Monday, October 21, 2019

How To Create A Vivid Experience With Setting Descriptions

by Rayne Hall

(British English Spelling)
Are your place descriptions exciting parts of your story, or do they feel like clunky disruptions to the plot? Here's a powerful writing technique for making them flow and pulling the reader in.

Many writers make the mistake of describing places the way they see them, or the way most people do. The trick is to show the location in the way the story's point-of-view character sees it.

First, identify the point-of-view character of the scene. Through whose eyes, ears and thoughts do you want the reader to experience this part of the story? Show the setting from this character's perspective.

If ten people walk down the same road, all ten will notice something different. When you visualise the place, pick not the details you would see, but the ones the character would. This way, setting descriptions become part of the characterisation.

Let's look at some practical examples. Imagine several characters strolling down the same road in a British town.

Consider these factors:

1. The Character's Job

A person who spends day after day, year after year looking at everything in a certain way will automatically assess everything in this manner, even in his leisure time.

Strolling down a road, the architect sees a row of Victorian terraced houses with bay windows, some with modern double glazing, some with rotting window frames. The health and safety inspector walking down the same road notices the overflowing rubbish bins and the dog turds steaming on the pavement. The burglar observes that half the houses have intruder alarms and motion-sensor floodlights.

2. The character's hobbies

Most people immediately notice anything related to their hobbies. Spend a moment contemplating what interest's the PoV character.

If she's an animal lover, she sees people walking their bull terriers, and a grey squirrel sitting on a fence. The hobby gardener sees neglected front gardens, overgrown with borage and brambles, and front steps here potted geraniums have died from neglect. The car enthusiast sees battered Citroens parked on the roadside.

3. The Character's Relationships

A mother sees the unsupervised children playing on the pavement, and broken toys. A young man who's fallen in love with a blonde girl, who drives a red Vauxhall, will see red Vauxhall cars and blondes everywhere.

4. The Character's Obsessions

What does your PoV character obsess about? You can convey his state of mind through setting descriptions.

A local politician desperate to get re-elected observes how many voters probably live in this road, and that potholes and defective street lighting are likely concerns. A recovering drug addict struggling against his cravings notices a smell of marijuana. A woman who is desperate to get pregnant sees mothers pushing prams.

5. The character's Dominant Sense

Is one sense especially acute in this character, either by nature or by training?

Walking down a rainy road, a vision-oriented painter will see the spreading circles on the surfaces of puddles, while a drummer will hear the rhythm of the drops hammering on the car roofs.

Deepening the PoV

Leave out filter words which create a barrier between the PoV and the reader: I/he/she/ saw/heard/smelled/noticed/could see/could hear/could smell etc. Although these words are not wrong, they're not needed once you've established who the PoV character of the scene is. It's best to use them sparingly.

Here are some examples.

Shallow PoV: She heard a motor whine in the distance.
Deep PoV: A motor whined in the distance.

Shallow PoV: He realised that the hum came from a combine harvester.
Deep PoV: The hum came from a combine harvester.

Shallow PoV: He could see waves crashing against the shore.
Deep PoV: Waves crashed against the shore.

The deeper the PoV, the more powerful the reader's experience.

Writing the Actual Descriptions

Less is more. Keep your setting descriptions short, because readers tend to skip lengthy descriptive paragraphs.

Don't dump all the setting descriptions at the beginning of the scene, but sprinkle them, two sentences here, three there.

Don't rely exclusively on visual impressions. A sentence describing smells evokes the place more strongly than a whole paragraph about visuals. Sounds add excitement and don't slow the pace like visual do.

A Practical Assignment

Who is the PoV of the scene you're writing or revising? What are his or her job, hobbies, obsessions and dominant sense? Therefore, in the scene you're working on, what will he or she notice about the setting?

If you like, post your answer in the comments section, and I'll try to reply.

As the author of the bestselling Writer's Craft guides, she answers writing-related questions on Twitter,  posts articles online, coaches authors, edits books, speaks at conferences and teaches online classes.

She has been working in the publishing industry for three decades, as a trainee publishing manager, editorial assistant, magazine editor, investigative journalist, production editor, literary agent, and publishing consultant. In between, and often at the same time, she has been a museum guide, adult education teacher, development aid worker, apple picker, trade fair hostess, translator, belly dancer, and tarot reader.  

Now she is a professional writer, with more than sixty books published under several pen names (mostly Rayne Hall), in several genres (mostly fantasy, horror, historical and non-fiction), by several publishers (and indie-published), in several languages.

After living in Germany, China, Mongolia, Nepal, and Britain, she is now based in Bulgaria where she enjoys visiting ancient Roman ruins and hot springs, going for walks in the countryside, permaculture gardening and training her cats.  If you find this article helpful and want to study the subject in greater depth, Rayne's books Writing Deep Point of View (  and Writing Vivid Settings  ( will teach you professional-level techniques.  

Sulu the lucky black cat (adopted from a cat rescue shelter) recommends them.
Rayne on Goodreads  Twitter  Rayne's Website   Rayne Hall Independent Author Network 


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Those are great ways to strengthen the description and the character!

Rayne Hall said...
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Kate said...

Thank you for the incisive way you lay this out. My POV character is a woman becoming vulnerable to preying men as her husband is dying. She runs an inn along a remote trail over a mountain pass. I have not worked conscientiously with Deep POV in my reading or writing, but the more of your books and articles I read, the more confident I feel about seeing the sense of it and using it. So far, I have described the setting as if I were an observer. From her point of view, however, the fire she has made, the tables she keeps clean, the sense of her dwindling safety as she tries to conceal her husband’s illness can be worked into the description of the setting, and not as an information dump, but here and there as you wisely suggest.

Your examples are helpful. Using that template, here is one before and after sample I have come up with for one scene:

Before: A shimmering lock of her brunette hair flopped over her shoulder as she laid the cups down at their table.

After: She knotted her hair tightly before approaching the men and serving their tea.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I really like the tip on less is best. I don't love writing about my setting. Thanks for the tips.

Eric brunt said...
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Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent tips! I always have a hard time striking the balance because I am the sort of reader who skims over most descriptions. I'm going to make note of these. Thank you!

Pat Hatt said...

Yeah, over describing sure can cause the eyes to close. I was guilty of that at times. Less is more indeed.

DougK said...

Excellent article, Rayne, touching on aspects I've never considered. I'll keep it for reference.

Applying it to my work in progress, the POV character's obsession is organ transplants. So, when he walks through a hospital, all the pictures and diagrams of the various organs & systems jump out at him. He might also view passersby in terms of, "Might that pallid-looking man need a heart? That woman in sunglasses, could she use a new eye?" Etc. Thanks much.

Unknown said...

This is a great list to keep on hand (a note for your Scrivener template?)

Other common descriptive devices include not just hobbies but

simple (and guilty) pleasures: a favorite meal, book frequently read (or list of well-worn books on the shelf), wines in the rack (rare or easy to find) the cigarettes behind the headboard, the 25 year old scotch behind the encyclopedias.

decor: show-off or lived in, magazines on coffee table (what titles, stacked neatly or tossed around), everything matched or second-hand store, even something telling like binoculars by the windows.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Great advice. Now I'm already thinking of a few things I can do to deepen POV for my characters.

Rayne Hall said...

Thanks, Alex J. Cavanaugh . Will you apply them to your writing?

Rayne Hall said...

Kate, I agree the new version in her PoV is much more effective. In just a few words, it conveys a lot about her situation, her mood and her attitude. Those are more interesting and important than the colour of her her. (The new sentence doesn't include description, but you can apply the same technique to descriptions.)

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Natalie Aguirre. Yes, less is often best. Some writers have a terse writing style with minimal description, and it works great. Maybe you're naturally one of them. The technique to make this minimal-description style effective is to choose the right details to describe and to craft those descriptions really well.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Pat Hatt , I was guilty of that once upon a time, too. I wrote lengthy descriptions - covering details the reader didn't need to know, weighed down with info-dumps, and presented in a wordy style. Of course, my readers skipped across those paragraphs to get to action. Eventually I grasped that if readers weren't reading those descriptions, there was no point in actually writing them. :-D ---- I've come a long way since then. My descriptions are really good now - deepening the characterisation and carrying the plot forward as well as creating atmosphere and building tension.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Elisabeth, If you're the kind of reader who skims over descriptions, you may want to do some 'conscious skimming' - observe what makes you skim. You can learn a lot from other writers' weaknesses to improve your own writing.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi DougK, exactly! This character has organ transplants on his mind, so when walking through the hospital, he'll see things related to organ transplants. This will not only deepen the PoV, but give the story a stronger focus.

Rayne Hall said...

Unknown These are great examples of details to choose to convey information about a character. (Not so much about the PoV character, but about other characters, e.g. the person who lives in that apartment and owns that book.)

Umm A.K. said...
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Diana Atanasova said...

Hi Rayne,

I am not exactly a writer but sometimes I get inspired to scribble something down, so this article made a very interesting and beneficial read to me. I also used to be a voracious reader (I am probably still one but simply don't have time to read anymore) and I have always been interested to know how some writes achieve such a great impact on the reader. It's so kind of you to share your knowledge. Learning about writing techniques is certainly beneficial to both the professional writer and the layman. Diana

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Diana Atanasova, Filtering descriptions through the Point-of-View is an advanced technique. Don't get stuck on technicalities while you're just starting out with writing, since this might lessen your enjoyment.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Hobbies are a great way to connect the character to a scene or place. Everyone notices something different based on their experiences and their likes.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Those are excellent tips for getting deep POV scene descriptions! Thank you for sharing!

Juneta key said...

Thank you Rayne, so much for being our guest. A great tips and learning post. I own the book (and others lol-most of them). I really enjoyed everything you write. Thanks for being so great and accessible too. That inspires me even more. Always a fan, Juneta

Helen said...

I rely heavily on sight (as most humans do) and decided to write a book (historical and mystery) from the POV of a blind woman. I think it turned out rather well. I enjoyed trying to give description of 'action' from her POV. I made me very aware of how much you might rely on vision as an author.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Diana L Wolfe, Yes, hobbies are great for that. It's such an effective way to convey characterisation and deepen the experience, and surprisingly easy - yet many writers haven't discovered it.

Rayne Hall said...

Thanks, Tyrean. I hope you find these tips inspiring or your writing, and that you can apply them to your work in progress.

Rayne Hall said...

Thank you for the compliments, Juneta! I feel honoured.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Helen,
Writing from a blind person's perspective when you're not blind yourself is a tough challenge. Well done for tackling that. And yes, it's a great way to learn about a different PoV and about using different senses. --- It's true that for most humans, vision is the dominant sense, that's on a conscious level only. Subconsciously, we respond more strongly to other senses than we're aware of. For example, the sense of smell can give us information and we act on it without even being aware that we do. (The sense of smell is a great tool in the hands of a skilled writer. We can manipulate our readers' subconscious.)

cleemckenzie said...

A lot of great suggestions! Thank you for posting them here.

Powdered Toast Man said...

I had no idea writing about setting was so important. Those are some excellent pointers.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great examples and tips!!
I'm not a very visual person so I know my setting tend to lack in the visual sense. At least I'm aware of it and round it out in later drafts ... sometimes :)

Rayne Hall said...

You're welcome, Patricia Josephine aka Patricia Lynne :-)

Rayne Hall said...

Which is your favourite suggestion, cleemckenzie? (I'm curious. :-) )

Linda Fox said...

I'm going to print this out and use when starting revisions to the 1st draft of my current WIP.

HUGELY helpful!

SpacerGuy said...

Thats one well behaved cat, obviously a geek no less!

H.R. Bennett said...

If I can throw in my two cents, I feel like obsessions might be more than some people let on:

Someone might be a perfectionist and be obsessed with their work. Someone might be afraid to die and therefore be obsessed with 'Not wasting time'. Someone might be obsessed with feelings of inadequacy and therefore might be constantly trying to prove themselves as good or strong.

Obsessions are actually a huge unconscious part of a character and can be really fun to play with.

Susan B.Rouchard said...

Thank you Juneta for this very informative post. Many good ideas and tips to keep close.

Rayne Hall said...

Linda Fox Great! Have fun applying these tips.

Rayne Hall said...

Spacer Guy: My cat Sulu loves to read books. When I put an open book on the table, he lies down next to it, often with a paw on the page, and 'reads'. When he sees me reading a book, he comes running, touches the book to tell me he wishes to read it, and purrs when I give it to him. :-)

Rayne Hall said...

HRBennett87 Yes, obsessions are great fiction material, whether as part of the plot or in the subtext. I agree that you can filter descriptions through the 'obsessed' experience, overtly or subtly, whichever suits your story best.