How do we make our settings real for our readers? How do we make them breathe and pulse with life?
1. Vivid images
2. Discretionary detail
What are vivid images?
An image that creates a strong picture in your reader’s mind. You create these images by taking advantage of sensory details: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.
I’m all for abstract. Abstract definitely has a place in fiction. But sometimes, creating a vivid image means being concrete.
Instead of: The room smelled like death. Try: The room smelled like rotted flesh.
Instead of: The silk blanket felt smooth. Try: The silk blanket glided beneath her fingers like cool glass.
What are discretionary details?
Details you purposefully choose to highlight. At your discretion. The fewer the better.
What do you, as a reader, want to read? A lengthy paragraph, detailing a room in its entirety? Or, one or two close ups of items inside that room that hint at mood and emotion? I don’t know about you, but I’ll pick the second option every time. I don’t care what color the trim is, unless, of course, the trim is important to the story.
Obviously, the details you choose to highlight should feed into the ambiance of your story. It all comes down to your discretion. Do you want to hone in on the abandoned tricycle lying in the yard? Or would you rather focus on the weeds strangling the patch of wild lilies growing by the fence? Or maybe you want to focus on the rusted lock bolted on the gate.
You see, the details you choose to highlight not only go a long way in creating a vivid picture, but they elicit a specific mood as well. Be very intentional about what details you choose to highlight. And limit your descriptions to one or two vivid images, because if you go beyond that, you will dilute the power of your setting.
One last word on setting: remember to present your setting subjectively, filtered through the eyes of your focal character. How does your focal character view her surroundings? Find a way to bring that emotion to the forefront by zooming in on details that will communicate these feelings.
Questions to Ponder: If you’re a writer, how do you handle settings in your stories? If you’re a reader, what types of settings do you enjoy reading about?