Monday, June 27, 2011

Using Descriptive Settings

Descriptive setting has none of the excitement of an action scene, none of the glamour of dialogue. But too little description and the reader can get lost, unable to figure out what’s happening. Too much of it and the reader is yawning. Who hasn’t skimmed over paragraphs of description of countryside and weather to get to the good stuff? I do it all the time.

So it’s no surprise, descriptive setting is my least favorite type of writing. It’s usually way down on the list of priorities. Plus, avoiding passive writing and lazy ‘was/were’ sentences is always a challenge for me. Much easier to write ‘the forest was full of tall evergreen trees’ then to craft it into an entertaining sentence like ‘evergreen trees rose tall and straight along the road creating a dense screen’. Leaving out the descriptive setting, however, is a missed opportunity. There are three potential ways for this type of writing to increase the wow of your story.

1. Grounding

An artist friend of mine is always telling the children she teaches not to leave their subjects hanging in the air. Without a horizon line, the people or scenery they draw are literally floating in air. Drawing in the line between earth and sky, puts that tree or person firmly on the ground and not in the sky. That’s the main goal of descriptive writing. It lets the reader know where the characters are.

If you don’t detail the setting, you leave a reader confused and unable to relate to what is happening in the story. I recently read a passage, the opening chapter of a WIP, which gave no description. I ended up picturing the MC actively outside and moving when she was still at her home. That kind of mistake made me no longer trust that writer. That’s not what you want. Yet you don’t want to go into so much detail that you bore the reader either. Do we really need five sentences to tell us how the sky looks? That’s a big no!

Just keep in mind that the amount of description a reader wants is a matter of personal taste and also depends on genre you’re writing. Romance puts different emphasis on what to describe than does mystery or fantasy. Know what’s expected for your particular genre by reading lots of examples of that genre.

2. Character Development

Descriptive setting can show you about your characters. For instance, what music is playing in the background can say heaps. There are different personalities associated with country music compared to hip hop or classical. It’s a great way to show what your character values. Whether your character has a messy or neat room tells about them. It say how much priority they put to cleaning and whether they might be a laid-back, let things go type of person or a type A personality. The type of house or furniture they own can tell whether they are modern or old-fashioned. Books on the bookshelves make them thoughtful. Liquor bottles everywhere, well, you know what that says about a character.

And I repeat it’s a great way to show. You’re not saying ‘Carol is a lazy slob’, or ‘John is a typical teenager’. When John can’t find his keys because his room is so messy or dust is an inch thick on Carol’s counter, you’re showing it. It’s a great trick to use in opening chapters to increase the character development indirectly.

3. Mood

How can you set the mood of your character without telling? Descriptive setting. This is an underused strategy for writing. Use the description of what’s occurring in the background to reflect your character’s mood. Hard to explain so I’ll give a few examples from my own writing.

I wanted to show that my character felt a bit conflicted and thoughtful, he’s trying to come to a big decision. I could have said, ‘Henry rubbed his chin in thought’ or ‘Henry felt doubtful’. Instead, I showed it by the setting. He stopped and stared off over the moor as a lone bird, cast in black by the sun, winged its way home.” The image of the bird, cast in black, gives a feeling of isolation and loneliness. It reflects the character’s mood.

Here’s another example from my opening chapter. I wanted to show the MC is depressed and brooding. “She ignored her possessions to watch the flickering light cast dancing shadows on the walls.” In the middle of the night, she’s staring at candle light flickering on the walls, what could be more brooding.

If you want to foreshadow a bit of danger coming up, make the background reflect it. Trees can ‘loom’ adding a feeling of danger. Branches can ‘grab’. There are plenty of ways to make the setting work for you. I wish I used these tricks more often because the effectiveness is undeniable.

Summer is vacation time. Use that time to improve your writing without putting a word to paper. Now some of you know from facebook I just returned from a long vacation. I used the time driving through several states I’d never been to before to visualize settings. What better way to come up with unique settings than from actual experience of being there? I even made it a game to come up with non-passive sentences for each area. “The wind chasing knee-high grass up the slope in rippling wave after wave of unbroken green.” is eastern South Dakota. “Dense evergreen trees darkening the hills to a uniform black and only broken by high cliffs of stark gray granite” would do for the Black Hills.

Have you used setting to highlight the mood of your work? Got a great descriptive sentence? Post an example to inspire the rest of us. And use that time outdoors for more than getting a tan.


  1. this was fantastic and I've been trying to comment for excuse the briefness of this. I think blogger might still be having issues with that part.
    But aside from that, I really enjoyed this blog post! I have some trouble with scenery/description. You are so good at getting to the point without rambling :D

  2. Thanks Mae, nice to know I don't ramble. Glad it was helpful.

  3. Ugh. Describing the setting/scenery is not my favorite and it needs a lot of work. Thanks for this. It's going to prove useful to me. You really know your stuff :)
    ~ <3 Stacy



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