Breathe Life into your Setting

How do we make our settings real for our readers? How do we make them breathe and pulse with life?

Two ways:
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?


18 thoughts on “Breathe Life into your Setting

  1. Janet

    Hi, this is a great post. I've only been writing for a couple of years, but I find the more I write the better I get. I liked your info about description setting the mood and writing details that your characters would notice. I'm currently rewriting one of my MG stories and will definately use this info.

  2. Katie Ganshert

    Krista – very true. We have some sort of filter in our brains, don't we? I heard something once…that if we could actually absorb or take in all of the sensory details around us, we would literally go bonkers with overload. Best not to do that to our readers!

    Jessica – yep, I totally followed that sentence. πŸ™‚ I agree, I'm not a fan of lots of details either.

  3. Jessica

    Congrats on winning! πŸ™‚

    Great post here. In life, I don't think we notice every detail either. Like, when you have a memory, isn't there just usually a few details that you remember clearly, that symbolize and deepen the entire memory and make it good or bad? (does that sentence make sense? LOL)
    This is a good reminder for me. I definitely don't like lots of details, get lost in them.

  4. Krista Phillips

    So very true! And I LOVED the additional note about just picking a "few" details to excentuate. I think even when we walk into a room, we don't take in ALL details… only the ones that stand out, that are the most important to us. The same should be for our characters.

  5. Katie Ganshert

    Thanks Galen, I'd appreciate being added to your blog roll! Glad it was helpful. πŸ™‚

    Bonnie – excellent point!

  6. Bonnie Doran

    I see the discretionary description of setting used in a number of novels, and it's fun to see how the author uses them. For instance, a raven screaming in a hemlock tree may indicate impending death. It can be a bit of foreshadowing as well as setting the mood.

  7. Galen Kindley--Author

    Yeah, gotta agree with the others. This is good stuff, well explained. I RT’d ES Craig's Tweet. Also, gonna add you to my blog roll links if that's okay. Again, nice job.

    Best regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  8. Katie Ganshert

    You're most certainly welcome, Eileen! I'm glad the post was helpful. I'm super excited for Wednesday's post!!

    Jody – I can imagine it's tough with historicals. There's just SO much extra stuff you historical writers have to get in there to make sure the reader is grounded in the setting.

    Thanks Tabitha! Glad it was helpful!

    Marybeth – you're on a ROLL sista! That's awesome about your book progress! Keep it up. πŸ™‚

    Yay for good timing, Heather. πŸ™‚

    Can't wait to get it, Carrie.

    Elizabeth – thanks for tweeting me. Wow…that sounds odd, doesn't it?

    Awww, shucks, Sherrinda. You're too nice. I appreciate the encouraging words. πŸ™‚

    Erica – one of the things I love about you (there are many things, but I will just list one) is how you get excited and celebrate things with me. You're a blessing!

    Thanks Ralene! And SO true. They go hand-in-hand. For the ms I just recently completed, my heroine was an architect. So she noticed building type stuff. All of it must be filtered. πŸ™‚

  9. Ralene

    I echo everyone's hearty congrats on your winning entry.

    Great reminders, too. Your last two points on discretionary details and filtering through characters definitely go hand in hand. Those details you choose to highlight should be the ones the POV character would notice. A fashionista would definitely notice what everyone is wearing, but may not even notice the background (unless it clashed with someone's outfit). Good stuff!

  10. Erica Vetsch

    Congrats on winning a contest! Woohoo! and WOOOT!

    I love it when details are woven into the action, when a character interacts with the setting rather than getting a rundown of items and decor. πŸ™‚

  11. sherrinda

    Your winning entry is wonderful, Katie! I'm impressed! Congrats!

    I tend to skim over the long paragraphs full of detail, so I try not to overload on it. I love your suggestion on picking out just a few key items and focusing on those. MUCH better way of doing it!

  12. Elizabeth Spann Craig

    Great points. I've tweeted this one. πŸ™‚

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  13. CKHB

    Your winning story is posted and live on my blog for all to read! Thanks again so much for playing, and your prize will be put in the mail later today!

  14. Heather Sunseri

    Great post, Katie. This was very timely for me also. Setting is a very important part of my current MS. Thanks. I especially like the reminder that we don't have to give the tiny details that have nothing to do with the story – to pick out a couple of the most important details.

  15. Marybeth Poppins

    Congrats on winning!

    I totally did not understand this concept 9 months ago. Thankfully I do now! I'm hoping I am much better with it in my second novel πŸ™‚

  16. Tabitha Bird

    Well done on winning the flash fiction contest, Katie! And thanks for today's post. I'll ear mark this page. Great info.

  17. Jody Hedlund

    Congrats on winning! How fun!

    And I love your reminders on setting. I have to keep reminding myself that the setting details I include should be unique to my viewpoint character. And with historicals, I think it's especially challenging to try to get in the important detials without overwhelming the reader.

  18. Eileen Astels Watson

    Congrats on winning the flash fiction story!! Way to go.

    Good points on setting. I'll be thinking of this while I write today. Thanks!


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