Many elements go into creating a successful novel, but one of the most important is Setting. For a reader to relate to the current action, they need a physical anchor to tie the characters to. It can be difficult, finding the right words to convey a sense of place. The right description can create a rich image for the reader, involve them in the action and heighten atmosphere and mood. Poor description leaves the reader struggling for a visual and disconnected from the characters and action.
So how do we achieve great setting description? Two words, people: sensory information. All five senses (Sight, Touch, Smell, Taste and Sound) are key to involving the reader, because they transform descriptive word choices into experiences.
Let’s look at the difference sensory description can make.
Brenna dropped onto the park bench and leaned back, glad to finally be off her feet. One more minute inside Richards & Associates and her head might have exploded. She rolled her neck from side to side, loosening the kinks. So far, things did not bode well for her new job; the way today was going, her first day might also be her last. Only the view of the pretty greenery from her thirty-seventh floor window had kept her going until lunch.
This spot in the shade was much to warm for the suit jacket her new job required her to wear, so she stripped it off and then dug out the leftover pasta salad she’d brought from home. The wares from the hot dog cart stationed on the other side of the park fountain looked much more appealing that the mush trapped inside her Tupperware. Sure, why not? she thought, and returned her lunch to her satchel. I might not even be here tomorrow.
Devil’s advocate says: What’s the big deal—it’s a park. Seen one, seen them all. I get an instant image, so don’t waste my time with sensory fluffery!
Okay, so let’s look at the same passage written with stronger language and more sensory description:
Brenna dropped onto the park bench and slipped off her shoes, letting the cool grass knead her swollen feet. Her head tipped back—absolute heaven. One more minute inside Richards & Associates and her head might have exploded. Things did not bode well for the first day on the job.
Laughter rang out from the park’s small stone fountain, where a mother stood within reach of two toddlers wading in the knee-deep water. Brenna smiled and shrugged out of her suit jacket, wishing she could join them.
As Brenna dug in her satchel for her lunch of leftover pasta salad, the wind shifted, bringing the salty aroma of hot dogs. Her stomach grumbled, urging her to forget the mush inside her Tupperware and visit the hot dog cart near the park entrance instead. Sure, why not? she thought. I might not even be here tomorrow.
Do you see the difference? Reading the first one, I feel like an observer. The second, I feel involved, connected by common experiences. I can smell those hot dogs, and I know exactly how it feels to stick my sore feet into soft grass. I also smile when I see kids having a good time. (If you would like more information on why sensory description is so important in creating an emotional connection in your readers, please check out this great post at Headdesk!)
BTW, did you notice that the second passage has less words than the first? This is because stronger imagery often equates to fewer words needed to show the same thing.
Great writing consists of concrete description–description that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard. Abstract description is bland and cannot be sensitized. For example, if I say a tree is ‘beautiful’, well what does that really mean? There’s no concrete picture associated with ‘beautiful’ because everyone has their own standards and opinions of what beautiful is.
However, if I describe the sharp prickle of pine as I inhale, show the reaching, sun-lit branches and how the ancient furrowed bark embodies a sense of time and patience, the reader will know I feel the tree is beautiful without me ever having to say it. Strong language and concrete description is what we need to master to be effective writers.
Which brings us to the new Setting Thesaurus!
Each Saturday we will explore a common setting location and list out possibilities for description using strong associative language and the five senses. We hope to cover everything from deserts and mountains to basements and playgrounds. You in turn can use each entry as an idea bank when describing your own settings. Just remember that all description should be used like seasoning. Choose a few powerful details to give the setting texture, not paragraphs or pages that will encourage the reader to skim.
We also encourage you to stretch yourself to include more smells, sounds and tastes in your writing–not all blobbed together of course. But often using one smell as a concrete description is more powerful than three lines of what your character sees. These three senses tend to be underutilized; yet they create a powerful impact when your reader makes that emotional connection through personal recognition, like the smell of hot dogs.
It should be noted that while we’ve researched these entries and included as much information as we can, they aren’t all-inclusive. Location, climate, and access to technology will cause variations, so please do further research if you don’t have first-hand experience, to make sure the details are accurate. Thanks! 🙂
We hope you find this thesaurus just as handy as our other descriptive collections. The complete list of settings can be found here. If you have a setting you’re struggling with, feel free to let us know.
You could also check out our augmented Setting Thesaurus at the One Stop For Writers library. There, each entry has been enhanced to include possible sources of conflict, people commonly found in these locales, and notes and tips specific to each setting. We’ve also added many new entries, expanding this collection to a whopping 220 entries. As with all of our One Stop collections, entries are cross-referenced for easy searchability. So if you’re interested in seeing a free sample of this powerful Setting Thesaurus, head on over and register at One Stop.
Interested in seeing this collection in book form? You’re in luck! This two-book set is available for purchase in print and digital copies at various distributors. More details can be found here.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.