Plymouth Central Library
Plymouth City Council
Plymouth PL1 2AA
Description and setting
Fourth in a series of articles by Bill Eaton.
Setting, the spaces our characters inhabit and in which the action of our stories take place, is an element of fiction to truly test our descriptive skills.
While long descriptions of setting can be tedious and old-fashioned, stories which choose to ignore setting can feel equally dull. If stories only describe characters in emotional terms they can come across as case studies. When we insert characters into a setting, however, these stories can soar. Especially if we ensure the setting has some relevance to the characters and the story you are telling.
I want to concentrate on three central techniques in descriptive writing - using the senses to bring out precise details, using the setting to illustrate character, and using the setting to provoke an emotional response.
Senses and detail
The senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. This is how we as people interpret the real world around us. Through using sensory descriptions it is how we, as writers can communicate to our reader the worlds we create.
The first impulse is often to fall upon the visual, to describe what we see. Obviously this is important, but it is surprising how often other senses have the biggest impact on a reader. The smell of freshly baked bread, for example, is a much stronger hook than a picture of a loaf.
In using the senses we transfer images directly to the reader. While we may subtly interpret the images in the way we describe them, the reader will feel a connection to the story, without being told what to think. In this way we write with clarity and we make the reader see clearly with the mind's eye.
By using sense descriptions that are new and original and not clichés the reader will see what you are describing in a fresh way. The closer we get to the things we are describing, the more vivid and real these images will be. For example, don’t say bird, say crow. Don't say flower, say bluebell.
Once you start describing in this way it can be difficult to know when to stop! But stop you must. A single detail can often be more telling than a cluster of observations. Don't let the reader get bogged down in facts, otherwise your writing can feel like a tourist guide, irrelevant to the story.
Also remember, you are writing fiction, so don’t be afraid to make things up.
Think of a favourite childhood place and describe it using the senses only. Try to zoom in and pick out small details.
The wider uses of setting
Setting is not just scenery and location - it is the spaces and things the characters inhabit and possess. Settings can be divided into two categories (with lots of overlap), internal and external. Both can achieve different things.
One of the most effective ways of revealing a character is through describing their possessions and the details of the spaces they inhabit.
This is why it is important to have an idea of character before working on setting. Interior settings are often used in this way. In fact, it can be much easier to describe a character through their possessions and living space than by direct description, and it is much easier to show rather than tell when you are describing objects, letting the reader make up their own mind.
Choose one of the characters below and write a paragraph about the room they live in - it doesn’t have to be everything, just a few general ideas.
- A middle-aged recluse
- A heart throb actor in a soap opera
- A foster child
- A famous poet with writers block
On one level, an exterior setting can give the reader a sense of place and time (historical time and time of day). This can often be overlooked, or seen as unimportant to the story, but it is surprising how many readers feel uncomfortable without this sort of knowledge, even if it is a made up place. There are examples of abstract landscapes in fiction, but they are exceptions. A strong sense of place can really add power to a story. The more detail you can give it, the more truthful it will feel.
Try to parcel out the pieces of description gradually, and combine them with the character's actions. As long as you make the descriptions dynamic and quick they will engage.
Also, a strong external setting can feel like it produces a certain type of person - the dour Newfoundland fishermen in Proulx's The Shipping News for example, or the streetwise urchin in Dickens' London slums.
In this way you could even start your process with a setting you find compelling. From this setting you create the type of characters that might inhabit it, and from these characters and their conflicts, comes the story.
This is an alternative to creating a story out of a character at conflict with his or her surroundings.
Describe a landscape in such a way that it might help explain the behaviour of the people who live there. For example, a series of derelict factories might explain the large numbers of people hanging around corners or looking for a way out.
Setting and Emotion
The description of a setting can convey the emotions you want to portray. A church steeple, for example, will be described very differently by someone on a day when they have lost their job compared with a day when they have fallen in love. It is vital to get into the habit of conveying emotions through description without naming the emotions. This lets the reader make the discovery for themselves.
This will be developed more when we start talking about point of view, but it is important to remember that in a good story a description of a setting will not only be about the setting, it will be about the people in that setting, or the character who is describing that setting.
Sometimes this can be a great way of creating tension - seeing a sad place in a happy mood can set up a scene for some changes later down the line, when the place is a scene for something unhappy, or vice versa.
Choose a setting with a strong atmosphere - a wood, a graveyard, a park or a street at night for example, and describe it as if you have just had some terrible news. Then describe it again as if you have had some wonderful news. You might find it easier if you decide exactly what the news is.
What your characters own, and how they view, inhabit and furnish their 'spaces' will reveal them to readers and generate stories.