A new Muser, Soy, asked a really excellent question in Give Me Your Feedback and I thought it would make a good post. Her question was:
What is the best way to describe a place in a really special way, without sounding too visual?
I like this question, because it's what the Setting Thesaurus is all about. As writers, our first reaction is to transcribe everything we see in our head onto the page for the reader. This can be problematic for two reasons--first, because sight is our most used sense, readers often become 'desensitized' to its power to describe. Second, readers tend to create their own 'mental image' after only a few key words. If the writer doesn't hook the reader with compelling details, they will likely start to skim, moving past the descriptive parts to get to the more interesting action.
So how do we create description special enough to grab the reader's attention and keep them from skimming? By using the lesser used senses to trigger memory and evoke emotion to make them CARE about the setting.
Bottom line, if the setting feels real, the reader will invest in the description. We experience life using all our senses, and writing must be the same. Using SOUND, TEXTURE, TASTE and SMELL enhances the visual experience of any setting.
Smells trigger memory more so than any other sense.
Hot dogs boiling in water. Fresh towels. Mowed grass. Leather. A barn full of manure. Each of these evoke a distinctive and recognizable smell that adds something special to your setting and will make the reader feel part of the scene.
Sounds can also add context and texture to a scene.
Sometimes the creak of a barn door, the flap of clean sheets hanging on a line in the backyard, or the tick of dead leaves as the wind pushes them across a sidewalk can paint a much more satisfying image than visuals alone. We are built to take notice of the sounds around us based on the fight or flight response. The reader will be naturally drawn to sounds highlighted in your description.
Touch is a way to make the scene intimate.
Describing the smoothness of a worn fence rail against the palm as our main character leans on it can make the reader almost feel the sun-bleached rail under their own hand. It allows characters to interact with the setting to create a mood or show emotions.
Taste is powerful, extremely recognizable and one of the most difficult senses to work in. It should only be used if it can be done so naturally.
A character grimacing at a mouthful of burnt coffee while another character sips unaffected tells us something about both characters. Similarly, if you're trying to show a child's anger as he eats ripe blackberries off a bush, the connection will fail. Sweet berries bursting on the tongue is something that will automatically evoke a positive emotion in your reader, not a negative one.
A sense of place is paramount in any scene. This doesn't mean that you needs pages of description, or that you need to weave in all the senses for the setting to come alive. Just use the reader's imagination and work with it by adding fingernail details to add layers to their basic knowledge. Choose the right descriptors and you will create a powerful image that is also word count friendly. Pacing must always be in the front of our minds as we write, and description is no exception.