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.
Image 1: Peter Dargatz @ Pixabay
Image 2: Karla31 @ Pixabay
Image 3: Jeg2003uk @ Pixabay
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.
did you stop writing these? oh no!
i was wondering if you could do some sort of manufacturing plant? and/or a chemical plant? something huge and industrial. also possibly a warehouse? ooh, a junkyard would be fun…
Margaret M says
The Emotional Thesaurus is a fantastic reference book. I have a paper copy and ebook. Just wonderful for stirring the imagination.
And love the idea of Sensory Saturday.
Thanks for your wonderful information filled blog,
Laura Pauling says
Awesome! It’s amazing what sensory details can do for a story! Great example too.
Jenna Rutland says
Love the Emotion Thesaurus in book form. Please tell me that you have plans to publish the setting description thesaurus too!
I was wondering and hoping if you could please write a setting on the 1940’s or a 1940’s club.
It would be much help with the book that I am currently writing.
What an excellent idea! Just another reason to love you guys and the great resource you provide here at Bookshelf Muse. Thanks!
Great idea, and excellent execution.
Angela Ackerman says
I will add the setting to my growing list. Thanks for the request!
Sharon, welcome to The Bookshelf Muse and thanks so much for passing on the word about it!
Hugs all round, people!
Sharon K. Mayhew says
I’m finding your post a little late. 🙂 I was searching for setting posts and stumbled across a link to this post on an agent’s blog. I linked it to my post today. Very nicely done. I’ll be back to read more…
Pretty inclusive list, it would be hard to find many other settings that are not covered directly or indirectly through your exhaustive list, but I have special request. You have “Jail” and it is on the money, but would you mind tackling “Courthouse and Court Room”?
criminal defense attorney /writing a legal/thriller
Thanks for stopping in Jonny! And guess what? The setting we’re working on is the stands at a sporting event! We must have a psychic connection…
Tremendous site and writing community here. I see that you guys focus on children’s books so a BAR might not be a priority in sensory settings, but Gymnasium or soccer Field or Football stadium (high school).
Keep up the great work.
awesome ideas you have. thanks so much!
Thanks, Jessica. Mountains, valleys, and plains are on the list.
[Where’s an agent when you need one] If I only had a nickel…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Connie Clark says
I just love you guys! If I can think of other things to toss out on this thesaurus, I’ll be happy to help! You really should be publishing this stuff in self help books! Where’s an agent when you need one? LOL!
How about mountains? valleys? plains? 🙂
This is really a fantastic idea. I use your site SO often. It’s wonderful!
We’ll put deserted road on the list :).
Wonderful idea – would you mind putting a setting description for a dusty, deserted road? Thanks again, Angela.
Linda - Nickers and Ink says
Super ideas for descriptive writing!
I invite you to check out MEME EXPRESS (on blogspot) . . . for daily blog prompts. Photos, poems, stories, images, and other entries are welcome.
BACK TO SCHOOL, at Nickers and Ink
I’ll take the cash.
WOW! Great new addition to The Bookshelf Muse. I don’t need to tell you how much your hardwork is appreciated! You guys provide a great resource for writers, and this blog is one of the reasons the writing community ROCKS.
Great idea! I will definately be using this thesaurus. As a fine arts student with a poor sense of smell, imagery is important to me: when describing a place I tend to just get stuck in the visual.Your example paragraph showed the difference perfectly: I could illustrate the second, but would have difficulty with the first.
Creative A says
Great post guys! I thought your example showed the differences really well.
Thanks, everybody! The first setting is in the sidebar: rivers.
This is fabulous and boy do I ever need it! I’ll be learning a lot from these posts, I’m sure!
Consider putting airport in your queue. I’d love to see what you come up with.
Very cool!! I can’t wait to see how you tackle this thesaurus. You could go in many different directions… 🙂
Wooo! This will definitely help me, since setting is a major weakness for me.
Excellent post. When writers understand that “description” means sensory detail and not adjectives and adverbs, they take a big step forward in their writing.
This is wonderful! You two are so creative.
Maybe you should try running this Thesaurus idea past an agent….
Oh very well, if you insist. I’ll take a publishing contract from a reputable house for my chapterbook series. Becca, what would you like?
LOL, thanks for your feedback!
PJ Hoover says
Love the idea! I feel like I should pay you!