Once upon a time, a century and more ago, readers expected their novels to describe the setting before the events took place … like laying out the stage before the actors perform on it. So the author would start off with paragraphs, even pages, of static description, locating tables, chairs, windows, etc.
Who knows? Perhaps readers enjoyed reading description for its own sake, or perhaps they had a stronger sense of duty. But not us, not now, no way.
Question. How much do you actually remember about spatial locations? Two chairs on either side on the second window on the left hand wall, a picture on the wall facing the door? Maybe it’ll fix in your mind if you’re an architect or a professional interior decorator. But for the rest of us, it’s just smoke and haze.
As for measurements: two metres to the right of the table, etc etc … well, I talked about measurements in the “Space & Measurement” section, and all the same problems still apply.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the reader trusts the author to be correct and consistent about setting, and we ought to deserve that trust. Two windows shouldn’t turn into three, a picture on one wall shouldn’t switch across to another wall. It’s a matter of ethics not to be sloppy about such things. But let’s not imagine that the majority of readers will actually notice.
What readers nowadays notice aren’t the objective facts of the setting—the diagrammatic aspects, as it were—so much as the subjective impressions. It’s the feel of the place that’s important.
My rule-of-thumb is, what impressions of the scene would still stick in my mind if I thought back on it a year afterwards?