Writing Descriptive Settings

Setting is defined simply as the


Setting is where and when the story, narrative, or action occurs.
Certain events that can logically happen in one location cannot happen in another. If your main character is hacking through the jungles of South America, it is not at all likely he/she will be mauled by a polar bear! It isn't going to happen, is it?

And if your character is living in the 1700s, it is unwise to ask the reader to believe that a biplane lands in a nearby cornfield (unless you are writing a time travel story). Setting limits narration, so choose your settings very carefully. Settings can also significantly define character. (Take me there.)

To create engaging and believabe setting, remember that establishing setting is a descriptive writing task. To write descriptively, you must remember that everything you know of your environment is obtained through your five senses. Imagine that you cannot see, hear, feel, taste, or smell. How would you even know another person was in the room with you? You can bump into them, but not know because you cannot feel. You cannot hear their voice or movements. You cannot see them. You cannot smell her perfume or his aftershave. You are totally isolated, aren't you?

The same is true for your readers. If you do not show them, they will not know. And the only way to show them your setting is to honor their need for sensory input.

Here arises a great mischief, if you are not wise. There is a big difference between describing a scene and evaluating a scene. Evaluations merely tell the reader how you felt about the sensory experience:

See what I mean? The reader knows how the writer feels about the situation, but has no idea of the experience itself.


Recreate the experience; don't merely evaluate it.


The reader is less interested in how the writer perceives things and more interested in receiving the sensory data needed to form his own opinion. If the writer wants to lead the reader to a particular perception, the writer must supply the necessary senory details. Examine the following two examples:

  1. The midway of the fair is a fun place to go. There is a lot of noise and excitement You see interesting things and have many different rides to choose from. All sorts of food is available, and it smells really good. The lights are pretty, too. I like to go to the fair.

  2. The hum of electric motors mixes with the giggles and excited chatter of little children running ahead of mothers and dads. Game booths line the isles, and carnies beckon you to come play ring toss or knock down bottles or shoot BB guns at silhouettes or throw darts at red and green balloons. And the rides call you to the Snapper, the Octopus, the Anti-Gravitron, the Pirate's Pendulum, and the Sling-Shot. The smell of juicey hot dogs and corn dogs, tangy with mustard, compete with caramel apples, pink and blue cotton candy, and funnel cakes. And bathing the games and rides and food booths and laughing people, twinkling, strobbing lights--green, red, yellow, blue--create a kaleidoscope of color.

Can you see the difference between 1 and 2? Of course you can! Sensory details are the key to writing description. That clearly goes for creating settings, too. Notice that in the second example, no evaluations were used or needed. I slanted the reader toward a good experience by selecting details I know most readers will find delightful. I do not need to tell the reader that I like the fair. The reader can tell by the details I present! Evaluations will not paint the picture. Example 1 is flat and unappealing.

And if I want the reader to know that I do not like the fair, I simply change the details I present. Consider the following:

Barkers everywhere try to rip you off, to steal your money with fixed games. Stale, over-priced food assaults your nose with its greasy, fried smell. The cries of lost children get lost amid the deafening generators. You must endure the stench of the cattle barns and step over vomit beneath brain-rattling rides. Stobe lights threaten every epileptic. Pick pockets lurk everywhere. The fair? Forget it!

See how I changed the reader's understanding of the fair? While the reader's experiences at the fair may be very different from mine, the reader clearly understands how the writer feels about the fair. Evaluative words are not necessary when specific sensory details are given.

To summarize, setting

To recreate a setting in the mind of the reader, the writer must use specific words. Vague, abstract, or evaluative words can not accomplish the mission. There are no generalities in the world!


You never saw a generality in the real world because they do not exist!


Why use the word "dog"? Does it create a specific picture in the mind of the reader? Not much of one. But the words "fluffy German shepherd puppy" do create a specific image, don't they? Why? Because there are no generic dogs in the universe! Every dog that followed you home from school was the only dog that was that dog!


So you never saw a dog; you always saw the dog!


And each dog is unique in the way it barks, plays, looks, etc. Even though pure breed dogs look very similar, they do not have the same personality. Generic words cannot capture differences. Only specific words can capture differences. And differences are what makes choices important. If differences do not matter, then perhaps you will not mind my choosing your spouse. After all, spouses are spouses, right? Wrong! The differences matter. The word dog does not, cannot, delineate significant differences. That is the job of specific nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Use them!

Will that make your writing longer? Probably. But remember this:


Writing is not better because it is longer. It is longer because it is better.


What does that mean? It means that merely adding vague words to your writing will not improve it. You will simply have a lot more trash. But if you add concrete, specific, descriptive words to your writings, your manuscript will naturally get longer, but it will also be much better! Focus on the quality of your writing, and let the quantity take care of itself.