Setting Description...Writing More Than Just What You See

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.


Abby Annis said...

Excellent post! Exactly what I needed today. :) Thanks!

K.Hinny said...

Great post!

Laura Pauling said...

I've been really noticing in books that I read how the sensory details are what makes the story come alive for me. As writers, I think we need to hear something atleast 100 times before it sinks in. :)

Mary McDonald said...

In my book, I have half a chapter where my character is forced to wear blackout goggle, soundproof earphones, thick mitts on his hands and is shackled. He is marched this way through several different environments, and I had to think how to describe it with only smell and some touch, like vibrations when he was in a vehicle, the texture of the floor/ground, the smell of jet fuel, and his ears popping as the plane took off. It was quite challenging to write, but fun too.

Karen Lange said...

Great stuff! I need to tap into this...certain smells, songs, and sounds take me right back to high school and before...Thanks for sharing this.
Have a great week,

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

I literally have a note on my desk that says, "Write with all five senses."

Bish Denham said...

Excellent post Angela!

writtenwyrdd said...

Writing with the senses is excellent advice and I totally agree with you on that.

But I think that, to evoke emotion, it's also needful to use a lot of the tricks that a poet uses. Writers shouldn't forget the words themselves are your tool, not just what you say with them.

By using the right words you can evoke emotion like good poetry does, with evocative metaphor/simile, word choice, pacing, sentence structure, voice.

How you say it is just as important as the details you choose to promote.

Jenna Reynolds said...

Thanks so much for this! Description is always a challenge for me. Appreciate all your hard work.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post! I have been paying closer attention to settings and descriptions when I read lately. Perfect timing. :-)

ammonite7 said...

Hope you don't mind that I have put a link to you from my blog. You have such great posts!

Susan R. Mills said...

Great post! I'm working on description right now.

Anonymous said...

I just found your site, Angela, and it is flat-out fabulous. Like the Governator of CA said, "I'll be back.)

Erica said...

Fabulous post! What a great way to put it ;o) Thanks for your insight!

Angela said...

Thanks everyone for the great comments. I think sensory information is so important to create compelling description, and it's something we all need reminders of. I know whenever a detail stands out to me in a book I read, it's always because it's a piece of sensory writing, or the most perfect comparison that immediately makes me see exactly what the writer is saying, but in a new way.

Mary, that must have been quite a challenge to write, but I bet it made you so much more aware of the lesser used senses!

Writtenwyrdd, I couldn't agree more! Poetry is very evocative and each word is well thought out. One of the most common things I repeat in posts about editing and description is to make every word WORK HARD to be included.

I'm glad to see a few new faces, and always happy that my posts help. Thanks again for chiming in here, and have a great writing week!

Shilpa said...

Again, thank you so much for this! This is just what I wanted today. I was struggling to describe the forest setting and how scared my heroine feels in there. However, since I never been to one, I was only relying on spooky noise and darkness. Thanks to this wonderful article, I can think better now. :)
I have put in your blog button on my blog. This site deserves to be shown around!


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