Setting Descriptions and Improving Descriptive Writing

When writers are focused on characters, plot, and flow of a story, sometimes the development of something equally as important gets overlooked. Amazing characters and an engrossing story cannot stand on their own; the writer must put them in vivid, memorable locations. Part of what makes fiction writing so meaningful to many is the ability to travel to another world within the pages of a book, and authors who can clearly depict such a world will have readers hooked.

But what constitutes a well-written setting? Too much description can get boring for the reader, but too little leaves ambiguity. Simply ask yourself some questions and determine how it may benefit your reader.

Is the scene taking place outdoors? Consider the weather: is the sun bright and hot, warming the skin and making the character squint? Or is the night cool with a light breeze and stars so clearly visible that the character can identify constellations with the naked eye?

For an indoor setting, determine the type of room. Is it a lush living room with satin couches and custom-made sandalwood end tables, sun pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows? Or is it a musty studio apartment with creaking wood flooring and no air conditioning, a cockroach peeking out from a crevice in the floorboards?

What makes these decisions important is that the setting of a scene can have an effect on the characters. Standing in the hot sun might make a character sweat, adding body language such as wiping the brow or fanning themselves. The dialogue of characters gathered in a lush living room might be more formal. Not only do settings give your characters a place to be, but those settings improve character development.

Sometimes the tiniest of details can add more to the story than what you think. As an exercise, put yourself in the character’s shoes and look around. What do you see? I first learned of this exercise decades ago when a class assignment was to practice descriptive writing by describing a room in my house in detail, starting from directly in front of me and then moving around clockwise. As an example here, I will write a detailed description of a part of the room I’m in.

Directly in front of me near the corner of the room is a flat-screen TV, currently off. Three remotes lay in front of it, and a small cable box sits on a small shelf below the one the TV sits on. To the right of the TV is an old brown speaker with a VCR on top. The right wall is adorned with a line of four photo frames, each filled with a picture of my twin daughters, rewinding time with each photo left to right. In front of this wall is a small coffee table currently blanketed in toys ranging from plastic dinosaurs to cars to Barbie dolls to miniature animals. Beside the table is a small, soft, toddler-sized chair from my husband’s childhood. Covered in a faux wool fabric, it currently holds a genie doll with bright pink hair.

This is only a fraction of my current environment, and of course in a story situation not all of these details are necessary. But let’s pretend for a moment that this is the setting of a story; what bits of information might be useful? The photos of the children and the variety of toys tell a lot about who resides in the home. Perhaps the mention of the VCR and childhood chair depicts nostalgia as a character trait. But the placement of the remotes and the cable box would not add anything to the story.

Try this exercise either within your story’s environment to develop it directly, or in your own home or work space to practice descriptive writing. Either way, you will feel results in your writing.