I hope everyone is doing well. Today we’re going to be talking about writing effective setting descriptions. However, this post is just going to be helpful with writing descriptions in general. We’re going to be pulling a double duty post today. Woo!
Description is super important to have in your novel and I know I don’t need to tell you guys that. I know you’re smart cookies. A lot of the time we don’t use description effectively. Isn’t it the most annoying thing when an author just goes on and on and on with their description of a place or a person? And you just want them to stop – no matter how pretty the words spun are? (Danielle Steele I’m looking at you here…) Me too. It can get super annoying and I will gloss over those long chunks.
So today, we’re going to look at fixing that a bit and also for making your descriptions amazing and fun to read.
I’m going to start off today with a chart that basically sums up everything that we’re going to cover today:
However, this is not all that you need to know about setting and description writing. There is a lot more to it than just those six things. I do want to touch on these six things in a bit more detail before we move into some more setting description things – and I know I’ve been harping on some of them for the past few weeks.
- Use Detail. Everything is in the details, but use certain things at different times. You do not, I repeat, you do not need to dump all of your setting of that scene or character all at the beginning of that scene. As mentioned in the infographic above, J.K. Rowling would make Hogwarts have its own little quirks that could help or hinder the characters’ processes.
- Learn from Others. I always say this, but do your research. Find out what has worked well for other writers and then integrate that into your work. This doesn’t mean that you copy them and steal their words. Don’t do that – it’s bad. It does mean you can use them for inspiration and put your own twist on their example.
- Make Vital to the Plot. Your setting is tied to your plot. It’s the changing of scenes in which action and dialogue happen, it’s where the action occurs, it marks the passage of time, etc.. Make sure you keep the plot in mind when you’re writing your setting. Ask it if it’s vital to your plot, if it furthers it along, what’s significant in this scene. Write accordingly after that.
- Show Time’s Effect. Nothing remains static. Things change every day. This needs to be shown in your writing. It doesn’t have to be anything complex. It could be as simple as your character asking for directions to a store that isn’t in business anymore. How the geography has changed a bit. The seasons changing. It just makes us aware of time passing. I find this is something that a lot of authors need to work on. Sometimes it feels as if more time has passed than actually has (The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan).
- Use Symbolism. Remember when we talked about Themes, Motifs, and Symbols? Good. Those things can be infused into your setting so they can strengthen your plot and characters. These symbols and what not give your readers a chance of suspense as they know something good or bad will come out of certain situations.
- Evoke the Senses. You have five senses for a reason. They make our life more rich and full. They help us make sense of what is going on around us. It also brings the description to life a little bit more for your readers.
Like I mentioned before, there is more to this than just the above, though they’re pretty essential. So, we’re going to be looking at the other things you should consider when you’re writing.
Here’s my list of tips and other things to consider:
- Your character should be affected by your setting in some way. In real life, the weather, the chairs we sit on, etc. affect how we deal with our day and our emotions in some way. If your chair is too hard and you have to sit on it for eight hours, you’re going to be uncomfortable and a little cranky. So the same has to apply to our characters.
- Your setting sets up the mood of the scene. A lot of the time weather plays into this, but it can even just be the color of the room, or whether the room is clean or messy.
- Keep in mind the two most important questions readers will ask your book: “Where am I? Why do I care?” These are two questions that a reader will ask themselves at the start of your book, major change in setting and at the beginning of every chapter. You need to be consistent throughout your story that they know where they are and that your setting is meaningful to the plot.
- Be specific in your nouns, verbs and modifiers. Always make sure your modifiers come after your concrete nouns and verbs.
- example (nouns):
- bad noun: the dog
- good noun: the pit bull
- example (noun modifier):
- Poor use of modifiers: a scary dog
- Better use of modifiers: a scarred pit bull that limped
- example (verbs):
- Poor verb choice: Water fell onto my head.
- Better verb choice: Water plopped onto my head.
- example (verb modifier):
- Poor use of adverbs: Water fell quickly onto my head.
- Better use of adverbs: Water plopped rhythmically onto my head.
- example (nouns):
- Your sensory details are going to change when your setting changes. Which means you’re going to have to do all of that work all over again, but it’s worth it for the reader.
- Add some motion to your description. Adding little movement details to the description will make the scene a bit more alive and it can capture your reader’s imaginations a bit better. Not to say that a static description is bad – it can still be very vivid and attention-grabbing.
- Treat your setting as a character! Get to know where you’re placing your setting. If you can travel there or are writing about your own town then you’re going to be able to place a lot of details there that a non-native or visitor won’t notice. For instance, as much as a lot of people associate Calgary with being the land of cowboys and beef to go along with the Calgary Stampede, the city has a pretty vibrant non-country music scene. On top of that, for a big city we have a very small town feel. You’re very likely to run into someone you know on the street and if there’s a crisis in the city you can count on your neighbors to help you out.
- Extra suggestion: All those questions you ask your characters to get to know them? Well, apply that to your setting as well to get to know it better.
- Think of setting as a movie or TV show. This was a really interesting idea when I came across it when I was doing the research for this post. When a scene is being set up you start with an outside shot, then you keep zooming into that location and then onto the characters. Friends used this a lot when setting up everything in the show. They would zoom in from NYC to the coffee shop, Central Perk, then it would go to the area that the characters were in to show you who was there and then focus in on who was speaking and what was going on. If you don’t believe me check it out here:
- Questions to ask yourself in regards to your setting:
- How can you sum it up in a few brief sentences so that they feel like they know it?
- What feelings or emotions do you want this overall impression to trigger?
- What image do you want the person to picture in their mind’s eye?
- Whatever activity lies at your novel’s core, do you know enough about it to write with authority?
Here’s some things you should avoid when writing descriptions:
- Don’t overdo your details. There is a thing as too many details. A lot of the time this happens when we think our original description isn’t enough. If that’s the case, try to solidify it so it can stand on its own a bit better. Also, readers like to come up with their own idea of what a space is like – you just have to give them enough detail to engage them into filling in the rest. You just need to use 1-3 striking details about your character or your setting.
- Don’t introduce a new place and not describe it. When you introduce a new place and don’t describe it – your reader will be confused and they’ll make something up to help them navigate that scene. So when you take them back there and then begin to describe it – this will piss your reader off as they will have an idea on what they want this place to look like.
That’s it for me today! Please join me on Thursday. I will be talking about how NaNoWriMo April Camp went for me. After that, I do want to write a bit of a book review – hopefully I have it read by that point. Other than that, I’m trying to figure out what I want to write next.
Until next week!