Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Make Sure Your Settings Don't Sound Like Everyone Else's Settings

Courtesy Wikipedia

One of the aspects of writing where I know I’m deficient is in my descriptions of settings. My descriptions tend toward the bland and boring, assuming I even remember to add them in the first place. I’m so focused on keeping the reader grounded in the events driving the story forward, I rarely think about the setting—that is, until my CPs gently point out they know nothing about the surrounding area. I have to force myself to go back and add in the details, and to be honest, they’re usually pretty telling. Sigh...

I’ve studied various books on setting descriptions, but my biggest “aha” moment came when one of my CPs submitted a chapter to our writing group, a scene that took place in a floral shop. Since I’m not great at descriptions, I didn’t notice anything wrong until one of the other members called her out, saying her description of the floral shop was blah and boring. The author’s first impulse was to simply cut them out, but as we pointed out, then she’d have no setting details, which would make the situation even worse.

After studying her chapter for a while, I finally realized what the real problem was. It wasn’t that her descriptions were poorly worded, it was the fact that the examples she used to describe the shop—flower arrangements hanging on the wall, shelves lined with jars of dried plants, the sweet smells of flowers, etc—could have been used to describe most any floral shop in the world. And that’s when it hit me. As an author, you don’t want to choose details that show why your floral shop is like all the other floral shops, you want to show why this floral shop is different than all the others. A difference that, hopefully, helps drive the story forward.

Descriptions need to pull double duty to justify their existence in your story. They can be used to hint that something mysterious is going on, or to give us a window into the MC’s feelings at the moment, or to foreshadow things to come. So if you can’t find anything unusual or unique about your location, either find a way to make it unique or consider moving the scene to a different spot. 

Setting should always be used to drive your story forward.



  1. Hey, I can use that! I'm also light on description. Make it sound different and unique. I'll give it a try.

  2. It's all about the subtext, eh? I love it. It can be so hard to get the settings completely right on the page, but when you do, they set the story off.

  3. " want to show why this floral shop is different than all the others." That's it exactly. I challenge myself to try to do that with my settings. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't, but I keep working at it.

  4. I was accused of generic sounding settings when I first started writing. We do have to make ours unique.

  5. When I was a very young reader, I used to pass up books that had paragraphs of setting. Now I enjoy settings if they are well-written. Like you say, they must move the story forward!

  6. Descriptions are always boring unless the characters have some kind of reaction to them. In the flower shop the character could sniff his/her favorite flower or sneeze at all the pollen and want to leave asap. Suffering thought a conversation while inching toward fresh air would a little something special. :-)

    Anna from elements of emaginette