Writing Descriptions: Setting the Scene
Writing description of setting is where we really get into using all five senses and showing vs. telling—which anyone who entered the Genesis contest (or other writing contests) will be judged on. In Setting, Jack Bickham wrote:
Psychologists have repeatedly shown that sight is the dominant sense for most normal people. Therefore, it stands to reason that your sense descriptions most often will be dominated by how things appear. Hearing impressions usually rank second, but one can easily imagine circumstances in which tactile impressions might rank higher in story importance.
Obviously, our characters are going to “see” the setting. But the worst way for them to do this is to walk into a room and immediately mentally inventory everything about the room. For example:
She entered the front parlor. The parquet floors gleamed in the midday light. Blue chintz fabric covered the settee, arm chairs, and chaise lounge which sat in a conversation circle near the exquisite, enormous, Egyptian-marble fireplace. The ceiling soared twenty feet above, painted a deep salmon accented by the white coving that ran along the junction of the wall and ceiling. The windows at the far end extended nearly floor to ceiling . . .
We’ve completely stopped the forward movement of the story to describe the room—to TELL what it looks like—just like when we describe our characters by having them look at themselves in a mirror. Instead, have the characters interact with the setting:
She entered the front parlor. Lady MacDougall sat enthroned like Queen Victoria on a blue chintz-covered settee and motioned Elizabeth to take the matching arm chair opposite. The salmon-painted walls made the duchess’s white hair glow pink. Elizabeth flinched when a log shifted in the blazing fire in the enormous fireplace surrounded by the marble the previous Lord MacDougall had brought back from Egypt himself. Elizabeth looked past the duchess at the promise of freedom beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows on the distant end of the room. . . .
Both paragraphs describe the same room. But which one gives more of a sense of setting—more of a feeling that you’re there in the room with the character? (And notice, I also incorporated a second sense in this example: her hearing the log shifting in the fireplace to draw her attention to it.)
The description of the scene shouldn’t all come at once . . . unless there is something vastly important about the look of the setting—such as a pauper entering a palace for the first time, but even then, be sure to tie emotion and the five senses to the experience of the setting.
Here’s an example of showing a setting through the sense of smell and touch:
The heavenly aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano mixed with the unmistakable yeasty scent of fresh bread and wafted on the cool air that blew in her face when she opened the door. Anne’s salivary glands kicked into overdrive and her stomach growled. She really needed to stop skipping lunch. (Kaye Dacus, Stand-In Groom)
From that description, where has she just walked into?
Try this exercise at home. Close your eyes and concentrate only on what you can hear. Make a list. Then, do the same thing again, but focus only on smell. Breathe through your mouth a few times. What does the air taste like (or what does the gum you have in your mouth taste like? or the coffee you’re drinking?)? Open your eyes and write down these descriptions of your current setting. Then, stand up and close your eyes again. Carefully walk around the room and feel things. What does the upholstery on your desk chair feel like? Is it a hard wooden chair, a firm ergonomic chair, or a cushy papasan chair? Don’t think about what it looks like—describe what it feels like.
Using only sight and sound senses to develop your setting is like watching the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movies in “fullscreen” mode versus in “widescreen” mode. TBS runs the LOTR movies quite often. I’ve had the extended editions of these films since their release, therefore, I’m used to watching them in the widescreen version. Just watching a few minutes of it on TBS in fullscreen mode, I felt like I was missing important pieces of the movie, simply because I was losing 50% of the setting—and that was just visual. If, as Emeril Lagasse would say, we had “smell-o-vision” and could smell the setting as well as seeing and hearing it when we watch movies, how much deeper into the world of the film would we be? Therefore, if you include smell, taste, and touch sensations in your story, you’re drawing your reader deeper into your world.
Now, what can you do to incorporate the setting without stopping to describe it?