Writing a description is all about transferring the image in your mind to the reader’s mind. One of the challenges is first solidifying and clarifying the image in *your* mind. Once that’s done, the description becomes far easier. Today we’ll look at a few techniques for solidifying the image of a setting so that it can be more easily described to the reader.
The first step is to choose the archetype of the setting. Are we roughly describing a courtroom, a treehouse village, a graveyard, etc.? And after we’ve chosen the basic archetype, what’s the mood or tone we’re wanting to convey? Are we describing a peaceful, lakeside cemetery or a zombie-ridden graveyard?
Defining the Components of the Setting
Next, we want to determine the components of the setting. What are the pieces that make up the scene? To do this we’ll consider each of the three broad categories of worldbuilding: land, people, and technology.
What are the components of the land in the setting? First, consider the features of the natural land. Are there any natural landmarks? Then consider the portions of the land that have been manipulated by the inhabitants. Has any artificial land been created? Are there any structures? Transportation paths or railways? Are there any artificial landmarks? Are there any passageways, gates, or “portals” to other settings? Consider also the setting’s current climate, season, weather, and any atmospheric phenomena.
Next, who or what inhabits the setting? Are there any noteworthy plants, animals, or monsters? What occupations exist in this setting? What industries exist around those occupations? What resources do those occupations and industries manipulate? What rituals occur in this setting (such as a funeral at a cemetery)? What are the routines and activities of the inhabitants? Who’s responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the setting? Are there any communities that live within or make use of the setting? What are the relationships between those communities?
And lastly, what technology and objects exist in the setting? What tools or objects do the inhabitants use to conduct their occupations, rituals, and routines? What tools do the inhabitants use to make use of the land? What tools do the inhabitants use to manipulate and manage the important resources of the setting? And finally, what tools do the inhabitants use to influence other inhabitants?
We should also consider the story-specific elements of the setting. What scene agitators might exist at this location? (Recall that a scene agitator is something that makes a task more difficult, distracting, uncomfortable, or intriguing). Examples of scene agitators include loud noises, implicit danger, physical discomfort, interruptions, instability, and anything annoying. And what sort of disruptions might occur in the setting? What problems, opportunities, or revelations might arise from the setting?
It can also be helpful to think about the setting from a “senses-first” perspective. In other words, think about what components of the setting are most associated with the senses. What makes noise in this setting? What catches the eye in this setting? What gives off a smell in this setting? What tactile sensations are there in this setting? What tastes linger in the air in this setting? Elements that are strongly associated with the senses are powerful tools for description.
Describing the Setting
At this point, the image of the setting should be fairly clear in our mind. We should have a better vision of the components of the setting and how they interact. Now it’s time to describe the setting and the components within it. And all the core principles of effective description apply here.
First, what’s the narrative focus here? What components of the setting will play a part in the upcoming scene? Are there any objects, land, animals, landmarks, etc. that will serve a role in the narrative? Obviously, these will be key elements to bring out in the description. And what elements of the scene can play a role in enhancing the tone of the scene? On what elements do we need to focus in order to clearly differentiate between a peaceful cemetery and a Halloween graveyard?
Let the reader know the archetype of the setting (i.e. is it a boatyard, a tavern, a castle, etc.?) Then describe the components that will play a narrative role or a role in establishing the tone of the setting. Lean on the five senses, movement, metaphor, hyponyms (i.e. specificity), and any component that violates the setting’s archetype. Describe the components and the setting will come to life.