Writing Description: 2 Tools to Take Your Settings to the Next Level
October 14, 2019
Good morning writers! We talked about character development last Monday, so I thought we’d shake things up today and discuss writing description for your settings.
There’s SO MUCH material to talk about when it comes to settings––everything from your world as a whole to the minuscule details of a room.
Back in high school, I wrote the first several chapters of what would eventually become the book I’m currently working on. My dad was the first one to read these chapters, and he gave me some interesting feedback. He thought the whole thing was set in a desert.
I was baffled. The world I’d created was full of lush vegetation and sprawling mountain ranges, populated by farmers and hunter-gatherer societies.
Then he elaborated and said he might have gotten that impression because there wasn’t much description.
Ah, description, you fickle beast.
I had plenty of excuses for not writing description, not least among them a fear that I would do it badly and lose the reader’s interest. We’ll have a whole post on that problem before long. But my main problem was that the setting often developed in my head as I wrote––it just didn’t make it to actual words, on actual paper.
As I tried incorporating more description in my work, I found myself getting bored not just with the way I was writing the setting, but the spaces themselves. They were conventional, dull, and clearly thrown together.
What’s a writer to do?
Setting Profiles for Writing Description
Ever heard of character profiles? They’re a great way to ground your characters, but they can be easily adapted to ground your settings, too. And they make writing description so much easier.
You can use setting profiles for the world as a whole, a country in that world, a city in that country, a building in that city, and a room in that building. As you can see, it’s really useful for fantasy and science fiction writers, who have to create an entire world from scratch. But it works just as well for the smaller settings you’ll use in other genres. In fact, for my fantasy or sci-fi writers out there, don’t neglect the smaller spaces in your world––that’s where the description magic happens.
So, how do you create a setting profile?
I usually start out by outlining the setting’s importance to the story. Sometimes, this isn’t even a full sentence; other times, it’s a couple paragraphs. Whatever the setting needs.
You can also determine whether or not the space has significance to your protagonist––as a piece of their past, a hope for the future, a trigger for fear, an obstacle to overcome, etc. It’s also worth considering if this setting is significant to any other characters because their reactions to arriving or leaving the space may change depending on their history with it.
After that, I move on to the actual description of the room. This is your starting point for bringing characters into the space. Use the five senses. What can you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?
When a character walks into the room, what’s the first thing they see? What do they fail to notice?
How about sound? Are there whirring computers, the steady whooshing of AC, a fire crackling in the grate, the chatter of dozens of people, the whispers of just a few frightened ones?
Move onto smells. Dirty laundry, a plug-in wall scent, a baking cake, the nostril-burning scent of bleach . . . what’s already in the setting that would give off an aroma?
What about touch? Think about the textures in the room. Even if the character doesn’t physically touch anything, they may still notice them. Are the walls rough stone or smooth, clear glass? Is the floor hard or covered with a plush rug? How about the furniture? The clothes of the occupants? Now think about how the room itself feels––is it cold or hot, muggy or dry, open or deadly to the claustrophobe?
And finally, think about tastes. This is easy enough if it’s a kitchen or dining hall, but for a lot of settings, taste isn’t relevant. That’s okay. Taste in a room also doesn’t have to be confined only to food. Smells can be so thick the character can taste them, as can certain emotional states.
Once I’ve gathered some descriptors for my space, I work through the room’s vibe. How does it feel when your character enters it? Does it inspire a sense of nostalgia, adventure, doom?
Thinking about a setting’s vibe allows you to consciously play on the descriptors you’ve found to create a certain feeling not just in your character, but in your reader, as well. You wouldn’t want your character to be sneaking into an enemy base and not feel a sense of foreboding––unless they’re just that cocky. And even if your character is that cocky, you want your reader to feel a particular way at this moment, in this setting.
That said, when writing description, you don’t necessarily need to state the vibe or how the character feels. Usually, the setting’s visual, audial, and tactile components will provide you with the right vibe. But knowing the vibe you want helps you pick the right details to focus on.
Thinking Through the Space
Now, even if you’re not down with the idea of creating setting profiles, one thing you should do before writing is think through the space. Before you actually start writing the next scene, consider where it’s set and what peculiarities that setting supplies. You can be as on fire for this scene as you want, excited for the hell your characters are about to go through or the standoff they’re about to dominate, but the whole thing will fall flat if you just place them in a blank room.
I don’t always practice this before writing. Sometimes, I’m so eager to write the action or dialogue of a scene that I ignore the space on the first go-round. But I always do this when editing that scene later––it’s imperative to the final work.
Remember Jane, our protagonist from this post? As a lawyer, she will occupy several settings: her law firm, her office, courtrooms, meeting rooms, her apartment.
Visualize a Courtroom
Let’s say we’re about to write a scene with Jane in a courtroom––one of her earlier cases when she was just getting her feet wet. We may think, “Oh, it’s a courtroom, everybody knows what those look like.” Would we be wrong? No. Is that a lazy way to write? Yes.
Think through this space. What’s in a courtroom? A judge’s dais, the jury box, the gallery, tables for the prosecution and the defense. Great! Now, how tall are the ceilings? Do they loom high above, creating a sense of imposing grandeur, or are they low and dank, giving the whole proceeding a feel of grimy corruption?
What about the space within this space? Is there a lot of room to move around, or does it feel tight and cramped? How close are the jurors? Do they feel closer than they are, as if somehow they’re breathing down Jane’s neck, waiting for her to make a mistake?
How about details? Are there scratches on the defense table? Is it covered in papers? Does the opposition’s table look clear and free of clutter? Is the judge wearing glasses that glint in the light? Speaking of light, where does it come from? Grand, tall windows, mid century globe lights, or flickering fluorescents? What color are the walls and floor? What are they made of? Are the seats in the gallery pews, benches, or chairs? Cushioned, wood, or plastic? Is the jurisdiction’s seal anywhere? What about flags?
Everything in Moderation
You don’t have to answer every question, and you certainly don’t have to incorporate every detail into a scene. Pick the ones that express the feeling you want your character to have.
Don’t overload the reader with a full description of the space. Classical authors may have had the luxury of a patient audience, but modern-day readers (myself included) don’t want to spend a full page exploring a room. We want action, we just need to be able to ground ourselves in a space along the way.
So, here’s what I do when I think through a setting. First, I go through a randomized list of questions like the one above to help me add some detail.
Then, I close my eyes and imagine walking through the setting, unpopulated. Once I have a feel for it, once I can see those fluorescents flicker and feel the disgust at the sight of gum stuck to the bottom of one of the plastic chairs––then I populate the space.
I watch the jurors file in, a few of them talking quietly together. I turn to see Jane and her client take their seats, then the opposition march in, confident and derisive. The gallery is small, only Jane’s client’s mother and brother. Finally, the judge walks in, wig slightly askew, suppressing a burp. He’s so large he blocks the jurisdiction seal behind him entirely.
Once you can clearly envision the space and how its occupants move around in it, write your heart out!
The Pathetic Fallacy – A Fatal Flaw for Writing Description + A Lesson in Emotion
If you’ve ever taken a literature class, you may have heard of the pathetic fallacy. This is, at its base, when the setting reflects the action or the character’s mood. For example, if there’s a metaphorical storm on the horizon, an actual storm would also be looming. If the protagonist is depressed, their bath towel might hang limply on the hook. If happy, the trees would dance merrily in the wind.
While I don’t agree with the use of the pathetic fallacy itself except on very rare occasions, I do think it shows a valuable lesson for writing description.
Consider the courtroom situation above. If Jane is in a courtroom with high ceilings, grand windows, and a huge jurisdiction seal on the back wall, her changing feelings will interpret the same space differently.
Same Character + Two Emotional States = Different Interpretations
Let’s say it’s Jane’s first big case. She’s probably nervous, even afraid.
The sheer size of the room will be intimidating, making Jane feel small, not up to the challenge. The huge seal on the back wall will remind her of the massive weight of this case. The tall windows, whatever the weather outside, may make her feel exposed and vulnerable, or be a constant reminder of her inability to escape the courtroom as the situation gets worse and worse.
But if this is Jane’s hundredth case in a big courtroom like this, everything will be interpreted differently. If she notices the size, she’ll feel right at home in it. She’ll be comfortable because in her mind, her abilities fit the size of this room.
The seal will be an encouragement, a reminder of the values she fights for and the honor of her calling as a lawyer. The windows will be only a source of light, perhaps illuminating her notes on the case, providing clarity and confidence. Jane will likely notice more details in this situation, calm as she is. She’ll be able to appreciate the solemn faces of the jurors or fight annoyance over the uncouth whispering from the gallery.
So, while you might be tempted to have rain pound threateningly on the windows in the first situation and let sunlight stream boldly through the windows in the second, consider leaving the weather to do its own thing when writing description. Let your protagonist interpret the setting.
Final Thoughts on Writing Description
Every setting has different needs, so I encourage you to consider what’s important in each space before you write. Some settings need a lot of detail, others only one or two snippets to ground the reader because the action is so quick.
Take a look at your settings this week and see how you can bring them to life. Also, check back next Monday for some more insights on developing a rich, realistic setting for your novel. We’ll be talking specifically about worldbuilding for fantasy writers.