Ask almost anyone what they love about reading, and they’ll tell you that their favorite thing—or at least in the top five—is the sense of being swept into another world. This is true for both historical and contemporary stories. Readers want to feel like they’re in Atlanta when it burned during the Civil War or atop a skyscraper in NYC overlooking Central Park right now. To transport readers, first you need to create empathy between them and your characters, and then give enough setting detail to let readers see, touch, taste, hear, and smell the world their friends (aka, your characters) live in.
There is, however, a balance you need to strike with description. Too much, and you lose the reader’s interest. They are skimming to find the next bit of “interesting” stuff. Too little, and the reader never gets grounded in the story world. It would be like watching a movie or TV show where the actors have a few props to work with but the background is a green screen.
The best way to add description is in small bits as you go along in a way that doesn’t stop the action. Here are a few examples to illustrate:
Bad: Stephanie stepped into the curricle, a two-wheeled, two seater carriage pulled by two horses.
Better: Geoff leaned sideways from his seat in the curricle, extending his hand to help Stephanie inside. There was barely enough room for the two of them inside the carriage. The matched bay horses snorted their impatience to be off.
Best: Geoff leaned sideways from his seat in the curricle, extending his hand to help Stephanie inside. This was her last chance to turn back. If she allowed him to drive her through the streets of London in a carriage barely large enough for two people, it was as good as posting a notice in The Times that she’d accepted his proposal. The matched bay horses held in check by Geoff’s grip on the reins snorted their impatience, as if to say, “It’s too late for second thought now. Your fate is sealed.”
The bad example is author intrusion at its worst. The better example at least doesn’t stop the action to explain what a curricle is, but it’s dry. The best example intersperses Stephanie’s fears about getting into the curricle along with the description of what it is.
Here’s a more modern setting:
Andrea’s grip on her resume tightened as Mr. Warren’s secretary led the way to the mahogany doors leading into his office. The red-head’s black silk dress hugged her pencil thin frame. Did all the women at The New York Times look like they belonged on the cover of Vogue? If so, Andrea’s interview was doomed to fail. She ran her sweaty palm over her navy gabardine skirt and picked at a few nubs of balled up fabric.
In the first sentence, you see that Mr. Warren is an important man because 1) he has a secretary, and 2) his office has double doors made of mahogany. If the double doors didn’t tell you he was important, the mahogany did. The next two sentences describing the gorgeous secretary seal the impression of Mr. Warren’s importance. Those two sentences about the secretary plus the next one also tell you that Andrea is probably short, carrying a few extra pounds, and doesn’t consider herself beautiful. The final sentence tells you that she doesn’t have a lot of money by saying she’s in a gabardine skirt that’s so old the fabric has started to pill up. In addition, you know that Andrea is 1) there for a job, probably as a reporter since it’s the New York Times, 2) she must be pretty good if she’s got an interview there, especially with an important man like Mr. Warren, and 3) she’s nervous about it.
That’s a lot of information to cram into a single paragraph, but it all happened by using setting details to help tell the story.
This isn’t the only way to set a scene. Some authors, particularly at the beginning of a story, will take a long time describing a person or place. To keep the reader’s interest, the writing needs to be lyrical or suspenseful, depending on the story. Most stories, however, will drop you into the middle of some action and incorporate the setting details through judicious descriptions that incorporate the five senses.
One last thing to remember: describe things from your character’s point of view and in a way that’s appropriate for the time period and mood of the scene. For example, if your character is a man, he’s not going to call a dress mauve or coral. It’s pink, plain and simple. Unless he’s a fashion designer, he won’t know a sundress from a cocktail dress. The best you’re going to get is that it fits tight or loose, has bare shoulders or covers from neck to knee, and whether the woman wearing it raises his blood temperature. Give him a car to describe, however, and you get make, model, and paint color. Stereotypically, a woman will describe a dress by giving as many details as she knows: the designer, exact color, and at least the decade it was in style. But when it comes to cars, she’ll describe the color and whether it was a car, truck, or a minivan. As for mood, put her behind a car that’s going slow on a one land road when she’s trying to get to the hospital with a sick child. Put her behind that same car going the same speed on the same road but make it during a blizzard and it’s the only thing she sees. How does the description change based on the circumstances?
Setting the scene using descriptions based on occupation is one way to create different “voices” from the multiple characters. How would a hair dresser describe brown vs. a gardener? Or a computer video game designer describe the mess left by children on the living room floor vs. a vacuum cleaner salesman? Whenever you describe something, put yourself inside your character’s head. What’s their mood? What’s the stress level of the scene? What in his everyday life compares to what he’s describing?
Just be sure you are sprinkling sensory detail into the action like pepper into scrambled eggs.
Next time you are browsing for a book to read, check how the author draws you into the setting. Next time you are tempted to skip a large section of a story, check to see if the author has dumped a long, dry description into the action. And next time you sit down to write, check to see how well you are peppering your story with a sensory word to incorporate setting details.
With pen to paper,