A Sense of Place

A SENSE OF PLACE

Setting puts flesh on your stories. The way it’s described can work for you or against you, and it can be the difference between bringing the reader into the story and leaving him or her out in the cold.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about building delicious descriptions of setting. I hope you all find them helpful.

  1. Use vivid words. I’ll use southwestern Oklahoma as an example, since I live here. I could say, “It’s flat with occasional hills, and very windy and dry.” But so what? Does that convey the feeling of being there? Not at all, and it’s a little boring, too. What if I said this? “The stinging wind whips hair and dust around my face.”
  2. Choose telling details. What am I going to see here that I wouldn’t see anywhere else? Near where I live, it’s a bizarre mix of pines, deciduous trees, cacti, and grasses. I’ve never seen this anywhere else, so I’m going to talk about that. “This place is strangely magnificent, desolation butting heads with explosive life: patchy grass broken by occasional stands of trees, in the low spots, pine needles browning in the sun. Around the bases of the oaks, the earth lies naked and brick-red, and clumps of cacti avail themselves of the shade beneath twisted little pagoda trees.”
  3. Choose more than one sense to describe through. I’ve already used tactile and visual cues, so I’m going to add olfactory cues as well: “I smell ozone, the dark tang of a distant wildfire.”
  4. Filter through the senses of the character whose point of view you’re using. In this case, I’m using my own POV, so I’m going to add: “Hot. Too hot, and nose-bleeding dry.” This gives additional tactile cues, and also clues the reader into how I feel about the scene before me. If we were in the body of a native Okie, one who loves the land, the description would probably feel very different. I could talk about bright sunshine and wind that stirred the blood, for example.

 Now let’s organize the sentences.

“Hot. Too hot, and nose-bleeding dry. The stinging wind whips hair and dust around my face, and I smell ozone, the dark tang of a distant wildfire. This place is strangely magnificent, desolation butting heads with explosive life: patchy grass broken by occasional stands of trees, in the low spots, pine needles browning in the sun. Around the bases of the oaks, the earth lies naked and brick-red, and clumps of cacti avail themselves of the shade beneath twisted little pagoda trees.”

I can continue to sprinkle different details through my narrative as I tell you the story, not too often, but every few paragraphs or maybe once per page, to keep where we are at the front of your mind. Maybe I’ll talk about how sweaty I’m getting, or about a tarantula legging it past me, or about how I can feel a sunburn coming up on my skin as I stand. Another way to frame this sort of thing, if I have more than one character in my scene, is to point something out or have it pointed out to me. Even if there aren’t any other characters, I could think of someone I’d like to show something to. If my kids were with me, I’d definitely point out the tarantula, and if they weren’t, I’d think of how they’d like to see it.

The important thing is to give a sense of a particular person having the sensations that come with a particular place. Whether it’s being a prisoner in a dungeon or attending a birthday celebration in the royal palace, standing on a plain in Oklahoma or gazing up at the Chicago cityscape, for me the most effective way to describe setting is to place the character, and therefore place the reader.