Five Tips to Adding Depth with Setting
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
-Edward George Bulwer-Lytton 1830
One of the most famous descriptions… what does it do to us? Easy. It puts us right there. It firmly removes us from the chair we are sitting in and places us in the 19th century.
There’s a reason this is one of the most quoted lines in literature—it works!
So, how do you do that? How do you remove your reader from where they are physically and place them somewhere else? Does it take a mammoth sentence like the one above? I’ve got 5 tricks and tips on writing great description.
Obviously, it doesn’t because writers do this all the time. With great descriptions and evocative language, they transport their readers into a world of their own creation.
The trick, contrary to the sentence above, is not in paragraph-long sentences, but in short, phrases throw in here and there. As a reader, you might not even notice the descriptions an author throws in. They’re just part of the action, or the dialogue, or a dialogue tag. But it’s those tiny, little pieces of description that move the reader.
If you put in huge clumps of description—dumps, as they’re called—you’re going to lose your reader. Either they’ll put down the book altogether, having lost interest, or they’ll skim through or skip that paragraph entirely. Reading descriptions can be boring, especially if it doesn’t do anything to move the story forward. If, instead, it stops your story’s progress cold, it’s not going to be of any interest to the reader (unless, of course, it’s written in fantastic, evocative language like the one above, but even then, how often have you seen that full sentence… almost never. All quotes of it stop after that first phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.” No one wants to read any further than that because it’s simply too long).
So, tip #1 of writing setting is to sprinkle it in like the hottest pepper in your sauce. Too much and you’ll kill your dish. Too little and no one will taste it or know it’s there.
Tip #2: Setting is essential to defining your characters, showing growth and possibly even showing your character’s internal conflict. How your characters view the world around them shows your reader what is important to the character. Do they walk into a room and see the big screen tv and the leather furniture or do they notice that the colors of the oriental run on the floor are enhanced by the color of the wall and that the accent pillows pull the furniture into the color scheme as well? It depends on what sort of person is noticing.
When your character first walks into a room, you need to see it through their eyes, not your own. You need to know what’s important to that character, what they would notice first, and what they might not see at all.
Has your character been in this room before? In this house? If so, you can use this as an opportunity to show how your character has changed. Perhaps the first time they were there, they were a child, now the rooms seem to have shrunk. Perhaps the first time they were there they didn’t notice the tv and expensive furniture, but that was before they lost all their money to the scheming villain of the story. Now that they’re here for a loan, they’re noticing that, yeah, the owner of the home can definitely afford to lend them a few bucks.
Is your protagonist at a crossroads in their life? Do they not know where to go next? Having them wander a new place, physically lost, can be a great reflection of that. The trope of going home is used so much because it works—when a character doesn’t know what to do with their life, going to someplace familiar might help. And then there’s the beautiful trope of a character physically fixing their home as they fix everything that’s wrong in their life. Each of these use the setting as a reflection of what’s happening internally.
Contrary to that is tip #3, use your setting to provide conflict. If your character is emotionally and physically lost in a desert, they’re not only going to suffer emotionally, but probably physically as well. Storms, seas, mountains, forests—they can all be used to provide a physical conflict for a story.
Tip #4: Setting can be used as a character itself in the story. Just as that house your character is fixing can reflect the life their mending as well, the house can create problems and provide answers for your character, thereby acting as another character in your story. And, please, lets not forget the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter stories (personally, I love that room and want one!). It’s always there when our heroes need it and it always has in it just what they’re looking for, whether they know it or not. It most definitely is another character in the story.
And finally, tip #5, back to where we began with our dark and story night. Scroll back up to that sentence again: torrents of rain… violent gust of wind… rattling along the housetops…fiercely agitating the scanty flame…struggled against the darkness.
Is this going to be a happy tale? Is this going to be a funny, light-hearted romance? I kinda don’t think so! The language used in the description sets the atmosphere for the entire story. It creates the tone. We prepare for scary-spookiness. So, too, can you create the tone and atmosphere for your story simply through your brief descriptions of the setting in your tale.
The house appeared around the next bend, it’s wrap-around porch like a wide smile with a few teeth missing. The upper windows winked at Klara as if to welcome her home, but its mascara was running with drips of dirt down the wood siding from innumerable rainstorms. Even the chimney on the roof was falling down like a broken feather in its hat. “Don’t worry, Sweetie, we’ll get you fixed up in no time,” Klara said quietly under her breath as she pulled into the driveway.
As you write your 50,000 words as quickly as you can, you may not have time to craft your descriptions, but that’s okay. Put in place holders—one or two words to remind yourself of what your character is seeing and perhaps why. When you go back to edit and revise your hastily written work, you’ll know just where to add in those few words of description and how to do so. You’ll be able to flesh out your character and your setting all at once and add depth to your story.