The devil, it’s said, is in the details. So, too, is much of the work of a writer. Too little detail leaves your characters wandering through the narrative equivalent of an empty stage. Too much, and you end up with great blocks of description that tempt the reader to skip and skim, looking for the action.
To set your stage, it’s important to choose the most appropriate, vivid details possible. It’s equally important to present those details in a way that will engage the reader. The following four techniques can help.
1) Reveal setting through motion.
Let your description unfold as a character moves through the scene. Consider which details your character would notice immediately, and which might register more slowly. Let your character encounter those details interactively.
Suppose, for example, that your heroine, an “Orphan Annie” of humble origins, has entered a millionaire’s mansion. What would she notice first? How would she react to her surroundings?
Let her observe how soft the rich Persian carpet feels underfoot, how it muffles her footfalls, how she’s tempted to remove her shoes. Don’t tell us the sofa is soft until she actually sinks into it. Let her smell the fragrance of hothouse flowers filling a cut-crystal vase.
Use active verbs to set the scene. Instead of saying “a heavy marble table dominated the room,” force your character to detour around it. Instead of explaining that “light glittered and danced from the crystal chandelier,” let your character blink at the prismatic display.
“Walking through” a description breaks the details into bite-sized nuggets, and scatters those nuggets throughout the scene so that the reader never feels overwhelmed or bored.
2) Reveal setting through a character’s level of experience.
What your character knows will directly influence what she sees. Your orphan may not know whether the carpet is Persian or Moroccan, or even whether it’s wool or polyester. If these details are important, how can you convey them?
You could, of course, let the haughty owner of the mansion point out your heroine’s ignorance. Or, you could write the scene from the owner’s perspective. Keep in mind, however, that different characters will perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the setting.
Imagine, for example, that you’re describing a stretch of windswept coastline from the perspective of a local fisherman’s son. What would he notice? From the color of the sky or changes in the wind, he might make deductions about tomorrow’s weather and sailing conditions. When he notices seabirds wheeling against the clouds, he doesn’t just see “gulls,” but terns and gannets and petrels — easily identified by the shape of their wings or patterns of their flight.
Equally important are the things he might not notice. Being so familiar with the area, he might pay little attention to the fantastic shapes of the rocks, or the gnarled driftwood littering the sand. He hardly notices the bite of the wind through his cable-knit sweater, and he’s oblivious to the stink of rotting kelp-mats that have washed ashore.
Now suppose a rich kid from the big city is trudging along that same beach. Bundled to the teeth in the latest Northwest Outfitters jacket, he’s still shivering — and can’t imagine why the lad beside him isn’t freezing to death. He keeps stumbling over half-buried pieces of driftwood, and fears that the sand is ruining his Doc Martens. From the way the waves pound against the beach, he thinks a major storm is brewing. The very thought of bad weather makes him nauseous, as does the stench of rotting seaweed (he doesn’t think of it as “kelp”) and dead fish.
Each of these characters’ perceptions of the beach will be profoundly influenced by his experience. “Familiar,” however, needn’t imply a positive outlook, while “unfamiliar” needn’t mean “negative.” Your city kid might, in fact, regard the beach as an idyllic vacation spot — rugged, romantic, isolated, just the place to make him feel he’s really getting in touch with nature. The fisherman’s son, on the other hand, may loathe the ocean, feeling trapped by the whims of wind and weather. Which brings us to the next point:
3) Reveal setting through the mood of your character.
What we see is profoundly influenced by what we feel. The same should be true for our characters. Filtering a scene through a character’s feelings can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”
Suppose, for example, that your heroine — a spunky young girl on holiday — is strolling an archetypal stretch of British moorland. Across the blossoming gorse, she sees the ruins of some ancient watchtower, little more than a jumble of stones crowning the next hill (or “tor,” as her guidebook puts it).
The temptation to explore is irresistible. Flicking dandelion heads with her walking stick, our heroine hikes up the slope, breathing the scents of grass and clover, admiring the lichen patterns on the granite boulders. At last, warmed by the sun and her exertions, she leans back against a stone and watches clouds drift overhead like fuzzy sheep herded by a gentle wind. A falcon shrills from a nearby hollow, its cry a pleasant reminder of how far she has come from the dirty high school she so despises.
A pleasant picture? By now, your reader might be considering travel arrangements to Dartmoor. But what if your heroine is in a different mood? What if she has become separated from her tour group and is lost? Perhaps she started across the moor because she thought she saw a dwelling — but was dismayed to find that it was only a grey, creepy ruin. The tower’s scattered stones, half-buried in weeds and tangled grasses, remind her of grave markers worn faceless with time. Its silent emptiness speaks of secrets, of a desolation that welcomes no trespassers. Though the sun is high, scudding clouds cast a pall over the landscape, and the eerie, lonesome cry of some unseen bird reminds her just how far she is from home.
When this traveler looks at the gorse, she sees thorns, not blossoms. When she looks at clouds, she sees no fanciful shapes, only the threat of rain. She wants out of this situation — while your reader is on the edge of his seat, expecting something far worse than a ruin to appear on this character’s horizon!
4) Reveal setting through the senses.
A character’s perception of a setting will influence and be influenced by the senses. Our stranded hiker, for example, may not notice the fragrance of the grass, but she will be keenly aware of the cold wind. Our city kid notices odors the fisherman’s son ignores, while the latter detects subtle variations in the color of the sky that are meaningless to the former.
Different sensory inputs evoke different reactions. For example, visual information tends to be processed primarily at the cognitive level: We make decisions and take action based on what we see. When we describe a scene in terms of visual inputs, we are appealing to the reader’s intellect.
Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear. Think of the effects of a favorite piece of music, the sound of a person’s voice, the whistle of a train. In conversation, tone of voice is a more reliable indicator of mood and meaning than words alone. Sounds can make us shudder, shiver, jump — or relax and smile. Scene that include sounds — fingers scraping a blackboard, the distant baying of a hound — are more likely to evoke an emotional response.
Smell has the remarkable ability to evoke memories. While not everyone is taken straight to childhood by “the smell of bread baking,” we all have olfactory memories that can trigger a scene, or a recollection of an event or person. Think of someone’s perfume, the smell of new-car leather, the odor of wet dog. Then describe that smell effectively, and your reader is there.
Touch evokes a sensory response. Let your reader feel the silkiness of a cat’s fur, the roughness of castle stones, the prickly warmth of Dad’s flannel shirt. Let your heroine’s feet ache, let the wind raise goosebumps on her flesh, let the gorse thorns draw blood.
Finally, there is taste, which is closely related to smell in its ability to evoke memories. Taste, however, is perhaps the most difficult to incorporate into a setting; often, it simply doesn’t belong there. Your heroine isn’t going to start licking the castle stones, and it isn’t time for lunch. As in real life, “taste” images should be used sparingly and appropriately.
The goal of description is to create a well-designed set that provides the perfect background for your characters — and that stays in the background, without overwhelming the scene or interrupting the story. In real life, we explore our surroundings through our actions, experience them through our senses, understand (or fail to understand) them through our knowledge and experience, and respond to them through our emotions. When your characters do the same, you’ll keep your readers turning pages — and not just because they’re waiting for something interesting to happen!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.