Secret Setting Thesaurus Entry: Ancient Ruins

Congratulations, intrepid explorer! You’ve discovered one of our SECRET Setting Thesaurus entries.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00067]This one is from The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places. We hope the sensory information below will add a deeper richness to your story.

The setting is a powerful storytelling element that, when fully utilized, elevates every scene. When you choose the right one, it becomes an emotional tuning fork that will impact your character’s behavior, actions, and decisions.

Not only that, the setting can characterize your story’s cast, steer the plot, provide challenges and conflict, evoke mood, and become a gateway for critical backstory, delivering it not in dumps but actively through the placement of symbols that act as emotional triggers.




Weather-worn stone pillars surrounded by dead clumps of grass, half-crumbled buildings, cracked blocks and stones broken up by meandering tree roots, pitted steps and staircases, caved-in roofs weighed down by vines or other foliage, faceless marble or stone statues, inscriptions and carvings in stone, towering spires, dusty and cobwebbed corridors in the buildings, sculpted archways stained by mold or mildew (in humid climates), stones placed in deliberate patterns, uneven floors worn from the feet of many people, altars, rock walls, battlements with blast marks or bullet holes from old wars, ash scars on the stone from past fires, empty hearths or fire pits, shadows, curled dead leaves scattered on the ground, dappled sunlight filtering in through trees or overgrowth, small creatures (spiders, snakes, lizards, bugs, birds, bats) making the ruins their home, caves, carved animal totems important to the culture, ropy vines breaking down stone and encroaching through window holes or doorways, foliage native to the area (hardy grasses, ferns, scrub brush, trees), animal droppings, moss, abandoned nests, holes and crevices, rubble, dust, a hidden cache of items from the era (jewelry, pots, religious symbols, weapons, eating implements, tools), a shed snake skin, animal tracks in the dirt, animal scat


Wind slipping through stone corridors and through window openings, grasses sliding against each other, birdcalls, the flutter of wings, crickets or other noise-making insects, the crunch of dead leaves underfoot, leaves rattling against stone, dead vines scraping the walls, trees creaking in the breeze, the clap of footsteps on cobbled stone


Chalky dust, mildew and cold stone, local flowers, grass and greenery, the earthy scents of moist dirt and dead leaves


A dry mouth, water or a hydrating drink brought on the hike, backpacker-friendly foods (granola bars, nuts, seeds, beef jerky, dried fruits)


Broken rock underfoot, uneven ground, sweat clinging to the skin, rough stone on one’s palms, cool stone against one’s back, white dust clinging to one’s hands, tall grasses brushing against the legs, squeezing into a tight space and scraping one’s skin, cool or wet palm fronds or fern leaves sliding over one’s arms, a breeze ruffling one’s hair, the pull of one’s backpack straps, condensation clinging to a water bottle, the smoothness of stone weathered by the elements, the give of moss or a carpet of leaves underfoot, spiderwebs sticking to one’s skin, dangling vines brushing one’s hair, the pinch of a mosquito or bug bite, not daring to move as a snake slides past or over one’s foot, climbing a staircase or wall and sitting on a rocky ledge to take in the view


  • Supernatural phenomena (seeing or hearing things)
  • Getting lost in a maze-like ruin
  • Having a wall or roof collapse and becoming injured or trapped
  • Being bitten by a venomous spider or snake
  • Superstitions surrounding the site that make guides reluctant to explore them
  • Stumbling into a secret room or chamber with traps that are still active
  • Needing help (due to injury, illness, or running out of food) but being far from civilization
  • Running out of batteries for one’s flashlight
  • Bad storms or flash flooding weather that causes earth to soften and stones to shift
  • Hidden dangers such as sink holes and crumbling ledges
  • Hearing noises and realizing one is being hunted by an animal
  • Wanting to stay and explore but one’s group wishes to leave
  • A bus showing up and flooding the site with tourists, ruining one’s peace and quiet
  • Falling from a ledge or slipping on a staircase
  • Getting overheated in the sun
  • A breakdown that forces one to stay overnight at the site when there are many nighttime dangers (animals, etc.)


Archeologists, hikers, history buffs, locals visiting the site to pay respect or pray to ancestors, tourists


  • Cave, rainforest, secret passageway


Ruins come in all shapes and sizes. They may be aboveground or subterranean. Climate will greatly influence the ruins’ appearance, determining what grows there, how quickly the ruins degrade, and the type of animals that might be present. If the ruins are part of a tourist destination, there will be tourists and tour guides, reclamation specialists, and usually roped-off areas where people are not allowed to go. If the ruins are far from cities or have not yet been discovered, natural debris will be common, and it will be difficult to find clear paths in the overgrown area surrounding it.


When the sun rose over Angkor Wat, a reverent gasp escaped Lauren’s lips. The massive ruined city, with its hundreds of stone temples, passages, stairways, and statues, rose up like a hand praising God himself. Palm trees and rainforest pressed against each side, pulling at the stone in an attempt to reclaim it, and the massive moat surrounding the Wat shimmered orange and pink. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzed around her, but in her long-sleeved jacket she paid no mind; in another hour the mosquitoes would be off seeking shade and she’d be crossing the cobblestone bridge, basking in the smiles of the Buddha statues surrounding her. It had taken twelve long years to get here, but despite all the obstacles, she’d finally arrived.

  • Techniques and Devices Used: Contrast, multisensory descriptions, simile
  • Resulting Effects: Characterization, hinting at backstory, reinforcing emotion


To use this setting to the fullest, think about what drew your character to this location: an interest in culture, to escape the modern world, to gain some sort of connection with the past? And if so, why is this so important to the character? What can these ruins and the people who once lived here teach your character about herself?

Logo-OneStop-For-Writers-20-xsmallFor more guidance on how to make the setting work harder for your story, use the “look inside” feature at Amazon to see if this might be a good resource for you.

Want to work with a setting thesaurus that is beautifully cross-referenced, hyperlinked, and accessible online at the click of a button?

Sounds like a dream, right? Why not take a tour of One Stop For Writers, where this descriptive thesaurus and 13 others are waiting for you. (Did we mention there’s a FREE TRIAL?)

Happy writing!

Angela and Becca


Here are a few more secret settings to visit: House Party, Antiques Shop, and Police Car.

Image: Alice 12 @ Pixabay











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