how to describe setting
Updated: Jun 18
I asked on Instagram what people wanted me to write my next blog post on. I was asked by @danielle_croy_ for advice on how to describe the scenes / settings that the characters are in.
Effective descriptions can transport your reader to another world and make your book feel real. In this post I'll share my 6 top tips for describing setting effectively.
1. Don’t overdo it
Readers are smart. While you’ll want to give a description of the setting so that the world feels real to the reader – you don’t need describe every minute detail. The reader knows a table has four legs. They have a general idea of what a classroom looks like. They know how a pen works.
Don't bombard them with information. Otherwise we’re going to detract from the interesting things that are going on in the story and distract them from the things that we want them to notice.
With this in mind, save longer descriptions for places that are important. If a couple of characters are briefly passing through a corridor you don't want to put as much onerous on that as you might on, say, your love interest's apartment, or your villain's lair.
2. Start with an overview
Whenever your characters enter a new setting you’re going to want to give a quick overview of what is in that setting. I’ll usually use a few sentences to describe on a macro level what the space is like so that the reader can get a visual and feel for the place.
When you enter a space what do you notice first? It might be the function of the room (living room, bar, classroom), then the general feel (maybe it’s crowded, or bright and airy, or old-fashioned, or small). Then you might notice the furniture and how it’s laid out.
In this overview, show the reader what they need to get a basic feel of the space we’re in – kind of like a blueprint. We’ll better populate that basic space with more details in the following steps.
3. Use details to add texture to characters and world
Your reader now has a basic idea of what is in the space they’re in. Now you might want to draw attention to some of the smaller details to give that space a bit of texture / depth.
Smaller details can be used to effectively add backstory and weave character and worldbuilding into your story. A sink piled with dirty dishes can tell us a character is messy or busy or sad. A novelty mug on an office desk can tell us about a character’s hobby. A photograph hanging on the wall can show us a snapshot of a memory that is important to a character.
Think of yourself as operating a camera for a movie. You’ve done a panning shot of the scene, but now you might want to zoom in on the odd detail to bring more depth to the space and your characters.
4. Have characters interact with the setting
You don’t want to continually be listing what is around the character as this is going to get boring.
Once you have your brief overview let your characters interact with the setting and show the reader more as they move through a scene. Use objects around them as props and let your character notice more details as they interact with the setting.
You’ll want to rely more heavily on this step when your character enters a setting they’ve already visited earlier in the book (as we don’t need to keep giving an overview of a place we’ve already described unless something has changed from the previous visit).
5. Use your five senses
Use your five senses to really bring your setting to life. As writers we tend to instinctively describe what the characters see in a setting, but don’t forget your other senses too. What can they hear? What can they smell? What can they feel when they touch things?
Think of the smell of freshly mown grass, or bread baking, or a dead rat. Imagine the feel of dry parchment, or something wet and slippery, or a soft blanket. Recall the sound of a car alarm or a dribbling brook or a crackling fire.
Using senses other than sight can not only add texture to the world and characters in the same way as using smaller details, but they can evoke strong reactions and memories in the reader that can really help bring a scene to life.
6. Forget what your teachers told you
I remember when I was at school having assignments where I’d have to describe an object using as many similes as possible. Or I’d have to write a piece full of metaphors. Or I’d have to describe, in minute detail, what a vase looked like. Or I’d have to use a thesaurus to find more complex words to add to my project.
The first book I ever wrote I tried to put all these techniques into practice. The problem with doing this is you tend to end up with pages and pages of unnecessary and complex description, and what is called ‘purple prose’. Purple prose is basically flowery language for the sake of being flowery. It tends to be quite difficult to read, distracts from the story, and isn’t particularly engaging in terms of storytelling.
Forget what you learnt at school! Your job as a writer is to write an engaging story for your audience – whoever they may be. You need to get your point across as effectively and concisely as possible. And you want your reader to be absorbed in your story, not constantly noticing the way you’re writing it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have lyrical prose, or use metaphors etc. to describe your settings, but be smart about it. Make sure you know what your target audience is willing to put up with. And make sure your prose is elevating your story rather than detracting from it.
These are my top tips for describing setting. Do you have any to add? Let me know in the comments!
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LAUREN PALPHREYMAN is a writer based in London. She is best known for her supernatural teen romance series, Cupid's Match, which has accumulated over 50 million hits online and was published by Wattpad Books / Penguin Random House, October 2019. Find her on Instagram @LaurenPalphreyman and on Twitter @LEPalphreyman.
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