Skip to content

Writing Descriptions: Make Setting a Character

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One of the best ways to incorporate descriptions of your setting into your story is by making the setting itself feel like a character in the book. There are several ways to do this:

Use culture to describe your setting. Books set in the Deep South but written by someone who’s never lived in the South may get all of the details right when describing what things look like, but they aren’t going to be able to describe what the air smells like after a rainstorm; how in the height of summer, the clouds roll in during the hottest part of the afternoon and release a quick, drenching downpour that does nothing to lower the temperature, but raises the humidity to armpit-of-Satan levels; when the azaleas start to bloom—and what they look like lining most residential streets and the campus of LSU; the electric anticipation of the entire campus on Saturday afternoon as everyone makes their way to Tiger Stadium; the way that 50 degrees with 75% humidity can be bone-chilling; or local idioms like, “How y’all are?” or “’Preciate ya!” or that we don’t all walk around calling each other “Hon’” all the time. Incorporating the local culture—the flavor, the uniqueness of social customs, language, and the “this is how things have always been done here”-ness—pulls it into the forefront of the writing without its overwelming the characters or the story.

Use specific, unique details. Did you know that in Baton Rouge, almost all of the main streets are concrete and not asphalt—and that the longitudinal grooves and the latitudinal cracks between blocks of concrete create a unique-to-Baton-Rouge sound and rhythm when driving? Whereas in Nashville, almost all of the roads are asphalt—a major exception being the I-440 loop that bypasses downtown (although they patch it with asphalt, which really just makes it worse). When you think of azaleas, do you picture a small bush with little blossoms? Then you’ve never seen Louisiana-style azaleas. Springtime in Baton Rouge was one of my favorite times of year when these huge shrubs that lined most residential streets (and the LSU campus, as mentioned above) burst into large white, pink, and fuscia blossoms.

Use specific locations/names. Use street names, names of local businesses, or names of national chains you know exist in that location. To add local flavor to my fictional city in Louisiana, I don’t have them go to Starbucks for coffee. They go to Beignets s’il Vou Plait (like Cafe DuMond in New Orleans). I don’t have them shop at Kroger or Publix. They shop at Bordelon’s. They don’t eat at Olive Garden, they eat at Palermo’s Italian Grill—which serves Cajun-inspired pasta dishes like crawfish ravioli. The sister of my heroine in Menu for Romance owns a seafood restaurant that has a pirogue (PEE-ro) hanging from the ceiling. The bookstore where my characters like to go to read and have coffee is Blanchard LeBlanc, not Barnes & Noble. One of the main residential areas of my city features names of Louisiana plantations such as Oak Alley, Destrehan, and Rosedown. The tallest building in downtown is Boudreaux Tower, and the glass-enclosed, huge event venue at the top of it is Vue de Ceil, not the Skyview. If you are using a real location, you must make sure you do your research really well. Nothing will betray your lack of familiarity with a place than getting something out of place which is familiar to locals. For example, I read something supposed to be set in Nashville which had the character looking out of the Bluebird Cafe onto Music Row. I immediately knew the author had never been to Nashville—nor had he or she even looked at the location of the Bluebird on a map—because it’s several miles away from Music Row and looks across at a strip shopping center in Green Hills.

Finally, the setting can affect the mood of the scene. In the first two Bourne movies, the weather reflects the emotions of what’s happening: it’s usually either raining, snowy, or cloudy for most of the movie. The three main scenes that are bright and sunny are (a) the end of the first film when he joins Marie at her shop on the beach, (b) the opening of the second film when they’re happy together in India (before the assassin shows up), and (c) the end of the second film when Bourne calls Landy and she tells him his real name and where he was born—emphasizing the happiness, the optimism of those scenes. In the third movie, however, the scene from the end of the second movie is replayed—and the sky is overcast, because in the third movie, that happens during the height of the conflict. It doesn’t have to be the weather—it can be the dilapidated state of a building that reflects the broken-down feeling of someone who’s just experienced a loss. Or it can be the opposite—the character is euphoric despite the foul weather, bad traffic, dirty kitchen. How the character bounces around washing dishes, singing while she scrubs at the crusty spots on the floor can emphasize just how happy she is.

The easiest way to start incorporating Setting as Character is to have the character interact physically and emotionally with the setting. Your POV characters’ emotions should add energy and keep up the pace of the action as well as set the scene. Use the adjectives and descriptions of emotions to “paint” the landscape of the ongoing scene. If your scene takes place at night, use your character’s emotional vocabulary to set the mood:

  • The hostile moon glared over the jagged wolf’s teeth of the mountains.
  • The incandescent moon dangled like a diamond ring in the rosy remains of the breathtaking sunset.

Look at some scenes you’ve already written. Can you add a phrase here, a sentence there where the character interacts with the setting—picks something up, dusts off a windowsill, sees a new restaurant—without pulling the character out of the forward momentum (and without adding anything unnecessary)? Is there a way you can use the location of your setting—weather, climate, geography, topography—to create conflict for the characters?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: