Setting & Description

17 May

During my MA I had the choice of picking a course about description and setting and learning how to describe the perilous world inhabited by the characters currently in my head. Unfortunately they didn’t have a teacher for that…so it got cancelled. Since description is the only thing I find challenging in writing, I felt like curling up in the foetal position and cry until my face hurt. Instead, I just picked another course and ranted about it to fellow classmates. We even made voodoo dolls.

In any case, I thought it would help me (and possibly you) to do a blog post about this subject. So I’ll take you down to my writing lair and show you the jar labelled SETTING and see if we can figure out the correct dosage for the writing cauldron.

Setting is important, because it helps to paint the picture of the world you dip your reader in. You learn in which time and place the story takes place and it can sometimes even serve as a metaphor for the theme. When describing places, I like using my characters’ senses, so that the reader can ‘experience’ it the same way as the characters. You can list for yourself what the character will feel, hear, see, smell and taste and then use that in a paragraph. A character doesn’t necessarily need to use all five senses, you don’t have to overdo it and throw all kinds of sensory information at the reader. He’ll probably get dizzy. Because, even though setting is important, too much description can be a drag. Less is more. Back in the day it was okay to write several paragraphs that described the beauty of a raindrop on a leaf, but these days writing is much more fast-paced.

The devil is in the details. Or in this case, good description is in the details. Do you see a car? Or a black BMW? Do you see a dog? Or do you see German Shepherd? And keep in mind, show don’t tell. Is someone scared? Or are their eyes widened? Is a house in bad shape? Or is the paint chipped and the porch swing broken? Also choose specific verbs. Did it fall on the floor or scatter across it? Did he walk or saunter? Description of characters can add to the setting and both descriptions of places and characters can add to the mood of a story.

A sneaky way to insert description is when your characters are doing something. They spill something on their jeans or flower print dress. Or they grab something with their slender fingers.

They can also discuss their setting and for instance mention the décor of a room or the way someone looks. Of course there has to be a reason for them to mention this. Also describe what your characters would observe. If they don’t know much about architecture, they won’t be able to mention the correct terms when describing a building. And if they’re upset, they won’t notice how beautiful the soaps in their hotel room are, for instance.

I guess, again, the most important thing is less is more and show, don’t tell. If the idea of describing setting makes you lose your hair from stress at the mere thought, like with me, don’t worry about it too much during the first draft. Afterwards you can read up on tips and see what you find missing in your descriptions. For now, just write.


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