Something I’ve always struggled with is description, especially when describing setting. At least until very recently. I found myself writing in one of two ways: Absolutely no description, or ALL of the description. I would write long, boring expositions that had no life, no color, and gave no pleasure to the reader. Or, I would write in a way that my characters ended up in some sort of settingless void. I’ve heard others call it a “white void”, which is where characters end up when a writer doesn’t properly describe a setting. And trust me, I had some white voids in my writing.
But how does one avoid that? How do you describe a setting in a way that is both interesting and concise? Well, I think there are a lot of ways to go about this, and there are probably thousands of other articles and blogs that talk about this. So, if you aren’t satisfied with my advice, go check out some more! If I had to implant one idea into the mind of a writer to help them write description, it would be this: Make your settings feel alive. Don’t just create a space. Create a place. That means that when you describe a room you don’t just say what furniture is making its home there. If you do, you end up with a white void that has a comfy looking sofa. That’s not what you want. So how do you make a place feel alive? How do you create an environment that feels like it’s breathing, like things are actually living within it?
In order to do this you have to learn to really think about the setting you’re trying to describe. For me, I always started out thinking about what a place looked like… but then I didn’t go much further. One of the main problems that beginner writers have is relying solely on sight in order to capture a setting. You have four more senses. Use them. So, let’s get into it.
Let’s say that you’re wanting to describe a beach. Simple, right? You’ve got crashing waves, sand, a big blue sky. Done! See, that was easy!
If you do that, you’re creating a lifeless, generic idea of what a beach should be. At that point you’re just counting on your reader to create their own idea of what that beach looks like. So, how do you make this beach feel alive? There are a few areas that I think writers often times look over when describing a setting- ideas that are crucial to creating a living, breathing, colorful setting.
NUMERO UNO! Textures
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Textures? What do textures have to do with anything?” WELL TEXTURES HAVE TO DO WITH EVERYTHING! Think about this. You’re describing a beach, and you mention the sand. Well, is it just sand? Or is it coarse sand? Does the sand have thousands of tiny pieces of shell scattered across it? Are there sharp little twigs and pieces of drift wood buried in it? The answer to these questions is yes. By describing these little details, you’ve now gone from a bland sand bank to a colorful, touchable seashore.
NUMBER TWO! Temperatures
Setting is all about layers. By thinking of things like texture and temperature, you’re layering your setting in a way that your reader can imagine clearly, with all five senses. Is the beach hot under the midsummer sun? Is the sand boiling under foot? Or, is it cold out? Is the water so frigid that you can’t believe it’s still a liquid? By mentioning the temperature of the area, you’ve created something that the reader can almost feel on their skin. They will imagine the hot sand on their feet, or the cold wind on their face. It’s a good thing.
THE THIRD THING! Wildlife and other living things
This is something that I LOVE to see while I’m reading. By mentioning the other living things around the area, you’re giving the reader the sense that other creatures are dwelling in that space, living independent lives from the character. This is one of the most important things, in my personal opinion, to making a scene (especially a nature scene) come alive. So mention the seagulls, or the tiny crabs darting across the sand, or the little fish that are swimming in the shallows. By now you’re starting to see it, right? The whole big picture is starting to come together, and that once plain Jane beach is now starting to be a realistic place. Onward!
FOUR! Other senses
This is one of the biggest things that I see writers talk about when they talk about setting. The first three things that I’ve listed here don’t seem to be focused on as much, so I’ll make this section brief. You have a nose. You have ears. You have skin. So do your characters. Don’t just describe your character seeing a seagull, let your character hear that seagull. Or smell the salt water. Or whatever. Using other senses really rounds out the setting, making it feel like a place that we could actually travel to or see with our own eyes.
V! (five) Details
Now, some writers go way overboard with this one, and I’m not crazy about it. But details are still extremely important. By having your character notice something unique or unusual about the setting, the reader will no longer feel like they are in a well described generic place. For instance, let’s say that there is… I don’t know… A massive steel drainage pipe that comes from the sand dunes and extends into the ocean. You’re reader will now identify that beach by this unusual object. You have to make your setting feel real. And real places have unique features. (Some of which are ugly steel pipes.)
So, now that you have a few more things to keep in mind when you’re crafting a setting, how do you actually put it all together? My best advice is to let it come naturally. Don’t throw all of this description into one paragraph, or even one page for that matter. Let the reader discover each of these things as the character discovers them. The beach (or whatever setting you are creating) will evolve and become more complex as the scene unfolds. If your character notices a pretty pink shell, say so. If not, don’t. Only describe the setting as much as the characters would. If you are in the middle of a huge action sequence, your character is probably not going to notice that pretty pink shell. Like I said, setting is something that should feel natural, and it should evolve as it is needed in the scene.