Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life
By 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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
4) Reveal setting
through the senses.
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
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
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
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!