Stronger Setting Details

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Sensory Details Put Readers On-Location

Where? Where does your story take place? If it’s in Barrow, Alaska, then I’d better see the Arctic Ocean, the ice jutting up in sharp columns as it is pushed against the shore. If it’s on a horse ranch, when you walk into the barn, I’d better smell that horse smell.

You can’t just tell me that I’m in the back of a fast food restaurant. I’d better smell that stale grease, hear the sizzle of fries cooking and ignore the kid with a cold who wipes at his nose with the back of his hand just before he scoops up the fries for the next customer and the other kid who licks a finger, runs it through a line of spilled salt and licks it off and then reaches over to slap the thin patty onto the hamburger.

Details. If real estate is all about location, location, location, then setting is all about details, details, details. Use every sense: hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling and smelling.

A good exercise is to write down at least three specific details for each sense before you start writing a scene. By specific I mean as specific as you can make it. Not just a dog. Not just a poodle. But a tawny poodle with unclipped hair that drags its right hind leg when it walks. When you actually write, you may choose to use the more generic description because you don’t want to focus that much attention on the dog. But by writing specifics during the prewriting phase, it gives you choices.

Also, as the scene/situation develops and things change, you may need to stop and repeat this, so that you are constantly aware of the sensory details. Try to actually use three senses in each scene, so that it’s anchored in reality.

Tasting and smelling are the hardest, depending on the situation, but try hard to write something for these. Please don’t fall back on generic descriptions: it smelled smoky. That may be fine, but can you sharpen that description by being more specific? It smelled like burned hair.

If you have more visual details than anything else, you’re probably a visual learner. More auditory details indicates an auditory learner. The point is to learn your bias and then work to strengthen the other senses.

Details Make Boring Settings Emotional

My grandmother was in the hospital, dying from old age: she was 99 years old. But the situation was made more poignant by the details. This focuses mostly on visual details. Would it benefit from other senses?

Her thin white hair wisped around her face, making her look like a wrinkled pixie who was lost in the white pillow. Crawling on the pillow, the wall, in the florescent light above her were hundreds of orange and black lady bugs. They seemed to respect her, staying around her, but never getting on her, as if even their fragile weight would be enough to send her into the next world.

The hospital staff said they had an infestation of lady bugs, which had somehow come in through the ER, and were slowly moving up from floor to floor. As a room became infested, the staff would empty the room, spray–which only managed to send the lady bugs through the ventilation up to the next floor.

When the lady bugs reached the top floor, I asked, would they find out way out and fly out and up toward the heavens?

1 Comment
  • Cindy LYnn Jacobs
    April 11, 2012

    This is very helpful. I am going to implement the exercise you mentioned. Thanks. :0)