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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
“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.