Using Setting & Description in Creative, yet Crucial Ways

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Setting: “Where am I? And why should I care?”

Where are we? Lake Michigan, January 1 for the Polar Bear Plunge

Readers ask these two questions at the beginning of every story. We often focus on the second question, how to hook a reader. But orienting the reader is just as important. They need to know the setting: this is a wider question than just the geographic location, and can include questions about what historical time period, emotional territory, or phase of a relationship. They re-ask these same questions at the beginning of every chapter or major change in setting.

The Importance of Sensory Details

Almost everything you’ll need to know about setting and description can be encapsulated in a single exercise about using sensory details. Let’s go over the exercise first, then see how it applies.

Before you start to write a scene, it’s helpful to stop and think about the sensory details of the situation. That is, what would your character see, hear, smell, taste or feel? Using the senses is self-explanatory, except the feeling sense, where you want to emphasize temperature and texture, or the kinesthetics of how it feels for this character to move in space.

I like to stop, close my eyes and imagine that I’m the character – a young girl, and that I’m at the opening of a cave about to go in.

  • See: Moss clinging to the rock overhead, water oozing/trickling over rock, a slow dimming of light until it’s just darkness in the distance
  • Hear: water dripping, heart thumping with fear
  • Taste: damp air, musty air
  • Smell: musty air, onion-stink of sweat
  • Touch: slippery rock, uneven path, sweaty palms, a cool breeze from the cave, rocking back and forth from heel to toe

Once I have the details firmly in mind, I start to write:

I hesitated, my heart thumping, at the boundary between light and dark. From the overhead clumps of moss, cold drops plopped into my hair, a water clock ticking away the precious seconds. The musty smell, was it from bats? Or was there something more sinister in this cave?

I don’t worry about using all the sensory details I wrote down in the exercise, and I rearrange them or add to them as I write. What I’ve accomplished, though, in 46 words is to tell the reader where we are: at a cave opening, in a fearful place, under a time constraint, at a crossing point and maybe a point of no return.

Sensory details are the basis of active fiction that puts the reader directly into a story. David Morrell, author of the book about Rambo entitled, First Blood, and over 30 other thrillers, says he tries to anchor every scene with details from at least three different senses. This grounds the fiction in our common experience as humans: it is through our senses that we encounter and understand our world.

You can easily evaluate how well you’re doing on using a variety of senses. Assign a color to each of the senses, then use markers to highlight the sensory details you used in a section of your story. Often, writers tend to use one sense more than the others. If you’re a visual learner, you may include great visual details, but few auditory details. If you’re an auditory learner, you may emphasize sounds to the exclusion of visual details. Everyone struggles with smell and taste. It partly depends on the setting of your story whether there are any appropriate smells or tastes. Certainly, a Christmas banquet would allow for a deeper exploration of these senses. But even in our cave setting there were some smells and tastes. Push to find these, because they’ll add richness and evoke strong memories in your readers. Think of the smell of cinnamon at Christmas.

Everyone should add more touch details, it’s a neglected sense. Kinesthetic details are usually translated into strong verbs, for example: She swung her arms in a wide circle.

Your characters are moving around, doing things, reacting to things and you should search for strong verbs to express this action. In the cave paragraph, what if I reworded the opening a bit?

My toe caught a rock and I stumbled, catching myself against the slimy wall. My heart thumped. I was at the boundary of light and dark.

A final tip in using this exercise is to be as specific as possible.

  • Poor visual detail: a dog
  • Better visual detail: a pit bull

Once you have a specific noun, then you can add modifiers – and not before.

  • Poor use of modifiers: a scary dog
  • Better use of modifiers: a scarred pit bull that limped

It works for verbs, too. Choose specific, precise verbs.
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    li>Poor verb choice: Water fell onto my head.
  • Better verb choice: Water plopped onto my head.

Once the verb is specific, then you can add modifiers – and not before.

  • Poor use of adverbs: Water fell quickly onto my head.
  • Better use of adverbs: Water plopped rhythmically onto my head.

SENSORY DETAILS CHANGE WHEN THE SETTING CHANGES

The sensory detail exercise is flexible and allows a writer to quickly orient readers to a variety of settings.

  1. Specific Location
    A friend was writing a story about a school in Barrow, Alaska. The school itself wasn’t a problem, the story put me inside a school building. But that school could have been picked up and set down in Hawaii or Arkansas. When she rewrote the story, a student looked out the window toward the sea. She wrote something like this:

    Jagged stalagtites of ice hugged the shoreline, marking where the ice floes slammed against the shore.

  2. Time of Day
    Often, a story starts and we have no idea of the time of day, or even the season of the year. Another friend was writing a story about an estranged couple. For various reasons, it was important that the story was set in December. Yet, there were no Christmas decorations, no Christmas music playing at the stores they entered, no discussion of holiday celebrations or parties. In short, it could have been any time of year. When he added in the Christmas details, the story became more poignant as this usually happy time of year counter-pointed the breakup of the marriage.
  3. Historical time period.
    What if you wanted to immediately tell show-don’t-tell that we are in Medieval France, about to enter a cave? The actions can be almost the same, but it’s the selection of details that will change. In addition to the details above, I might add these.

    • See: homespun robes, torch made from rags soaked in pitch
    • Hear: melodic voices with French accent or occasional French word, hiss of torch
    • Taste: rough country food
    • Smell: (can’t think of anything different for smell)
    • Touch: the flap of rough homespun fabric on her knees

    Very little has changed here, except the homespun robe, torch and occasional French words. But the reader needs to know immediately that we’re in Medieval France, not in contemporary America.

    I hesitated, my heart thumping, at the boundary between light and dark. Fumbling with my pouch, I pulled out my flint and struck a spark. Would it light? Oui, just so. The torch sputtered, then flared. From overhead, cold water plopped into my hair, reminding me of my hours in the dungeons under Bordeax castle. The pungent torch hissed, an insistent whisper: time was running out. The musty smell, was it from bats? Or was there something more sinister in this cave?

    The language needs more work to give it a French flavor, but you can see how the torch and the brief hint of a castle and a dungeon adds orientation. Notice that the homespun robe didn’t get in there and that’s fine. The exercise of listing sensory details is meant to jumpstart ideas and to give you choices; it’s not a taskmaster.

  4. Phase of the relationship
    If your opening involves dialogue or characters meeting, one orientation for the reader is a hint of the relationship.

    Let’s give our cave visitor a friend:

    I hesitated, my heart thumping, at the boundary between light and dark. Luc fumbling with his pouch, pulling out a flint. His eyebrows lifted in a familiar gesture. I nodded and he struck a spark. My tar-soaked torch flamed brightly. From the overhead, cold water plopped into my hair, reminding me of my hours in the dungeons under Bordeax castle. The pungent torch hissed, an insistent whisper: time was running out. Luc slipped his hand in mind and squeezed. The rough callouses, his strength–they reassured me. Together, we took a step toward the dark. The musty smell, was it from bats? Or was there something more sinister in this cave?

    Luc is familiar, he takes her hand easily and it reassures her.

  5. Emotional setting, or mood
    Finally, you can completely change the mood of a piece by the selection of sensory details.

    I hesitated, my heart thumping, at the boundary between light and dark. Luc struck a spark and my tar-soaked torch flamed, casting a merry yellow circle. From the glossy moss overhead, cool water trickled into my hair, refreshing after the day’s heat. The pungent torch sizzled, a reminder of the castle feast to come this evening. Luc slipped his hand in mind and squeezed. The rough callouses, his strength–they enticed me. I tugged him, almost skipping forward in anticipation.

    The mood now is one of anticipation, not dread. Notice the different details: the torch flames instead of sputters; the glossy moss, instead of overhead clumps of moss; and so on.

    You can change the mood entirely by your choice of sensory details. Notice, too, that these changes are often reflected in the verb choices: cool water trickled instead of cold water plopped; the torch sizzled instead of the torch hissed; and so on.

Purple Prose: Don’t Overdo Your Details

Can you go to far with this idea? Of course. The famous example is Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s opening sentence from Paul Clifford, written in 1830.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

It accomplishes the purpose. We know that it’s night, it’s stormy, that we’re in London, the lamps suggest a previous historical time period. However, most agree that this is overwritten. In practice, I find that few writers give enough detail and should push toward more. But if you get to this level, you may want to back off a bit.

When you open a story, you must answer the question, “Why should I care?” within the first couple hundred words. But don’t forget to orient the reader, too. “Where am I?” can easily be developed by the right choice of sensory details. Don’t forget to re-orient the reader when a setting changes or at the opening of every chapter.

OPENINGS TO STUDY:

Read each famous opening below (100 Best Lines from Novels http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/opening-lines/ ) and think about the questions, “Where am I?” and “Why should I care?” Does the author accomplish one or both in this opening sentence? Are sensory details used or not?

In the examples above, I used a variety of sensory details to make a point. Here, it’s clear that often it’s the choice of a single sensory detail, a single word that makes the difference.

  1. It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust, 1948
  2. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963.
  3. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts, 1933.
  4. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922.
  5. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 1966.
  6. —Money . . . in a voice that rustled. William Gaddis, J R, 1975.
  7. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984.
  8. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895.
  9. Psychics can see the color of time, it’s blue. Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away, 1986.
  10. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900.

2 Comments
  • KC Frantzen
    May 28, 2011

    What an excellent article. I’m printing it off and have already been thinking about my WIP.

    Thank you! As May sez, “PAWSOME!”

  • John Gordon
    June 29, 2013

    AND I WOULD ADD: What is your character feeling, remembering, anticipating?