Setting and Sensory Detail

Posted on August 13, 2012 by

No matter what genre you are writing in, your novel has to take place somewhere. In some cases that world is the here and now, a place you and your readers ought to find quite recognizable. In others, you may need to research a less familiar setting. No matter where or when you set a book, though, it is important to remember that every place and time is unique, and that no matter how ordinary an environment seems to you, there are readers who will find it vivid and intriguing–if only you take the time to make it so.

It is all too easy to take the present day for granted, but compare these two fragments:

“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.

In the Woods, Tana French

The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back to so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.

Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Both of these novels take place in the present day, and both evoke the past as a means of anchoring writers in the present. But they couldn’t be more different. French evokes the romance of an Irish summer; Palahniuk the grim reality of a U.S. historical theme park on an especially dismal day. Despite the fact that they theoretically take place within the same world and timeframe, it is hard to imagine Denny and Victor running loose in the bright backyards of French’s Ireland.

Rather than letting your setting work as a simple, perhaps even generic background for your characters, think of it as the stage on which your novel takes place–and remember how much work goes into designing stages in theater and film. A good set is designed in detail, built from the ground up and carefully ‘dressed’ with objects and spaces that allow the characters and the audience to fully explore the world they move through. In a similar fashion, a well-rendered setting can amplify your theme, enhance mood, add new dimensions to a character’s plight, provide ‘props’ for the action, and even take on character traits of its own. More importantly, setting is where your readers ‘go’ when they enter your fiction. Writing transports readers out of their daily lives and into new realms. . . and, indeed, you will hear from many people that this experience is exactly what they are looking for when they pick up a novel.

Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. Speculative fiction authors may build entire worlds from scratch; writers of historical fiction must bring the past to life.

When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, ask yourself what is remarkable about the environment in which your characters move. Might any element of your ‘stage’–from the weather to the architecture to the religious climate–be considered noteworthy, even extreme? What is the first thing an ordinary person would notice, were they to walk through this world? What would excite them, or scare them? What would arouse their curiosity? Where and when are they, in other words? Does the environment require anything special of them–access passes, survival gear, money, social status, a minimum level of physical fitness, a health concern, or simple travel?

Sensory Detail

Once you have given your setting some thought, your task becomes making it real to readers. How do you do that? You can describe your setting, of course–but all too often new writes fall into the trap of offering a few bland visuals before moving on. Pause for a moment, and think about all your senses. How does this place smell, taste? What are its textures? If there is a dominant visual element, is it particularly compelling?

When teachers or workshop members tell a writer their work could use more sensory detail, this is what they are talking about: specific images that allow readers to experience what being in a particular place is like.

Compare the two text fragments above once more. How many colors does Tana French mention? How many sounds and tastes has she evoked within the short passage quoted above? How many of these images are things you remember or can clearly imagine? What about the Palahniuk? Do you have a good idea of what that damp and rainy cold must be like?

Now, consider the novel you are working on. Where does it take place? What is that place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold? Ask yourself: how does this place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?

If you’re working on something now that could use a dialed-up setting, take the time to make a short list of these details, breaking the list down into several examples of each sense being evoked: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Next, decide which of these details is most vivid, or see if you can sharpen them from the generic (a blue summer sky) to something more specific (French’s “hot pure silkscreen blue”).

When placing your reader within a particular setting, the old adage “show, don’t tell” comes in. Having made your list of vivid sensory details, place them within your narrative–and let your characters experience the reality you have created. Instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.

If you can learn to evoke the heart of your setting with intensely sensory phrases, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable book.

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