Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On Writing: Six Thoughts on Describing Setting

     I recently started a writing club at my high school, opening it to teacher and student alike. It’s sort of an extension of the Creative-Writing classes I teach, a place where writers can show up and have their work, whether post-cyberpunk murder mystery or "Little Mermaid" fan-fiction, taken seriously. Club members spend a lot of time in workshop, critiquing and responding to each other's writing, but they’ve also requested we spend some time studying craft. As a result, I’ve been spending some time writing about writing. Here is the most recent result:

 Six Thoughts on Describing Setting
     Treat your setting like you would a character; know everything about it but only reveal the bits you need to set the mood and move the story.
     Less is usually best. Extraneous details tend to clutter the view; keep your descriptions simple but present the simplicity in unexpected ways.
     Avoid clichés; they are as invisible as “said.” No one sees a “sun-dappled path” any more, nor a “sandy beach stretching away on both sides.” The images have been overused; avoid them, and images like them.
     Description changes with your POV. You’ll write it differently if your story is in first-person than you would if you were in third. It will be different in third-limited than it would be in third-omniscient. Description of setting also is going to depend on whose eyes your readers are seeing through. It’s a stereotype, but male characters might not notice chiffon-yellow curtains, nor a female character single out a 72-inch TV screen, or a four-barrel carburetor.  What your character notices says a lot about him or her. A caveman or a long-coffined vampire might not know what polyester is, or recognize the smell of car exhaust. Your character’s mood also will affect what he or she sees; the whole world looks pretty gray when you are depressed; luxurious drapes are likely not something a berserker would pay attention to.
     Instead of one big chunk of exposition, reveal the setting in bits and pieces as your characters move through the scene. What would he or she smell/feel/hear/see first? Second? Third? No one notices EVERYTHING about a place all at once. Maybe they feel the temperature first, and then notice a wall color that reminds him or her of a second-grade teacher. Later, they’ll register smells, and nicotine stains on the shade of the desk lamp.
     Don’t forget to use all FIVE senses to show setting. A well-styled room can still smell like feet. A mess on a plate can give off a drool-inducing aroma.  Feeling snot-slick mildew on a shower wall can ruin your character’s morning, even if the water is hot and the pressure is great.

Examples of setting description:
      “The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.” (The first line of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”)
     I love this because Gibson establishes mood, tone, time-frame, and voice in 12 words.
     “It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps--an eyesore among eyesores” (“A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner)
     This is old-school, third-person omniscient POV. Faulkner makes the house a metaphor for his main character, using his description of setting to show how Miss Emily fits into modern(ish) times.

Workshopped by students:
     Here’s a bit of setting one of the students brought to workshop: The stormy weather that night gave a foreboding feeling to Sky Weaver as she started back inside from her small garden after waiting awhile for her uncle, who was late coming home as always. The gusty winds sent a chill through her as she ran inside and struggled to shut the door. After she was sure the door was securely shut, Sky gave a sigh of relief.
     After some consideration, students changed it to: Troubled gray clouds grumbled over Sky Weaver’s head as she left her small garden and went back to her house to wait for her uncle. Chilly winds chased her through the front door and fought her as she tried to close it against them.
      Another submission: Maddy opened her eyes to a room clad in white. She didn’t like it. That was her first and only impression. She didn’t like the bright white lights that almost blinded her tired eyes and the white walls weren’t making it any easier for her to feel comfortable. She looked down at herself and had to close her eyes as she took in her bruised and battered body.
     Changed to: Maddy opened her eyes to a dingy white room. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like the bright lights that poured pain into her tired eyes, nor the scratchy scrape of the unbalanced ventilation fan somewhere above her, out of sight. She would have turned her head to see more, but her body felt raw and thick, like it had too much flesh in some places, and too little in others.


  1. What a wonderful and ambitious idea to start the writing club. A good exercise in setting would also be to experiment with historical settings, how would a character describe their setting in say the 1800's? Just a thought.

  2. That's me: Mr. Ambitious. The students have been trying to get something like this going for a few years now, but they tend to graduate. I figured, since I advise the school newspaper and anime club already, why not?

  3. Rob, this post is wonderful! Deryn Collier advised me to read author Elizabeth George's chapters on landscape and setting in her book, "Write Away." Right along these lines - your students may enjoy it, too.

  4. Rob, this is great. I always need help with settings.
    Jen :)

  5. As a guy who is seriously lacking in scene settings, this was great to read (and to see the changes by your students). It's one of the things I'm learning (not fast enough, I suspect) in our program--to set more of a scene. Great stuff, Rob. Really.

  6. Great post! I always wondered how characters could identify a 72-inch flatscreen regardless of age or background. Glad you started a writing club. Had I not graduated, I would've been happy to join.