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Writing Descriptions: How Important Is the Setting?

Monday, March 16, 2009

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

What would Charles Dickens’s work be without a description like that of London? The above quote are the first two paragraphs of Dickens’s Bleak House which I am currently slogging through. (One caveat when extolling Dickens as an example of picturesque, poetic description: most of his books were published serially, and he was paid by the word; so the more verbose he was, the more money he made.)

Before we can talk about describing a setting, we need to ask some important questions:

  • Where is the story going to be set? Geography? Time? Real? Fictional?
  • Does the setting have an impact on the story?
    –Sure, I could have chosen to set Stand-In Groom in Nashville. But would the idea of a local guy going off to Hollywood and making it big in the film industry have as much of an impact on Nashville when he comes back for his wedding? Not in a city teaming with celebrities. But in a smaller town that isn’t known as a repository for big-name stars, it makes a big difference.
  • How important will the specific pieces of the setting be to the story? Will weather, climate, geographic features, etc., play roles in what happens in the story? If you need a desert, don’t set your story in Georgia. If your character climbs mountains every weekend for fun, make sure to put her somewhere within easy driving distance of mountains—probably not Kansas or Nebraska. What about the character’s house or workplace? How important are the different “set pieces” that you’ll use?
  • What does the location of your setting (geography, regionality, size of the city/town) say about your character(s)? If you hear that a character has a huge family that she has Sunday dinner with every week after church, what area of the country are you most likely going to assume she lives in? If you want a fish-out-of-water situation, put someone in a region totally unfamiliar to them (like a Brit in Louisiana).
  • Can you use your chosen setting to create conflict for your characters? A blizzard that shuts down all the roads when your character needs to get somewhere. A drenching downpour on the day of the outdoor wedding your wedding planner has been killing herself to plan. A tornado that carries your heroine off to the merry old land of Oz. A house that’s falling apart necessitating your very cultivated male character hire a contractor—and the only one willing to take the job is a woman.
  • Which characters will be viewing, interacting with, and thinking about the setting? What do they know about it? Is it a city they’ve lived in their whole life? Somewhere new? Keep in mind—the more familiar you are with a place, the more you tend to overlook things. Someone new in town is going to notice a lot more things like statues, historical landmarks, unusual buildings, etc.
  • What POV will you be using? Description of the setting in deep 3rd POV is going to be different than a more omniscient POV where it’s the narrator who’s describing the setting. Does the character like or dislike the setting? That will make a great deal of difference in what adjectives and verbs you choose to use in your description.

For Discussion:
What is your setting? How do you choose where your stories will be set? How important is the location of your setting to your story?

One Comment
  1. Tuesday, March 17, 2009 8:15 am


    To my way of thinking the setting is as important as the characters. I’ve nominated your blog for a Sisterhood Award, and I’m also holding a contest for romance writers, in which they have an opportunity to win three gently used writers books.



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