Setting Descriptions That Don’t Sound Like Travel Logs

Sharla's Photo

Sharla’s Photo

If not done correctly setting descriptions read like a travel log for Travel R Us.

I used to hate describing anything, especially settings. Fortunately my crit group set me straight on a few facts.

One of the first things I learned was to let the reader see the scene through the character’s point of view. 

The second thing I learned was to intersperse bits of description between the actions, thoughts and dialogue taking place.

The third thing? If you don’t do the first two things you are probably doing a boring info dump. And the case of place descriptions the result something that sounds like a travel log.

Example: You might be writing an action scene where the heroine is running barefoot from someone.

She runs up a gravel drive strewn with broken beer bottles, her feet stinging from sharp cuts. Fear spurs her on as she focuses on her goal, a clapboard house with shutters hanging from their hinges around broken windows. Someone inside watches then ducks from sight behind dirty lace curtains. The heroine zigzags through a maze of rusty car parts poking up through knee high weeds.  The boards of the sagging porch groan beneath her weight as she yanks open a torn screen door.

The paraphrased description above isn’t great but it does demonstrate interspersing description of the setting with the action.

Great setting descriptions are movies or paintings in words. They “SHOW.”

  • They show atmosphere
  • They show location or setting
  • They frequently show something about a character’s nature.
  • They instill the reader with a sense of the book’s reality.

Location and atmosphere descriptions have always been married.

Example: Let’s say the location is an old house and the atmosphere is creepy and scary. Telling the reader that a house is old and creepy is boring. Show the reader what old and creepy looks like. 

Peeling paint – a sagging porch – creaking doors – dirty opaque windows –  unexplained noises, shadows that seem to move etc.

Settings may offer insightful clues to a character’s personality.

Example: If Joe lives in a shabby house, he might be poor. But if the house is also clean and neat as a pin, he might also be a very proud man.

If the house is slovenly and the garden overgrown, the owner might be depressed or lazy.

But wait, maybe the character wishes to appear one way when he’s really something else entirely. You see where I’m going with this.

The five senses are essential to setting descriptions and they instill atmosphere.   

  • Smell: Old houses are musty; a field of flowers is fragrant. Maybe the character smells the neighbor’s forgotten garbage can.
  • Sight: Keep in mind, colors inspire moods and atmosphere. Is there a sunset, a vase of cheerful flowers on a dresser, maybe a cracked vase of long-dead daisies? Perhaps a majestic green forest grows behind a mansion?
  • Touch: Does the character feel cool grass between their toes, the rough bark on the tree, the cold chill of mountain air lifting their hair?
  • Sound/Hearing: What does the character hear? Birds, growling animals, traffic, airplanes, children at play, the bickering couple next door or the sizzle of bacon?
  • Taste: This sense may not be used often to describe setting but it can be. Imagine that a character is stranded in a desert. He might taste the grit of sand and dirt on his lips. He might alos find a watering hole of brackish water. 

Sometimes it’s fun to personify places and things, giving them a description that might be attributed to people. 

The tree stood like a crooked old man, head bowed, skinny arms flailing about its body. [This method may of course be reversed when describing a person, but that’s another blog.]

Don’t discount definitions when describing. Definitions are by nature a description.

Where are the best setting descriptions found, especially if you have never experienced them yourself?

The answer is . . . everywhere. But I’ll simplify.

Books, websites and travel videos for research are unending.

My personal favorite for settings around the world and situations such as disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and floods is National Geographic Magazine. Their descriptions of different landscapes and situations are phenomenal. Find hard copies at the library or visit their web site and watch videos.

For different areas within the States, try state magazines, like Arizona Highways. The well-written articles describe interesting places all over the state right down to the local atmosphere. You’ll also find maps and some background history.

Another favorite resource of mine for out of the norm descriptions, especially for landscapes like forests, rivers, mountains etc. is poetry.

Don’t laugh. One of the very best is Hiawatha. The great thing about poems is that they almost always utilize all the senses.

Do remember that these resources demonstrate “ideas” to inspire your “own” creative and picturesque descriptions. Don’t copy!

I hope this blog gives you some ideas for how to insert place descriptions into your writing and how to “show” setting rather than tell about it.




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