Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life

By Moira Allen
Moira Allen

The devil, it's said, is in the details.  So, too, is much of the work of a writer.  Too little detail leaves your characters wandering through the narrative equivalent of an empty stage.  Too much, and you risk the tombstone effect: grey blocks of description that tempt the reader to skip and skim, looking for the action.

To set your stage properly, it's important to choose the most appropriate, vivid details possible.  It's equally important, however, to present those details in a way that will engage the reader.  The following four techniques can help you keep your reader focused on both your descriptions and your story.

1) Reveal setting through motion. 

Few people walk into a room and instantly absorb every detail of their surroundings.  Often, however, we expect the reader to do just that: we introduce a scene setting with a block of text that completely halts the action.

As an alternative, consider letting your description unfold as the character moves through the scene.  Ask yourself which details your character would notice immediately, and which might register more slowly.  Let your character encounter those details physically, interactively.

Suppose, for example, that your heroine, a secretary of humble origins, has just entered the mansion of a millionaire.  What would she notice first?  How would she react to her surroundings?

Let her observe how soft the rich Persian carpet feels underfoot, how it muffles her footfalls, how she's almost tempted to remove her shoes.  Does she recognize any of the gilt-framed paintings upon the walls, or do they make her feel even more insignificant because she doesn't know a Cezanne from a Monet?  Don't tell us the sofa is soft until she actually sinks into it.  Let her smell the leather cushions, mingling with the fragrance of hothouse flowers filling a cut-crystal vase on a nearby table. 

Use active verbs to set the scene -- but use them wisely.  Instead of informing the reader that "a heavy marble table dominated the room," force your character to detour around it.  Instead of explaining that "light glittered and danced from the crystal chandelier," let your character blink, dazzled by the prismatic display.  Make sure that your character, and not the furniture, is doing the acting.

"Walking through" a description breaks the details into bite-sized nuggets, and scatters those nuggets throughout the scene so that the reader never feels overwhelmed or bored.  However, it also raises another important decision: which character should do the walking?


2) Reveal setting through a character's level of experience.

What your character knows will directly influence what she sees.  Suppose, for example, that your humble secretary really doesn't know a Cezanne from a Monet, or whether the carpet is Persian or Moroccan.  Perhaps she doesn't even know whether it's wool or polyester.  If these details are important, how can you convey them?

You could, of course, introduce the haughty owner of the mansion and allow him to point out your heroine's ignorance.  Or, you could write the scene entirely from the owner's perspective.  Keep in mind, however, that different characters will perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on their familiarity (or lack of familiarity) with the setting.

Imagine, for example, that you're describing a stretch of windswept coastline from the perspective of a fisherman who has spent his entire life in the region.  What would he notice?  From the color of the sky or changes in the wind, he might make deductions about tomorrow's weather and sailing conditions.  When he looks up at the seabirds wheeling against the clouds, he doesn't just see "gulls," but terns and gannets and petrels -- easily identified, to his experienced eye, by the shape of their wings or pattern of their flight. 

Equally important, however, are the things he might not notice.  Being so familiar with the area, he might pay little attention to the fantastic shapes of the rocks, or the gnarled driftwood littering the sand.  He hardly notices the bite of the wind through his cable-knit sweater or the tang of salt in the air, and he's oblivious to the stink of rotting kelp-mats that have washed ashore.

Now suppose an accountant from the big city is trudging along that same beach.  Bundled to the teeth in the latest Northwest Outfitters down jacket, he's still shivering -- and can't imagine why the fisherman beside him, who isn't even wearing a coat, isn't freezing to death.  He keeps stumbling over half-buried pieces of driftwood, and knows that the sand is just ruining his Italian loafers.  From the way the waves pound against the beach, it's obvious a major storm is brewing.  The very thought of bad weather makes him nauseous, as does the stench of rotting seaweed (he doesn't think of it as "kelp") and dead fish.

Each of these characters' perceptions of the beach will be profoundly influenced by his personal experience.  Bear in mind, however, that "familiar" doesn't imply a positive outlook, while "unfamiliar" needn't be synonymous with "negative."  Your accountant may, in fact, regard the beach as an idyllic vacation spot -- rugged, romantic, isolated, just the place to make him feel as if he's really getting in touch with nature.  The fisherman, on the other hand, may loathe the ocean, feeling trapped by the whims of wind and weather that he must battle each day for a livelihood.  Which brings us to the next point:


3) Reveal setting through the mood of your character (and use it to establish a mood in your reader).

What we see is profoundly influenced by what we feel.  The same should be true for our characters.  At the same time, filtering a scene through a character's feelings can profoundly influence what the reader "sees."  Two characters, for example, could "see" exactly the same setting, yet perceive it in opposite ways.

Suppose, for example, that a motorist has strolled a short distance into an archetypical stretch of British moorland.  Across a stretch of blossoming gorse, she sees the ruins of some ancient watchtower, now little more than a jumble of stones crowning the next hill (or "tor," as her guidebook puts it).

The temptation to explore is irresistible.  Flicking at dandelion heads with her walking stick, our intrepid motorist hikes up the slope, breathing the scents of grass and clover, admiring the lichen patterns on the grey granite boulders.  At last, warmed by the sun and her exertions, she leans back against a stone and watches clouds drift overhead like fuzzy sheep herded by a gentle wind.  A falcon shrills from a nearby hollow, its cry a pleasant reminder of how far she has come from the roar and rumble of the city.

A pleasant picture?  By now, your reader might be considering travel arrangements to Dartmoor.  But what if your motorist is in a different mood?  What if her car has broken down and she has been unable to find assistance?  Perhaps she started across the moor because she thought she saw a dwelling -- but was dismayed to find that it was only a ruin, and a grey and creepy one at that.  The tower's scattered stones, half buried in weeds and tangled grasses, remind her of grave markers worn faceless with time.  Its silent emptiness speaks of secrets, of a desolation that welcomes no trespassers.  Though the sun is high, scudding clouds cast a pall over the landscape, and the eerie, lonesome cry of some unseen bird reminds her just how far she is from civilization.

When this traveler looks at the gorse, she sees thorns, not blossoms.  When she looks at clouds, she sees no fanciful shapes, only the threat of rain to add to her troubles.  She wants out of this situation -- while your reader is on the edge of his seat, expecting something far worse than a creepy ruin to appear on this character's horizon!


4)  Reveal setting through the senses.

A character's familiarity with a setting and emotional perception of that setting will influence and be influenced by the senses.  Our stranded motorist, for example, may not notice the fragrance of the grass, but she will be keenly aware of the cold wind.  Our accountant notices odors the fisherman ignores, while the fisherman detects subtle variations in the color of the sky that are meaningless to the accountant.

Keep in mind that different sensory inputs evoke different reactions.  For example, visual information tends to be processed primarily at the cognitive level:  We make decisions and take action based on what we see.  When we describe a scene in terms of visual inputs, we are appealing to the reader's intellect.

Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear.  Think of the effects of a favorite piece of music, the sound of a person's voice, the whistle of a train.  In conversation, tone of voice is considered a more reliable indicator of mood and meaning than the words alone.  Sounds can make us shudder, shiver, jump -- or relax and smile.  Scene that include sounds -- fingers scraping a blackboard, the distant baying of a hound -- are more likely to evoke an emotional response.

Smell has the remarkable ability to evoke memories.  While not everyone is taken straight to childhood by "the smell of bread baking," we all have olfactory memories that can trigger a scene, a recollection of an event, or remind us of a person.  Think of someone's perfume, the smell of new-car leather, the odor of wet dog.  Then describe that smell effectively, and your reader is there.

Touch evokes a sensory response.  Romance writers know they'll get more mileage out of "He trailed his fingertips along her spine" than "He whispered sweet nothings in her ear."  The first can evoke a shiver of shared sensory pleasure; the second is just words.  Let your reader feel the silkiness of a cat's fur, the roughness of castle stones, the prickly warmth of your hero's flannel shirt beneath his lover's fingertips.  Let your heroine's feet ache, let the wind raise goosebumps on her flesh, let the gorse thorns draw blood.

Finally, there is taste, which is closely related to smell in its ability to evoke memories.  Taste, however, is perhaps the most difficult to incorporate into a setting; often, it simply doesn't belong there.  Your heroine isn't going to start licking the castle stones, and it isn't time for lunch.  As in real life, "taste" images should be used sparingly and appropriately, or you may end up with a character who seems more preoccupied with food than with the issues of the story.


The goal of description is to create a well-designed set that provides the perfect background for your characters -- a setting that stays in the background, without overwhelming the scene or interrupting the story.  In real life, we explore our surroundings through our actions, experience them through our senses, understand (or fail to understand) them through our knowledge and experience, and respond to them through our emotions.  When your characters do the same, you'll keep your readers turning pages -- and not just because they're waiting for something interesting to happen!