Fiction writing tips: Description of the setting

Landscape photoALWAYS keep in mind that setting is intimately and dynamically involved with both characters and plot. The setting can change, the way the characters view the setting can change, and the setting can influence the plot. Action may be the most important element of fiction, but no novel is fully realized without some description. Here’s an excellent example from Gaylord Dold’s mystery novel Samedi’s Knapsack:

“Roberts walked down the ramp and stood on the hot tarmac, breathing diesel fumes. He was sweating heavily and his shirt was soaked through to the skin. The sky was like a fiery kiln of clay glaze, smelling of sulfur and charcoal smoke. He looked at the low airport complex, sets of concrete buildings with tin roofs, a long hedge of cactus separating the runways from miles of confused, jumbled slums. In the west, high brown mountains rose into crabbed valleys and wrinkled ridges, then a slash of green. All around him the Haitian passengers were lugging their packages and bundles toward a tin customs shed located at the far end of a concrete building with several broken windows and an air conditioner leaking water.”

Note all the sensory details that Dold used.

You should include only the most significant details in a passage of description, as Dold has done. You don’t want an exhaustive catalog of images. That will turn your reader into a clerk taking inventory. Readers won’t do that job for long. Instead of mentioning every item in a room—or every detail of a character and his clothing—choose perhaps three or four vivid and specific details that make the room or that person unique. Remember that the reader and the writer are involved in a creative partnership. The writer uses a broad brush, and the reader fills in the blanks. As a writer, you must trust the reader to do so.

What do I mean by “the most significant details”? Let’s say that you and your spouse go to have dinner at the home of new friends. If you had to write about this experience and describe their home, what would you choose to mention? That they had a couch and a recliner and a big flat-screen TV in the living room? You could do that, although such things aren’t very interesting or revealing. But what if you saw a big glass display case in the living room that was filled with World War II weapons and memorabilia, or beautifully bound copies of the complete works of Shakespeare on a bookshelf, or a liquor cabinet crammed with every alcoholic beverage known to mankind, or a scatter of NASCAR magazines on the coffee table, or a wall filled with arty black-and-white photos of nude women? Things like that are much more informative, aren’t they? That’s what I mean by significant—and that’s what you want to include in description.

When you’re writing description, remember that you want your readers to inhabit your point-of-view character, so you must do that yourself in order to write vivid description. To do that you need to get out of your own brain and see everything through the eyes of your viewpoint character.

Tip #1: Do this exercise: Drive around urban, suburban, and rural areas and stop at places you’ve never seen before. Note what catches your attention first, then what other things stand out. Also notice any obvious smells and sounds.

Tip #2: Placing your viewpoint character in the midst of some activity allows you to integrate description into the action so it is less invasive and more an organic part of the whole. One of the best ways to work in the description of a setting is to move your main character through it. That’s why the Mississippi River was such an effective device in Huckleberry Finn.

Tip #3: Don’t forget about the weather. In some stories the weather is so integral to the story that it goes beyond a mood-setting device to being like another character. Think of the movie Blade Runner, where it’s always dark and rainy.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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