Ten Tips for Describing Setting

Matthew Gurteen

Setting is crucial to your story, whether it is a fantasy kingdom, historical country house, or post-apocalyptic city. If you cannot create a compelling setting, your reader will never be interested in your story. In this article, we will give you our top ten tips to consider when creating your own setting.

1. Show, don’t tell

It is the golden rule in the writer’s handbook, and it is true when describing the setting too: show, don’t tell. Instead of telling your reader that your setting is cold, ruined, sunny, or whatever else it might be, show them. You can show your readers this information through similes and metaphors. If the sky is cloudy, for instance, consider putting something like, ‘the chimney smoke blended seamlessly with the sky’ instead. This statement shows the reader that it is cloudy and describes other aspects of the setting through the industrial chimneys.

2. Don’t give everything away

As much as you want to show your reader your unique setting, however, you must also be careful not to give too much away. Describing a setting, like anything you write, is about balance. Giving away too much information will quickly make the reader bored. It can also reveal crucial plot details that you are saving away early.

3. Describe how your character perceives the place

When creating a believable world, it is essential to remember that your setting only exists because your characters are perceiving it. As Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House and Her Body and Other Parties, says, Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view Your characters’ points of view must activate your setting. Consider the things they would notice first. For example, if your protagonist is a child, they are unlikely to notice road signs, blank spaces, or items on high walls. Instead, they would likely see bright colours, toys, and describe the world as much bigger than it is in reality.

4. Utilise all your senses

When describing a setting, it is also vital that you do not only focus on what a character can see. Instead, characters have four other senses you can utilise. Ask yourself. What is your character hearing right now, and what do they smell? Is there a taste in the air? If they were to touch the object closest to them, what would it feel like? Using all five senses to describe the setting will make it all the more believable to your reader.

5. Vary your vocab

Another tip to improve your descriptions of settings is to vary your word choice. For example, if a setting is warm, don’t keep calling it such. Instead, consider calling it hot or humid or using the first tip on showing and not telling to describe the temperature metaphorically. Too much of the same word choice will also bore your reader.

6. Describe places you know

All settings should be grounded in reality. If you base your setting off somewhere you already know, you will have a much easier time describing it to others. As Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, Good Omens, and Stardust, says, A lot of what you do in world building is you do your homework. You do your research. Go on walks. See things. All of that—and then take notes. Consider going on walks to inspire your setting, whether to the countryside or the city. Research your setting, and you will be able to describe it all the better. This point is true whether your story is set in the real world or not. As Brandon Sanderson, author of The Mistborn Trilogy and The Stormlight Archive, says, Though in this genre we write about the fantastic, the stories work best when there is solid grounding in our world. Magic works best for me when it aligns with scientific principles.

Worldbuilding works best when it draws from sources in our world. Characters work best when they’re grounded in solid human emotion and experience. Even the most fantastic worlds work best when they are grounded in reality. Taking a walk through a forest will help you describe an entirely fictional wood in a fantasy realm.

7. Look at photographs of your intended setting

Some people, however, are unable to walk in the country. If you cannot describe your setting from reality, consider looking at photographs online or in books. Photographs are also a good way of finding a reference for your setting. Just describe what you see and imagine what it sounds and smells like.

8. Focus on a handful of essential details

Instead of describing every aspect of the setting in your story – from the floor to the ceiling – consider focusing on a few specific details. These can be anything. The point is that focusing on one or two objects will allow you to describe the setting concisely and focus on it from a character’s perspective.

9. Show how your setting changes over time

Another helpful tip when describing a setting is to explain how it changes over time. Settings should never be static. Instead, like characters, they grow and evolve. Showing how a setting changes over time is another way of convincing your readers it is a real place.

10. Keep your readers in mind

As will all things when you are writing, it is essential that you keep your readers in your mind when describing setting. It is very easy when describing a setting to focus too heavily on it. Instead, focus on what the readers need to know and ask yourself how you would feel if you
were reading it.