A Few Tips to Spice Up Setting

Over the course of this semester, I’ve actually done a couple posts for the blog of my college’s literary magazine.  I think the topics I chose were pretty universally useful, so I’ve decided to share one of them with you guys (and expand it a little)!

It seems like one of the most-often-given critiques of writing is that the reader “just wasn’t there.”  It can be hard to give a clear setting.  Sometimes, the image is there in your head and just won’t translate into words on a page.  Here are a few tips that will help you to spice up your setting:

  1. Do a little research. Maybe all you need is to look at a photograph to give you a clearer picture of where your story is taking place.  Know your setting inside and out.  If the writer isn’t clear on what he is trying to portray, generally the reader won’t be either.
  2. Envision yourself there. Ask yourself questions about what you might see, hear, or even smell.  Are you in a city or the wilderness?  If it is a city, are the people rich or poor?  Are the houses decrepit, well-kept, new, or old?  Is this place loud and busy or quiet?  What would this place smell like?
  3. Choose details to emphasize that will heighten the tension of your story. Is there something about the setting that annoys your characters or makes them feel at home?
  4. Use descriptive words. Rather than “rich,” you might use “gaudy,” or you might use “German shepherd” instead of “dog.”
  5. As always, show; don’t tell. If your setting is in a Minnesota winter, describe the ice, the snow, and the wind that nips at people’s faces.
  6. Don’t get bogged down by the little details. Unless one of your major characters is a taxi driver, describing what’s hanging from the rear-view mirror of the cab that’s parked on the side of the street probably isn’t too important.
  7. Keep the story moving. Perhaps reveal setting as a character moves through it or as a character observes an event taking place there.
  8. Once you have a setting, look it over.  Can you condense?  Do you have more questions that need to be answered?

It can be hard with fantasy to do some of this, because you often can’t go to your setting—it’s made up!—so photos can be less than helpful, but they are useful for giving a sense of direction.  If you use photos as a starting point, that can help you to broaden your view of your setting.

This leads to a couple extra tips that I have, which could be helpful for other genres, too:

  1. Draw it. If you have it in your head but can’t get it onto a page, draw what you see in your head.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’re a good artist, because nobody else is going to see it anyway unless you show it to them.  Once you draw it, you’ll know two things: 1) whether or not you even like what you had envisioned and 2) what you need to be describing.  There’s something about seeing images that helps to connect words to them.
  2. Draw a map. This probably seems a little redundant, considering the last one (and it very well may be) but drawing a map can help with directional description.
  3. Perhaps try describing based on a character’s emotion. If your character is happy, she’ll notice different things than she would if she was sad, angry, or confused.  Sometimes the details we notice (and especially the details we miss) can become important later.

I hope these helped.  This turned out to be a lot longer than normal!  Then again, procrastination (on final exams, too) can be a powerful motivator.


If anybody’s interested, here’s a link to the blog I posted a shorter version of this on: http://inkwellblc.wordpress.com/

3 thoughts on “A Few Tips to Spice Up Setting”

  1. This is a great post Kristina! Thank you for the useful tips on description! I know how you feel regarding procrastination. I have been trying to work on the Non-Western Exam and I still have written very much of it. Her thing about a universal concern is really hard to try and come up with a thesis statement for.


    1. Thank you, and you’re very welcome.
      In regard to Non-Western–Just remember, as long as it’s a theme you can give solid evidence for from the texts, she isn’t going to argue with you. She seems very relaxed about interpretation of the novels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is true. I finally wrote the thing and hopefully it works. I decided to do something about inequality and how women in don’t always have a voice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: