6 Hot Tips for Putting Soul Into Your Setting + A Contest

Hi all! Today I’m here with my good buddy and fellow pub crawler, Stacey Lee, to talk about one of our favorite craft elements—setting.

Stephanie: I love the feel of experiencing new places through reading. I adore being submersed in a scene—tasting and smelling and touching along with a character. When a story is full of vivid settings and unique descriptions, I feel as if I’m taking a magical (or sometimes terrifying) vacation.

Unfortunately, setting descriptions are also the parts that I often find myself skimming, and I imagine I’m not alone. Describing something accurately is not the same as bringing a place to life.

So, since Stacey and I both like lists, we’ve put together a list of our favorite tips for—

Putting Soul Into Your Setting

  1. Decide the feel of your book.

Stephanie: Setting affects tone. A thriller set in the Black Rock Desert during Burning Man will feel different than a thriller set in Sweden’s ICEHOTEL. Just like a sci-fi set on a massive spaceship full of highly sophisticated technology (like Star Trek’s Enterprise) will feel different than a sci-fi set on a small, transport vessel that’s been described as a “load of worthless parts” (like Firefly’s Serenity). Each of these settings will attract a different cast of characters as well—which will also impact the feel of your book.

I once wrote a space opera and during an early draft I made the error of setting much of the book on a stark white spaceship, which not only lent itself to horrible descriptions, it was not a place where I wanted to spend time.

So choose your settings with care. An interesting or unique setting will naturally lend itself to more captivating and distinctive descriptions.

 

  1. Make sure your descriptions reflect your character’s unique lens.

Stacey: Include unique details (a ‘face like a wet sponge’ is more memorable than a ‘face with big pores’), viewed from the lens of your character. Each character comes with her own quirks and biases. A description filtered through the character’s lens does double duty of describing your setting, and revealing character.

Example:

Weak description:

A glass-covered rose seemed to hang above the desk in the library. Beauty watched the petals fall, one by one.

This example is weak because it lacks unique details, and is unfiltered.

Improved description:

A white rose edged in red hung, suspended, in a glass cage. It was like the head of paintbrush dipped in blood, and as the petals fell, Beauty remembered the cruelty of time, and how she only had minutes left before someone burst into the library.

If I’ve done my job, this description should evoke the particular tone I’ve chosen (fairytale setting (see point 1)), and be memorable.

 

  1. Leave room for your reader’s imagination.

Stephanie: When I’m composing descriptions, I go overboard, I write out every detail so that I can clearly picture the scene. Then I cut, cut, cut leaving only the most important and interesting details. That way, none of the most important details get buried. And the reader doesn’t need all of my descriptions, only enough so that their imagination can fill in the rest.

Take a look at your favorite book, and I bet you’ll notice that some of the most vivid descriptions aren’t the longest, but they probably inspire your imagination to take off.

 

  1. The amount of time you spend describing a place should reflect how important that place is for your story.

Stacey: I once read a story that spent a good page describing a ‘bush riotous with blooms.’ Not only was it unfiltered and not interesting, it had nothing to do with the story. It left me feeling betrayed. Readers like to try to figure things out on their own, and they also like a good twist, but the twist should not come by way of tedious prose that goes nowhere. I still to this day have no idea why I spent so long reading about riotous bushes.

 

  1. Use all five senses, but pay special attention to one or two.

Stephanie: Just like with going overboard on setting details, too many sensory details will cancel each other out. So while it’s good to have scenes that evoke all five senses, think about which sense you’d like to evoke the most, and pay extra special attention to those senses.

 

  1. Cut the clichés but don’t overdo it.

Stacey: How much cliché is too much? Strive for less than one. You don’t have to be as militant as me, but remember that if you flex your writing muscle, your story becomes stronger. Having said that, you don’t have to go crazy in an effort to avoid the cliché. Do not write things like:

“The pizza enticed him, like a lover reaching out for a kiss with cheesy, greasy lips.”

Or

“As they danced the music turned darker, rougher, like the sound her bathroom pipes made just after flushing the toilet.”

Now for CONTEST TIME! Stacey and I had so much fun coming up with our overdone descriptions that we thought it’d be fun to have a contest. So, give us your most entertaining overdone descriptions in the comments and we’ll pick one winner, who we’ll send an awesome book prize pack to!

To get things started, here’s one more overdone description:

“She didn’t fall in love with him all at once, it happened gradually, like the way a man begins to lose his hair, strands falling slowly at first, until one day he looks in the mirror and realizes he’s lost it all.”

 Contest ends at midnight, February 23. Contest is now closed. But we loved reading all of your entries! Thank you everyone who took the time to write a description–we had so much fun reading. And now it’s time to announce the WINNER!

The winner is, Michelle Willms for her overdone description of an overdone turkey! “The turkey was dry. Not just desert dry, but dry as 50-year-old boot leather, left out back in the Arizona sunshine, left to gain cracks and become crispy when bent. Yep, that was some dry, dry turkey.”

We’d also like to give an honorable mention to Aimee, who made us smile with her description of a girl: “She was cute but hot at the same time, like a Bichon Frise poodle mix drizzled with Cognac and ignited to make a Flambé.”

Thank you again everyone who wrote a description! And Michelle, you should be receiving an email about your prize.

  

16 Responses to 6 Hot Tips for Putting Soul Into Your Setting + A Contest

  1. Richelle Feb 22 2016 at 3:38 am #

    The words came tumbling out, each one roaring forth like a wolf suddenly released from its cage, eyeing me silently as it dared me to try to wrangle it back inside. Then they turned as one as it spotted the class of children, eyes wide and frozen like the icicles outside. The pack of wolves began to circle their prey, poking and prodding the rising terror.

  2. Robyn Campbell Feb 22 2016 at 7:26 am #

    I heard the scream and then silence! The bobcat stood at the top of that crest eyes bulging tongue hanging out trickling red, watery droplets. He stared at me for the longest time.Our eyes were locked; the bobcat made his way down step by step. With each stride, he seemed to almost smile. I stood frozen, unable to move, knowing today was my last day on earth.

  3. Rebecca Feb 22 2016 at 7:57 am #

    The music grew louder, pulling me under, intoxicating my veins with its sharp, quick beats. My body fell in line effortlessly, automatically adjusting to the song, the rhythm, the pulse of the crowd. Bodies squished together, packed in like sardines, the crowd and music was enough to make me heady, no drink required. I lived for these Saturday nights where the music took control and all else floated away, drifting up and away, out of reach like a lost whisper never heard.

  4. Nikhi Feb 22 2016 at 8:17 am #

    Here’s my entry, perhaps a tad too long. I got carried away. 🙂

    The authoress could not write any more, she soon found out. As the clock tolled midnight, she finally realized she was fighting an upstream battle. The paper’s paragraphs were guarded by more than the empty space of tabs, the Capital Letters and ‘strict punctuation’. Nay, it was more than that. There was evil lurking on the corners, Grammar Nazis on the prowl for errant words.

    Whenever she sat down to write, more often than not, it felt as though she were standing on the wasteland of a flooded beach where a massive tide has washed itself ashore and brought with it kitchen sinks, rotting animal carcasses, the sun-bleached bones of giant sea creatures, the remnants of an oil spill….

    Sometimes, she wished she could just grab the edge of the waterline and flip it outwards, back to sea, like flipping a comforter, and let it take all the clutter, and fear and self-doubt with it. She just knew there were villages and haunted wrecks and tunnels that lead to other worlds and points in time under all the craziness.

    But not even the greatest group of author-writer creatures could help her now, for she was lost in the barren wasteland of letters torn away from each other, riddled with similes as bright as starlight.

    Do you want to know what her problem is?

    It is folly for her to believe she could ever make it to The End.

  5. Nikhi Feb 22 2016 at 8:44 am #

    Sorry, I’m resubmitting. My formatting got messed up, I just realized.

    Here’s my entry, perhaps a tad too long. I got carried away. 🙂

    The authoress could not write any more, she soon found out. As the clock tolled midnight, she finally realized she was fighting an upstream battle. The paper’s paragraphs were guarded by more than the empty space of tabs, the Capital Letters and ‘strict punctuation’. Nay, it was more than that. There was evil lurking on the corners, Grammar Nazis on the prowl for errant words.

    Whenever she sat down to write, more often than not, it felt as though she were standing on the wasteland of a flooded beach where a massive tide has washed itself ashore and brought with it kitchen sinks, rotting animal carcasses, the sun-bleached bones of giant sea creatures, the remnants of an oil spill….

    Sometimes, she wished she could just grab the edge of the waterline and flip it outwards, back to sea, like flipping a comforter, and let it take all the clutter, and fear and self-doubt with it. She just knew there were villages and haunted wrecks and tunnels that lead to other worlds and points in time under all the craziness.

    But not even the greatest group of author-writer creatures could help her now, for she was lost in the barren wasteland of letters torn away from each other, riddled with similes as bright as starlight.

    Do you want to know what her problem is?

    It is folly for her to believe she could ever make it to The End.

  6. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 22 2016 at 9:33 am #

    I loathe descriptive prose, so when I have to describe a scene I go with the character’s perceptions of it, rather than trying to describe it from my authorial viewpoint. This makes it immediate, relevant, and short. With the possibility of contradiction by a different character who sees the same scene a different way.

    I was about to say I had no contest entry, when I thought of this: “She stuck to him like glue, but not the good, Post-It note kind, or even the okay Elmer’s glue kind, which will peel off with a bit of work when it gets dry, but more like the Krazy-Glue kind, emphasis on the ‘krazy’, you know the kind that you practically have to peel your skin off to get rid of it? That kind.”

  7. Tinthia Feb 22 2016 at 10:11 am #

    Annah stood on the hilltop and watched the purple martins, radiant in their iridescent plumage, so stunning against the brilliance of the glowing sunshine, as they performed their aerial acrobatics that even a Cirque-d-Sole performer would have envied with green, dark-eyed monster envy.

    She longed to spread wide her slender, pale, weak arms and take flight, soaring among the arabesque avian wonders while they welcomed her with shrill twitters and chirps as if saying in their foreign language, “Welcome to our world dear lady. Come fly and soar with us as we travel through the clouds and look down on the people of the land who watch us with envy, since we are free and they are not.”

  8. Tracy Auerbach Feb 22 2016 at 11:18 am #

    She sat, perched like a boat cresting a wave, on the vomit-beige stool in the frozen yogurt shop. Any second she would fall over the edge, both physically and mentally, into the tumultuous grasp of the sea below. Her heart pounded in her chest like a caged animal ready to break free, bringing bile to her throat with every sick pump.

    As she chewed the spoonful of yogurt that could barely be tasted under the cornucopia of toppings, she noticed how the coconut flakes felt like dried, dead skin in her mouth, and she wanted so badly to kick herself for agreeing to meet a blind date in a yogurt bar.

  9. Aimee Feb 22 2016 at 12:06 pm #

    She was cute but hot at the same time, like a Pekingese drizzled with Cognac and ignited to make a Flambé.

    • Aimee Feb 22 2016 at 12:15 pm #

      ACK can I change that to, say, a Bichon Frise poodle mix??? It completely sailed over my head that Pekingese = Chinese dog and that could have deeply racist connotations in this context, fiddlesticks

  10. Anna Jordan Feb 22 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    With the force of a vacuum that could hold a bowling ball above the ground, Luigi slurped the spaghetti spraying the tablecloth with dots of sauce that made the dining room look more like the location of a New Jersey mob hit than their quiet home. Papa held out the roll of paper towels. “Napkin?”

  11. Alfonso Colasuonno Feb 22 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    There was simply no way that Anna would possibly choose to give Richard a second date. He was just so tall. He must have been about 7 feet, which to her was practically the equivalent of dating a mountain in the Himalayas, one that might as well reach all the way to the heavens; and he looked old too, like those same Himalayan mountains his peak was white, seemingly covered in dandruff, like he had never learned how to properly shampoo his hair. It was almost as if he were a grown man trapped in an eight-year-old boy’s body, and Anna surmised he must have the same proclivities, probably being more concerned with discovering every trick in an X-Box game than impressing her. Even worse than the dandruff was that Richard’s hair had turned so prematurely grey that Anna secretly wondered if he was related to Anderson Cooper.

  12. Liz Osisek Feb 22 2016 at 9:39 pm #

    The new girl was a meteor, and I was the triceratops shocked and horrified by the ash that suddenly blocked the sun and the ice that covered the surface of once-warm lakes. She completely changed the landscape, and I was not adapted to survive in this new world.

  13. Michelle Willms Feb 23 2016 at 2:30 am #

    The turkey was dry. Not just desert dry, but dry as 50-year-old boot leather, left out back in the Arizona sunshine, left to gain cracks and become crispy when bent. Yep, that was some dry, dry turkey.

  14. Jeff DeCoursey Feb 23 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Winning MVP was the icing on the cake, a cake baked all season long, whose delicious batter swirled decadent wins and salty losses, a dash of injury, and a pinch of overtime. Jake had a sweet tooth, and his new trophy tasted so good.

  15. Anne Feb 23 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    The darkness was complete, enveloping her like an infinite conspiracy a raven’s wings caught in midnight flight. No stars. No moon. Only black soul silence, seducing her into letting go; begging her to fall through the gossamer thin veil that separates this world from the undiscovered country of death.

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