Creating Unforgettable Settings, Part 2

Tip #2: Describing the Setting

Some of this has been covered in previous posts, but I just couldn't talk about good scene-setting and not mention description, 'cause what good is the perfect setting if you can't convey it to the reader? So once you've figured out the right spot for your story, here are a few tips for describing it well .

Choose details carefully. For each scene, figure out what the setting should convey. Sometimes you simply want to set the stage for the reader, and that's okay. Other times, you'll want to use the setting to show additional things: mood, characterization, the story's time period, etc. For each scene, decide on the setting's purpose, then choose the details that will describe what you want.

Example:
The knee-high stalks snatched at Nora's skirts as she tore through the wheat field. Over her panting breath, she could hear the plants whispering, "You're late, you're late." Two years she'd been waiting for this, and now she was about to miss it.
The winter air burned her lungs, but she kept running. She cleared the field, passed the lone hemlock, and raced around the side of the house to find everyone waiting in the yard.

From this description you can gather that Nora is in a rural setting, probably a farm, in the winter. Nora's also late for something and she's desperate not to miss it. The sky may be full of snow clouds, cows might be grazing in an adjoining field, the wind may be whistling through the hemlock branches, but we don't know for sure because those details aren't shared. Enough clues are given to create a picture in the reader's mind. Remember that you don't have to describe everything in sight. Just pick the details that are important, and the reader will fill in the blanks.

Engage all the senses. For the most part, we're visual creatures, and when we describe something, we use a lot of visual clues. But the reader doesn't want to stand back and look at the scene. They want to be immersed in it, to feel like they're there. To do this, include details that show how the scene looks, but also how it sounds, feels, tastes, and smells. In the above example, readers have the opportunity to not only see the field and the lone tree, they also can feel the stalks snatching at their clothes, hear the plants' rustle, taste the cold air burning in the throat. Clearly, every scene doesn't call for every sense to be represented. But if you scatter enough multi-sensory clues throughout the story, you've gone a long way toward sucking the reader in.

Use varying vehicles. When introducing a scene, it's tempting to rattle off a bunch of details in paragraph form so we can check the setting off our list and move on to more important things. But even characterization and plot don't stand alone; they're scattered in bits and pieces throughout the story, intertwined with other elements. That's how the setting needs to be worked in, too. Share it a piece at a time—through narrative, definitely—but also through dialogue, dialogue beats, internal thoughts, and action. Spreading it out is a great way to ensure that your reader doesn't skim past long paragraphs to get to what's next.

Be voice consistent and character specific. When describing the setting, remember that it's not actually you doing the describing. That job belongs to your point-of-view character. So…
·       Choose details that your character would notice.
·       Use words and phrases that your character would use, and keep sentence structure, sentence length, and style consistent. If your character talks in a quick, rabbity style but your descriptions are shown through rambling complex sentences, your reader will sense that something's off.
·       Your character's mood should greatly affect the way she sees the scene and how she describes it.
·       Different characters may describe the same scene differently, so if your story is being told from varying viewpoints, make sure the descriptions are true to each character. And, by the way, this technique is a great way to convey characterization through your descriptions.
·       As with every writing element, keep the context in mind. If the scene is fast-paced and active, there's going to be less detail because your character wouldn't stop to admire the frescoes while she's running from an axe-murderer.

22 comments:

Bish Denham said...

Great post Becca!

Shakespeare said...

Such fantastic advice!

I especially love your statement that "the readers will fill in the rest." One of the requirements (for me) of good literature is that it leaves room for interpretation. If all answers are given, there's nothing for my own brain to work through. I much prefer the mystery!

Working details in with the plot and dialogue is also important--kind of like a film, all of the elements should work seamlessly. If we start to notice the DESCRIPTION at the beginning of each scene, we learn to skip through it, for it is likely pretty well separated from the action and meaning. If it's all intermixed, though, the elements will work better together.

Good stuff! Much to think about.

Traci Kenworth said...

Setting is very important in my stories. In my worldbuilding, I've strived to make my people a part of it and show that no other place would create/build such characters. Great job on making me think how much more I can put into their lands.

Melissa said...

Great points! I especially appreciate your advice about describing the setting in the character's own voice. When I revise, most often this is what I have to edit.

Michelle Gregory said...

thank you. i needed this as i start a 3rd draft.

AubrieAnne said...

Thanks for the tips, especially the varying vehicles. I don't usually think of that!

AubrieAnne @ http://whosyoureditor.blogspot.com/

Heather said...

I want to stand up and cheer for this post! Partly because I'm reading a novel that seems to have forgotten all these golden rules. Ugh. You're right, choosing the right details is so essential. It helps set the mood of the entire novel. And to me engaging the senses is an absolute must. If the author doesn't do that I'm not going to get hooked.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great advice. This is definitely one of my weak areas. At one point on my last ms, I noticed I kept mentioning birds at some point in many of the scenes . . . and my mc wasn't a bird watcher. ;)

Jenny said...

I really think that 'use all senses' is important. (It's one of the advantages over t.v./movies!) You never know what will trigger an emotional response in your character, and by extension your reader--I was recently reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando and she describes, somewhere in there, about the discomfort of Elizabethan clothing, a scratchy ruff for example, and just that one sensory detail made the whole thing seem more real and the poor character in the scratchy ruff that much more sympathetic.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wonderful post, Stina...I go back over my pieces to see if I've hit on the senses. Taste is a hard one for me....

Carol Riggs said...

Yep, yep, and YEP to all of this. I especially love this phrase:
"If your character talks in a quick, rabbity style"--that is so great. Rabbity! Heehee.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Wow! Thank you for this post, especially that last gem about consistency with character voice.

Blessings,
Susan :)

MaDonna Maurer said...

Great post....really. Just what I needed. I'm terrible at descriptions, at least not using all of them. I liked your idea of scattering them around throughout withing the narrative so that the reader doesn't just skip paragraphs of description.

kathrynjankowski said...

Thanks, Becca! Setting is one story element I definitely need to work on, so your advice is much appreciated.

Laura Pauling said...

I missed this the other day! Great advice. I love reading a story where the description brings the setting and story alive!

Lenny Lee* said...

hi miss becca! wow thats a lot of really good stuff and already im thinking how i could do better on settings in my wip. thanks for a cool post.

Becca Puglisi said...

I think descriptions overall are really hard to do well. Too much and it gets boring and purply. Too little, and the scene is flat.

I personally have trouble with the voice consistency. Somewhere in my mind, I think 'description' and slip into narrator mode. Must be all the omniscient books I read growing up. So I'll be working on that.

Liz Davis said...

I used to be terrible at descriptions, until I found this blog.

B. said...

This is fantastic! Such helpful tips. So much to think about, so much to learn. Thank you.

I have a feeling that I will be spending much time learning from you and from your blogposts -- I am so glad I followed the link that led me here.

elizabethanne of elizabethannewrites

Roland D. Yeomans said...

How true : the readers will fill in the rest. Give them a flash of awe, a glimpse of horror, and their minds will fill in the blanks with what touches them most.

You did a fine job of teaching the art of description. Thanks for visiting my blog and following. It meant a lot. Roland

Angela Ackerman said...

Another great post Becca! I really appreciate you weighing in on setting and world building.

Angela

beyondtourism said...

Oh I must keep POV in mind. I have two POV in first in one novel and there are scenes that overlap. What a great to add more without getting boring.

I love rabbity too.

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