8 Tips for Describing a Story Setting
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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