) Other extreme, not mentioning it at all. "Jack walked out of his apartment wearing a light shirt and sandals." Period. If the reader has forgotten that you said it was winter, he may not realize the problem. Or if the reader remembers, his reaction might be, "But wait, I thought it was winter. Is it spring now? How much time has passed?"

(c) Middle ground: bring up what's relevant. "Jack walked out of his apartment wearing a light shirt and sandals. Once he stepped out the door he realized this was foolish: the bitter cold sliced through his thin shirt."

In general, in real life there would be all sorts of aspects of the environment that are not relevant to the story, and which therefore should not be mentioned. I wouldn't describe what color the shoelaces of every character are, or the names of all the shops that a character passes as he runs down the street trying to escape from the kidnappers. (Of course some seemingly trivial things might be relevant to set the mood, or as red herrings in a mystery story, etc.)

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    Subtle "reminders" are so easy to provide in extreme weather, too. Chattering teeth, numb toes, constant hand-rubbing, crossing the street to get to the side where the storefronts offer a windbreak, etc. It would be much more difficult to provide reminders the gorgeously mellow spring. – J.R. Jun 14 at 14:00
  • @J.R. Maybe more difficult but not impossible. "As Jack walked down the street wallowing in depression, he couldn't help but notice the singing of the birds, and it cheered him somewhat." "... but she stopped briefly to admire the spring flowers. No, no time, she said resolutely, and ..." Etc. – Jay Aug 8 at 18:57

There are three perspectives to this question, and environment or setting in general.

First, the reader/writer perspective: You can mention it whenever you deem it is necessary to remind the reader. The more different from the readers ordinary world the setting, the more often this will be as the mind tends to drift towards normalcy. Typically, you casually toss it into normal descriptive sentences, e.g. instead of "he walked down the road" you would write "he walked down the icy road".

Second, the story/meaning perspective: Mention it whenever it is relevant to the story or affects what is going on. Typically, this means the more different from the worlds definition of "ordinary" the current circumstances are, the more often it will affect something and needs to be mentioned. You focus on the setting or affect, e.g. instead of "he was chasing him down the alley, around tight corners and through the park", you would write "the snow and ice made the chase difficult, which went down the alley first, then he almost slipped at the tight corner and finally ended up in the park, trees covered in snow around him. In ordinary weather, he would have caught the guy, but in this coldness, he managed to slip away."

Thirst, the character/emotional perspective: Mention it whenever it would be on the mind of your acting character(s). The more outside the characters ordinary experience, and the more immediate, the more often. Extreme cold, for example, is not something you easily forget about when you are outside. The character would be constantly cold, uncomfortable, feet and ears freezing. As it is in the characters mind, you would write it in the story.

Sure, it's winter and sure, it's an important part of your question, but is winter an essential feature of your story? Does the presence of cold have thematic consequences?

The main principle here is: refrain from describing things that have no importance to the story and its themes.

When you remember this, all else falls into place as naturally as warm soup into an empty stomach.

Remind the readers through action.

This is what vivid writing is all about, in my opinion.

If you do it well, there is no need for "descriptions" as such. You don't stop to talk about what the scenery is like. You weave it into your telling of your story.

The pub door banged shut behind Jack and he stood seething in the wintry air, laughter still ringing in his ears. Thrusting his fists deep into his trouser pockets, he slouched homeward, slipping occasionally on the slick ice patches that lined the sidewalk. Belatedly he recalled hanging his coat by the warm pub fire, but the thought of going back for it now made him cringe. He stiffened his back against the chill wind and marched resolutely onward. He'd show them, all right. Already ill-conceived plans and dire threats were bubbling through his mind.

Things are happening. Things don't stop happening and just sit there while you describe them. Instead, you should describe the things that happen in sufficient detail to coax vivid imagery to mind.

(Of course there are other schools of thought, such as James Joyce. :) But that sort of writing hardly could be said to have a "setting" as such, so your question wouldn't really apply in the first place.)

The real question here is:

How often does it matter to the character where he is?

If, as in your story, your character leaves his coat behind and wanders the streets in winter, he will probably feel the cold, and get colder with every minute. So the fact that he is "in" winter, will matter very much to him and he will spend much of his attention on it. Consequently, your writing should reflect your character's preoccupation with the wintry cold, slush, etc. The reminders to your readers will come naturally with the focus of your character.

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