The Most Important Tip About Setting Descriptions

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

san-francisco-989032_1280How should you approach describing a setting?

I wager most writers come to that point in their project and immediately turn to the imagination. They let pictures form in their minds, then start to write down what they see. Some writers Google around and find an image they can look at before they begin.

Then it becomes a matter of choosing the details they want to include. However, there’s a subtle trap here that new (and even vet) writers may fall into: the setting description can end up as a dry stack of details:

The conference room was large and cold. It had a big table in the middle, with black leather chairs all around. There was a bookcase on the far side of the room and a credenza with a coffee maker on the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave a view of the city.

Now, there’s nothing illegal about this. It does the job in a functional way. But it’s also an opportunity lost. A great setting description doesn’t just paint a picture; it draws the reader deeper into the marrow of the story and the heart of the character.

Which brings me to the most important tip you’ll ever get about writing setting descriptions: 

You describe a scene not so the reader can see it, but so the reader can feel it. And the way they feel it is by knowing how the point-of -view character feels about it.

That’s why I’ve developed a seven-step checklist for myself for writing a setting description. It takes a little extra time, but I’ve determined that the stylistic ROI (return on investment) is worth it. Here we go:

  1. How do you want your character to feel about the setting?

This is the crucial first step, and it’s a strategic one. You know where you are in your story and what the character’s attitudes and emotional landscape are. You know what’s going to happen in the scene (note to pantsers: you’ve at least got some idea). Now you’re going to set the scene through the character’s perceptions about it. Your decision can be as simple as: I want my character to feel intimidated.

Note that you don’t have to name the emotion when you write the scene. In fact, it’s better not to. Let the setting itself create the feeling.

  1. Using the sense of sight, describe the things the character notices.

The items that come into your mind will now be filtered through the POV character. If you want to locate a picture via the Internet, go ahead. But as you look at it, pretend you are the character and try to feel what she feels. Make a list of the items your character doesn’t just see, but notices. This is a crucial distinction. We focus on different things depending on our mood. If you’re unhappy and you walk into a sunny hotel foyer, you might ignore the fancy art and notice instead a droopy plant.

Do a little voice journaling. Have the character talk to you in her own voice, expressing her feelings about what she notices.

  1. Use the other senses to add to the feeling.

Imagine what the character might hear, smell, touch, or even in some cases taste. Make a list.

  1. Look at the items from Steps 2 & 3 and highlight the ones that work best.

That didn’t take long, did it? Five to ten minutes. But if you’re having fun, do more!

  1. Bonus Supercharger: What is the character’s personal interpretation of the place?

Here is a powerful technique used by some of our best writers: when the character offers his own interpretation of the setting, it not only creates a sense of place, but also deepens the character for the reader. Double score!

Here are a couple of examples. This is from Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript:

The Homicide Division was third floor rear, with a view of the Fryalator vent from the coffee shop in the alley and the soft perfume of griddle and grease mixing with the indigenous smell of cigar smoke and sweat and something else, maybe generations of scared people. 

Parker uses sight and smell, but also adds generations of scared people. That’s from inside Spenser. That’s his own impression of the place. It tells me as much about Spenser as it does the setting.

Here’s a longer impressionistic description from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee mystery, The Quick Red Fox. These are McGee’s feelings about San Francisco. (I apologize to all my friends in the City by the Bay!)

And so we drove back to the heart of the city. San Francisco is the most depressing city in America. The comelatelys might not think so. They may be enchanted by the steep streets up Nob and Russian and Telegraph, by the sea mystery of the Bridge over to redwood country on a foggy night, by the urban compartmentalization of Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, by the smartness of the women and the city’s iron clutch on culture. It might look just fine to the new ones.

But there are too many of us who used to love her. She was like a wild classy kook of a gal, one of those rain-walkers, laughing gray eyes, tousle of dark hair –– sea misty, a little and lively lady, who could laugh at you or with you, and at herself when needs be. A sayer of strange and lovely things. A girl to be in love with, with love like a heady magic.

But she had lost it, boy. She used to give it away, and now she sells it to the tourists. She imitates herself … The things she says now are mechanical and memorized. She overcharges for cynical services.

I think it’s fair to say we know how McGee feels about San Francisco! One of the things that made this series so popular was passages like the above, where McGee riffs on such matters as setting, social mores and current events.

  1. Write the description using active verbs and concrete images.

At this point, let me advise you to overwrite the description. Don’t try to get this perfect the first time through. Feel it first.

  1. Let the scene rest, then edit.

I don’t do heavy edits as I’m writing a first draft. But I do go over my previous day’s work for style and obvious fixes. So come back to your scene the next day, or at least after a time away from it, and keep the following in mind as you edit:

Check all adverbs with a loaded pencil

If an adverb can be cut without losing anything (which is usually the case) cut it. Strive for a stronger verb instead. He shuffled across the room is better than He walked slowly across the room.

Check all adjectives

First, ask if they’re necessary. Test them. Sometimes cutting them makes the description more immediate.

But adjectives are in our language for a reason. If you keep them, see if you can make them more vivid. Icy may be better than cold, etc.

Beef up what’s soggy 

You may find a spot that needs more descriptive power. Here’s what I do in such a case. I write [MORE] in that spot then open up a blank TextEdit document. I like using TextEdit because it doesn’t feel “permanent” and I can play around. I’ll take several minutes to explore the moment, writing fast and loose, and then I’ll look it over and choose what I like. It may be just one line, or even one word. But if it’s the right line or word, the exercise is well worth it.

You don’t always have to describe a setting at the beginning of a scene

Vary where you put the description. At the top is fine, but sometimes get into the action first. Or start with dialogue. Then drop in the setting description. Readers won’t mind waiting if something interesting is going on.

You don’t have to describe everything at once

You can dribble in bits of description as you go along. This is especially effective as the intensity of the scene increases. Your POV character can notice something that wasn’t evident before, in keeping with the tone of the scene. Hemingway did this famously in his story “Soldier’s Home,” when the young man back home after World War I is feeling hectored at breakfast by his worried mother. Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

Know when less is more, and when more is more

Deciding how much description to use for a setting is not a matter of formula. But here’s a little tip that will help: the more intense the emotions inside the character, the more you include in description.

For example, in an opening scene where the character is not yet in the hot crucible of conflict, maybe the description is brief. The first scene in Lawrence Block’s story, “A Candle for the Bag Lady,” has Matthew Scudder sitting in Armstrong’s, a bar. He describes it this way:

The lunch crowd was gone except for a couple of stragglers in front whose voices were starting to thicken with alcohol.

Block leaves it at that, because this is “normal” Scudder. He’s not feeling anything intensely yet.

But later, as Scudder is trying to find out who brutally murdered Mary Alice Redfield –– the “shopping bag lady” who inexplicably left him a sum of money in her will –– he investigates her last known residence:

Mary Alice Redfield’s home for the last six or seven years of her life had started out as an old Rent Law tenement, built around the turn of the century, six stories tall, faced in red-brown brick, with four apartments to the floor. Now all of those little apartments had been carved into single rooms as if they were election districts gerrymandered by a maniac. There was a communal bathroom on each floor and you didn’t need a map to find it.

So there you have it, friends. With a little thought and planning, you can turn run-of-the-mill descriptions into moments of stylistic magic. That’s the kind of writing that gets rewarded with word-of-mouth and future purchases.

So what is your approach to description?

What authors do you admire who do it well?

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36 thoughts on “The Most Important Tip About Setting Descriptions

  1. I’m loving how the recent theme here at TKZ seems to be “get into the head of your characters!” One of my crit partners is a computer programmer, and we came up with an acronym when he starts making sure there’s no “line of code” left out of his descriptions. I’m glad to say that over the years we’ve been together, he’s gotten a lot better about making sure it’s the character doing the describing, and not the computer programmer.

    (The acronym, for those who are curious is “STCP” — Steve the Computer Programmer.)

    • In old-school Omniscient POV (e.g., Dickens) the sense was filtered through the author, which can still work. But it requires a strong and unapologetic voice (e.g., Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins).

      Nice to hear about your good crit partnership, Terry.

  2. Great focus on setting, Jim. I love the idea of a reader “feeling” the setting and the line “A great setting description doesn’t just paint a picture; it draws the reader deeper into the marrow of the story and the heart of the character.”

    I’m a huge fan of an evocative setting. This post is a gem of detail. Yes, great minds…

    Have a good Sunday.

  3. An absolutely crucial and wonderful post. I thought I already knew about writing powerful settings, but this post went deeper.

    Thank you.

  4. Jim, thanks for a great post.

    I feel privileged to have been hanging around TKZ long enough that when you asked the original question – “How should you approach describing a setting? – I immediately thought “through the eyes of the POV character.” At least I got one of the senses right.

    I’ve found that I’m enjoying, more and more, novels with first person POV for the protagonist and lots of internal dialogue. There’s a running commentary on the setting, the other characters, the plot, everything.

    In contrast, some time ago, I got a whole box of the alphabet mystery series. At least in one of the earliest books, it seemed that the author bounced back and forth from a thorough description of setting, then dialogue, then a thorough description of setting, then … I finally laid the book aside.

    Thanks for the post. Great approach to setting.

    By the way, I’m finishing up THE MENTAL GAME OF WRITING. It’s great advice. Thanks, Coach!

    • Thanks, Steve. I love first person POV, too. Writing it and reading it, when it’s done well. Like MacDonald and Chandler. I do believe the same sense of immediacy can be accomplished in third person, if the author is aware and doesn’t let a sense of “distance” creep in.

  5. I have struggled with writing description in story for odd reasons. My favorite author, Zane Grey, wrote beautiful description that mesmerized me–he could take me to places like no other author (before or since) and made place a character too. I realize his long, languid style would not work with most ‘I’m-in-a-hurry-and-I-have-ADHD’ readers today, but I loved it. There’s a scene in one of his books where he describes trapping wild horses near some caves that I could read a billion times over–I literally feel I was right there experiencing the thrill of the whole thing.

    Ironically, as a writer, I have the opposite problem–I don’t use setting well in my stories. If I had to rate myself on a variety of fiction aspects on a scale of 1-10, I’d have to give myself a 3 for use of setting. I use it too little & when I DO use it I don’t use it well (I think I must’ve been intimidated by ZG.)

    Maybe it’s the right blog post at the right time but this post on setting seems to have smashed through a mental barrier for me. As soon as I read the part about writing so that we know how the POV character feels about it, a line flashed into my head right away regarding a POV character from one of my WIPs so I immediately went and wrote it down. COOL!

    And I know you know whereof you speak because the one thing that stands out to me when I read your fiction is your sense of pride in place that comes through every time–it’s what I tend to notice first in a book, if an author uses setting well.

    I think a lot of authors use setting in a very utilitarian way. For me, even if I don’t execute well, setting is character.

    • Thanks, BK. Always glad when a post like this provides abit of a breakthrough.

      Your man Zane could describe a setting all right, through the character:

      Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. – Riders of the Purple Sage

      The POV character, a Mormon woman, would see a “monument.” The whole passage, which goes on, is mystical.

      And yes, I love my town, warts and all. I love how each section has a different vibe. I go and soak it in, and try to capture it on the page. Thanks for the void word!

  6. Jim, Great advice, and some that’s not normally included in admonitions to writers. One additional comment–the sex of the POV character matters with regard to how they see the setting…or other characters, for that matter. My wife (my first reader) often points out that men and women have a different “take” on what they notice initially, what’s important, what stands out.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Richard, I think your wife is so right. Kind of a funny story … Years ago, my brother and I met a woman, very briefly, at a park where we were walking dogs. After she walked away, my brother said, “Wow. What a beautiful girl.” I said, “Really? I’m surprised you say that. I didn’t think she was very pretty at all. Her eyes were kind of crossed and she had what looked like a broken nose.” He said, “Oh, really? I didn’t really notice her face.”

      🙂

      ~ Charlie

  7. James, thank you so much for the great advice. I especially appreciate the part about putting in the character’s interpretation of the place. And having the emotion match the intensity of the description.

    By the way, just finished your new book, “The Mental Game of Writing”. LOVED it. As soon as I finished it, I turned to the beginning to read it again. Very useful tips, and like most of your books on writing, it motivated me to write. I found it inspiring. Thank you!! Can’t wait for the next one!

    ~ Charlie 🙂

      • As I read this post I realised I had written two or three scenes in my WIP without including any description of where my characters were. They were just chunks of dialogue. I am such a newbie. Although I had already realised I needed more in these scenes than just dialogue, I wasn’t sure how to improve them. Doh! Include the setting.

        I made the mistake of reading “The Mental Art of Writing” just before bed the other night, then spent half the night wanting to write instead of sleeping. A great inspirational book!

  8. Excellent post, and how cool that it dovetails, as Terry points out, with our recent discussions here of deep POV.

    But your excerpt about San Francisco by MacDonald depressed the hell out me. I first saw San Fran in 1969 and was dazzled. It has been my go-to vacation city in this country ever since, but when I was there two years ago, something vital had been lost in the fumes of the dot-com buses. Funny that MacDonald (and McGee) had the same complaint way back in 1964! Some of the best descriptions of San Francisco can be found in Herb Caen’s columns from the Chronicle. He was the last of the great dot-dot-dot columnists and could spin a phrase with the best of novelists. I heartily recommend his collections, “Bagdad by the Bay” and “Herb Caen’s San Francisco.”

    Here’s one my favorite Caen-isms: “A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gaze at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 A.M. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak in dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.”

    • Kris, that bit from MacDonald actually goes on for another paragraph or two, and guess what? He mentions Caen also! How he’s trying to keep the old magic, but it isn’t working.

      I remember reading Caen, and liking his style, though as an Angeleno I would bristle over his snarks about us (jealous!). I of course preferred the great Times columnists: Jack Smith and Al Martinez!

  9. Another good post, and like Kris, my feelings for San Francisco have changed — for the worst. In the early 1970s, it was fun and free-wheeling. By the late 80s, I was frightened to walk down the street in a so-called “good” neighborhood. Aggressive homeless men demanded money. Social problems had overwhelmed the city and there seemed to be no solution.

  10. Hi Jim,
    Love writing description for settings. And in a first draft I almost always forget about the sense of smell and have to go back and add it in later. It makes a book so much richer for me if the author is adept at using our olfactory sense. I loved, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. The first paragraph in the book engulfs the reader in the sense of smell.

    You said, “. . . when the character offers his own interpretation of the setting, it not only creates a sense of place, but also deepens the character for the reader. Double score!” That’s so true. Now every time I read a book I want to know what the character smells throughout their adventure. Thanks for sharing your expertise, you and all the other TKZ authors always make me think a little deeper about a subject.

  11. Jim, another great post I’ll bookmark.

    The closely related themes in this week’s posts by you, Kris, Jordan, and Joe are some of the best craft advice I’ve ever read. The themes of deep POV, characterization, and filtering setting/description through the character’s senses/attitudes really inspired me.

    In fact, I kept meaning to comment on earlier posts, but was too eager to get to my WIP to play with these wonderful tools you shared.

    A big thank you to all of you!

    • Debbie, we are glad to hear it. We love teaching the craft. It’s why TKZ has been a WD top blog for writers. And we appreciate our community. Thanks for being part of it.

  12. This is a very important post for me and my WIP. My setting is an real town, my old hometown. I haven’t been there for years, so I am going on memories. It is important to see this from the eyes of a woman (a madam) from 1871. I questioned how to do the setting. Much of it is not known, due to the time period, yet there are descriptions. This definitely helps. I need to keep myself out of it and focus on how she experiences it. Thanks once again for your invaluable advice. I have bookmarked this for later. 🙂

    • And the nice thing is you can make up the perceptions of your character based on her backstory. That adds to whatever is fact-based. That’s why we write fiction. We can make stuff up and call it research!

  13. I read this in Joyce Carol Oates’s EXPENSIVE PEOPLE this morning and it was with me all day. POV of the (typically arch) teenage narrator from a 1960s childhood memory: “How lovely the El Dorado Beauty Salon is! (I wonder if it still stands.) Imagine a panoramic confusion of plush pink and fragile gold, of slick plastic evergreens perched high atop plastic pillars. Imagine the sweet lisping strains of music that seem to be engendered out of the very air itself. Imagine the many ladies moving about, smoking cigarettes, their hair bunched up in dozens of pink rollers, like bobbins. Imagine the forbidden archways, done in gold, with baroque signs above them: Tinting Room, Pedicure Room, Wig Room, Electrolysis Room. A glimpse of more beauty inside, ornate mirrors, black porcelain sinks, stools, couches, big gold ashtrays. Ah, this is the other side of suburbia’s public heaven!–the wings, the backstage, the private dressing rooms of the beautiful.”

  14. This is a masterfully-written article that I know I’ll read and share again and again. I especially like your advice to know when “more is less.” If a character lives in a house, he sees the same pictures hanging on the wall and such every day. He’s not going to notice the things he sees routinely, like the rich colors of a painting, unless a memory or something triggers those thoughts. Instead, he’ll notice what’s different, like if a picture is suddenly hanging crooked on the wall. Someone seeing a place for the first time will generally notice more details.

    I agree that you don’t always have to describe the setting at the beginning of a scene. Jake Vander Ark wrote a book called “Put The Cat in The Oven Before You Describe The Kitchen.” The title made me laugh, but it’s really pretty good advice. Readers these days have so many distractions and often skim descriptions unless something interesting is happening first.

    Your article is a gem, and I’ll refer to it often when I need inspiration. Thanks for sharing this. Good stuff, all of it.

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