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For Aspiring Writers

Description and setting

By Rachel Ann Nunes

Setting is separate from description. Yet, you can describe a setting, so many of these tips are linked or shared.

Can you think of a story that would be completely different if in a different setting? Think Robinson Crusoe and you can see how important a setting is.


  1. Give a clear sense of place - where does the story take place? The more removed from the experience of the reader, the more of both setting and description you will have to write. Sci-fi vs. contemporary romance. My novel A Greater Love takes place in Portugal, and not many of my readers have been there. I had to clearly set the scene and remind them about it throughout. (Same with a few of my other novels.) Yet in my most recently published novel, it was enough to say "Forbes Elementary School." My readers understand about American grade schools.

  2. What time of day is it?

  3. What time period?

  4. Try using an exotic setting like Terry Brooks, Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Jean Auel, and Jon Grisham. Readers love this! In my Ariana series, I chose romantic France as my setting.

  5. Use all the senses—smell, taste, touch, hear, see—so that readers can envision your setting.

  6. Use omniscient descriptions only at the beginning of a chapter or during one of the breaks in the chapter. Why? Because people like getting into one character's head and seeing from his/her point of view (POV). Suddenly switching to the author or narrators voice in mid-chapter or in mid-action will jar the reader and remind him that it's only a novel. So you may use this omniscient view to open a chapter, but once you are in a person's character, remain in it. Don't switch to another mind until you've change chapters or made a chapter break. (See the Point of view and Multiple points of view articles.)

  7. When it's necessary to switch back to an omniscient view, get back to a main character as soon as possible.

  8. Use research and factual details to enhance your settings. Don't go overboard! Remember, this is fiction! Don't tell more than is necessary for your story. Rarely do readers of fiction want to plow through pages and pages of history to get the sense of the story. Tell what is necessary and feed in more bits at a time. Don't inflict upon the reader every ounce of information you have researched on the setting.

  9. Setting (and description) can be interspersed with conversation. In my novel, A Greater Love, the flower lady is part of the setting, but the conversation shows the reader rather than tells them.

  10. The setting is almost always linked to the emotion of a character.

  11. Use setting to set the mood of the entire scene or story. Is your story happy? Sinister? Use an appropriate setting. If your character is in mourning, putting him in the midst of a great party will not likely give us the sense of his feeling. You could bring him into that party after you have set the mood—perhaps a visit to the graveyard—to emphasize his loneliness.

  12. This brings us to contrast—which is also used in description. See #1 below.

  1. Use contrast. Two good examples are the cooking chickens and the bug scene in my novel A Greater Love. (This entire book is a comparison of sorts—the wealth and security of the couple versus the poverty and desperation of the children.) For another example, think of a small, isolated house. Ask yourself, "What will make it seem more isolated and small?" Would you choose a forest or a flat, empty prairie? (Hint: obviously the prairie because it stands out in contrast to the huge, barren setting.)

  2. As with setting, use all the senses—smell, taste, touch, hear, see—so that readers can envision being in your character's shoes.

  3. How does your character react to what he is experiencing—remember, find the emotion in the story. You can do this even with the setting.

  4. Write simple and directly. If you get too fancy and long-winded, you will interrupt the reader's experience with too much prose. Avoid unnecessary big words.

  5. Use short, powerful sentences.

  6. Observe scenes/people around you.


Practice by writing at least thirty alternatives to saying it's cold.


Frost collected on the windowsill
Breath making clouds
Fingers trembling
Red fingers/skin
Runny nose