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8 Tips for Describing a Story Setting

Anybody Can Write a Novel

Chapter 3 “World Building” – Section 3“Describing Settings”

With Links to Supplementary Material


Another tricky skill to master in writing is setting description. Setting description is often the first thing that a reader encounters in a story, making it an essential skill to perfect if you want to hook your readers. To make matters more complicated, it is often difficult to calculate the right amount of description in settings—too much or too little can either leave the reader bored, overwhelmed, or confused. Today, I'm going to talk about how to create engaging and appropriate scene descriptions that will best serve your story.


Tip 1: Start with the lighting.

As important as what we see in any setting, are the extent and medium by which we see it. Think of this as the lighting on the set of a movie—it exists to set a tone and to create limitations. A dark scene, lit by the red light of a flare, not only creates a dark and potentially scary ambiance, but it limits how much the protagonist can see; this creates an opportunity for any monster or villain to easily work within the shadows, without either your protagonist or audience seeing exactly what. Lighting is the means and the lens through which reader sees (or doesn't see) all else; so start there whenever describing most settings.


Tip 2: Engage as many senses as you can—utilizing unusual comparisons.

You've likely already heard of the importance of engaging the five (or six) senses; by describing the smell, taste, and audio-atmosphere of a scene, you put the audience firmly within it—far more than if they would be if they could only see what was happening. However, it is important to remember that as audiences re-read the same descriptions over and over (the copper taste of blood, the chilly wind, the rancid breath on his neck), they begin to gloss over them—to just accept the description as opposed to actually allowing themselves to feel it—simply because they've heard them so many times before. Strive to create original comparisons and descriptions (she heard a sound like a bottle of carbonated drink being sloshed around—slowly building pressure) so that they will be striking enough for your reader to sit down and think about them for a brief moment—putting them there in the scene.


Tip 3: Give a sense of color and texture.

Similar to how light is the medium by which we see, color and texture are the visual representations by which we understand all of the sights which comprise the world around us. And just like the red flare in darkness caused an atmosphere of fear, other color/light combinations will have different effects on the reader's brain. Greens and blues with a high amount of natural light can mean an oasis, or a deadly swamp or jungle if that light is diminished. Texture can have the same effect. Blocky steel buildings with polished and regulated surfaces can be used to create intimidation for a powerful dystopian city; whereas irregular, twisting metals that form into buildings through spirals and asymmetry, can create a sense of whimsy in a technologically advanced utopia.


Tip 4: Filter descriptions through your Narrator or Point-of-View (POV) Character.

Make sure that the way that you describe a setting is parallel with the character who is describing it—whether Narrator or POV character. For example, if your POV character is an assassin, they should note the details of any setting with an emphasis in how she can use it to her advantage. If your protagonist is a farm-boy, he may not have the necessary vocabulary to describe the exact names of the components of a space-ship, or even the names of the pieces of a knight's armor. Just be sure to take these elements into consideration as you paint the world around the characters, through their eyes.


Tip 5: Continue with obvious physical details relevant to the plot.

Right from the beginning of the scene, find a way to describe all of the setting information that is obvious and immediately relevant to the plot. If you are writing a murder mystery, for example, your protagonist is going to notice, immediately upon entering the room, how many people are there, the condition of the room, the body on the ground, how big the room is, and maybe how many exits there are. We describe the obvious elements in the setting both because it turns an empty plain of imagination, color, and texture, into a tangible place, and also because it keeps the reader on an even field of knowledge with the protagonist. More subtle and less visible details that exist for world-building or the plot (such as a bullet embedded deeply within the wound) can be interwoven into the action and dialogue later in the scene.


Tip 6: Use the size of what you are describing in each sentence to serve as a camera in the mind's eye.

When, in a single sentence, you describe an object, you trigger the scope of your reader's imagination. For example, if I describe a skyscraper that towered over the rest of the city, you will begin to imagine a setting that is as large as my description. Even if you know a little about what the city is like, that sentence about the skyscraper will cause your imagination to picture the city as a whole, not that which is within it. To narrow the scope, you must create a new sentence that “zooms in” on something in particular. If my next sentence is a description of a dark alleyway with an occasional hooded figure passing through, I narrow the focus of the reader's view quickly, and to a degree where they can notice individual people or other small details that they couldn't have when imagining the city as a whole. Utilize the first object you describe to determine where the camera is for that sentence, and then use that angle and scope to show the reader those things that can be best described from that vantage point, before changing your focus.


Tip 7: The genre will determine the level of detail in your descriptions.

Remember to keep your descriptions appropriate to your intended audience. If you are writing high science-fiction for adults, you are perfectly within your right to create long descriptions of settings and technology that span into paragraphs and maybe even pages. By doing so, you create a more dynamic and engaging story for that type of reader. However, if you are writing low fantasy for children, you will want to be as brief as possible with your descriptions, and weave most of them into the action and dialogue so that you do not bore them.


Tip 8: Have your Writing Partner or Test-reader critique your descriptions, and then redraft them until they are perfect.

As with so many other aspects of writing, the creation of a setting is something that has few universal standards of quality. It requires lots of feedback and tinkering to get just perfect, and depends on so many factors that achieving success means experimentation, trial, and error. So work closely with your writing partner, and take their feedback into serious consideration as you create your settings.


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Another tricky skill to master in writing is setting description. Setting description is often the first thing that a reader encounters in a story, making it an essential skill to perfect if you want to hook your readers. To make matters more complicated, it is often difficult to calculate the right amount of description in settings—too much or too little can either leave the reader bored, overwhelmed, or confused. Today, I'm going to talk about how to create engaging and appropriate scene descriptions that will best serve your story.
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:iconmasonicon:
masonicon Featured By Owner Edited Jun 20, 2017  Student General Artist
Does this count as Pragmatic/lazy Worldbuilding in fanwork: feeding universes like Happy Tree Friends and Warhammer 40k ones to :iconheartlessplz: in Ani-toonspiracy?
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2017  Professional Writer
Looking at the amount of thought you've put into it, I certainly wouldn't call the idea lazy. I will say that it will take a lot of time and a lot of written work to pull that many worlds together. 
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:iconmasonicon:
masonicon Featured By Owner Edited Jun 20, 2017  Student General Artist
Yeah! when it come to the amount of thought I put into my project

and check out this: Defamation of fanwork
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:iconhanareader:
hanareader Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2015
I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I usually skim over description (and I especially skim over long description...) No matter how well their writing, a room that someone describes to me almost always ends up in likeness to a room I've been in during my life, or even directly the room where I live. So in my fanfics I tend to not have much description? (And I additionally don't describe how they look, since, well, their familiar characters from fandom). Rarely do my characters directly interact with their environment, or at least not interestingly enough to note aloud. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I tend to write the way I want to read. Is that... bad?
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Nov 19, 2015  Professional Writer
Some people do skip over description--and I think that more than anything that is simply a sign that most of the time authors describe in a boring and irrelevant way. People usually do read a description if it is integral to the plot, interwoven well into the text, or extremely interesting. I would recommend taking the time to find some description of something that you like, and finding out what made it so good. 

Well fanfics are quite a bit different from original works in that you and your readers have either seen the world of the story, or it has been described to you in the original work. Therefore, you don't need to worry about describing a place because you and your readers already know what it's like. Fanfics are more often used to explore other plot and character options--almost like a super-focused writing exercise. Original works are different in that the reader is lost in the dark until they receive a description, because they've never been in that world before. If you don't describe, your readers will be completely blind, and the world will feel like it's not really there.

I hope that answers your questions, please let me know if you have any more :) And thanks for the comment!
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:iconparalelsky:
Paralelsky Featured By Owner Oct 25, 2015
You know, there can be a case made for the use of cliche / tropes in writing because they are so familiar, so the readers know exactly how to feel/ imagine when reading them in your story. That being said, when you read as much as those of us who like it, certain expressions start to get on your nerves (copper taste of blood (wrong, it should have been iron, since our blood is iron based not copper based, or more accurate - metallic), chilly wind, or my personal favorite - breath he/she didn't realize was holding (I almost stop reading when I see that)).
Other than that, when it comes to description, I think the best advice you gave here was to keep it relevant to the plot. There is no need to know what the heroine is wearing (clothes, make-up, bling), unless it's a fashion story.  
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2015  Professional Writer
Hmm... I'd have to think about that first part--about cliches and tropes that work because they are familiar. It could very well be true--though I wouldn't use them for descriptions specifically, just because readers tend to gloss over them, causing them to lose their effect. As for other elements of story, however, I'd have to think about that idea. 

Thanks for your input :)
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:iconyoumu2hu:
Youmu2hu Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2015
Glad to see what I have suggested written, and thanks for putting your effort in this!
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2015  Professional Writer
No problem :) It was a good suggestion. 
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:iconzurku:
Zurku Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015
good one
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
thanks!
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:iconnandelaluz:
nandelaluz Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Photographer
Excellent tips thanks for the inspiration
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
No problem :) I'm glad they helped
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:iconopethiana:
Opethiana Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Hobbyist
Thank you for the helpful tips !
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
You're very welcome :)
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:icongraeystone:
Graeystone Featured By Owner Edited Oct 19, 2015
For me the challenge is trying to be accurate/descriptive while leaving something for the reader's imagination and trying not to use overdone clichés when describing a background.

One of my plot ideas is trying a Lovecraft type story. Its about a town and surrounding area that is 'dim'(lack of light and the affects on plant, animal, and human). Hopefully it will be a very descriptive story if I get around to finishing it.
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
It is extremely difficult, even for me--getting that balance. 

Sounds good :) Playing with the lights and shadows as a force in and of itself will give you lots of good imagery to work with. 
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:icongraeystone:
Graeystone Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015
Oddly enough the hard part is remembering certain aspects of the seasons in the state I live in. For example the grass is not instantly green right after winter thaw. Its a dull pale color which is the same for the story. So used to it I never thought about it until I got the story idea just prior to the end of the last winter and I wasn't until I got a good look at the grass as the thaw happened. That's probably a good tip right there for describing a background/environment - If going by past experiences, especially with sight, try to remember the details as accurately as possible.
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:iconuniquejasmyn:
UniqueJasmyn Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
This has actually been something ive been struggling with, I will deffinitely refer to this when needed. Thank you!!!
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
Awesome :) You're welcome!
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:iconleopold002:
Leopold002 Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Food for thought.
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
:)
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:iconone-percent:
One-Percent Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2015
That helps! I was stuck with description, but now I am starting to understand what I was missing all along. Tip 4 and 6 are awesome.
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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
Thanks for pointing out which ones you found particularly helpful. It helps me to decide on what sort of tips to add in the future :)
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:iconduperghoul:
Duperghoul Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2015  Hobbyist Photographer

Tip 4: Filter descriptions through your Narrator or Point-of-View (POV) Character.

So through a toddler's mind he can only detect familiar sounds and sights...

Tip 5: Continue with obvious physical details relevant to the plot.

When he goes to his bedroom, all that is relevant is what is on the bed and what is the closet, at the first moment. We don't need to know what he has on a dresser or what toys he has, until it comes relevant. Got it

Tip 7: The genre will determine the level of detail in your descriptions.

horror, easy

Tip 8: Have your Writing Partner or Test-reader critique your descriptions, and then redraft them until they are perfect.

Of course, I NEVER made more than one fanfic draft, but for my story I keep re-editing it for a reason.

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:iconjosephblakeparker:
JosephBlakeParker Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2015  Professional Writer
I think you've got it :)
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