Writing descriptively scenery and surroundings comes more naturally to some writers than others. If you’re wondering why your novel is too short or moving too fast, that’s sometimes due to a lack of character development or to the plot itself. Sometimes, though, it’s caused by a lack of description, including descriptions of settings.

Why is it important to write about setting? Well, arguably, it’s not as important as it was one hundred years ago, when readers didn’t have ready access to images of other places through TV, movies, and the Internet. Contemporary readers can draw on many more visual memories of settings than readers of past centuries could. That’s why nineteenth-century novels tend to have lush, detailed visual descriptions.

But even in modern novels, which we expect to move more quickly, setting or a sense of place is important. It’s often neglected, but it can be a writer’s secret weapon.

 

How To Describe Settings and Why It Matters #ways to describe scenery #how to get better at writing descriptions

 

Here’s what good descriptions of settings can do.

They help people get swept up into the story.

When people can imagine the surroundings of the story, their real-world surroundings fall away. One of the reasons people read is to escape to a different world.

Sometimes it’s more pleasant — a charming small town, a glamorous big city, or a cottage on the beach — almost like a virtual vacation, for the low price of a book.

Sometimes it’s fantastic — such as a futuristic moon colony, a fantasy realm, or Heaven — sparking reader’s imaginations.

Sometimes it’s difficult or even grim. This can make readers imagine how they would survive and conquer in similar circumstances, giving them a feeling of empowerment. Or it can make readers empathize with terrible situations they’ve never personally experienced.

 

 

They underscore the mood of the scene.

If you’re writing a high-stakes boxing match, describing the spotlights, the size of the venue, and the roars of the crowd will get your readers’ adrenaline pumping even more.

If you’re writing a quiet scene on a front porch at night, the chirping of crickets and the flickers of fireflies will add to the peaceful ambience.

You get the idea. The setting can also make a scene more memorable by contrasting with the emotions of the scene. For instance, someone at a party gets terrible news, or someone who’s in an empty building at a remote location finds a beautiful love letter tucked in his backpack.

 

How To Describe Settings – and Why It Matters #how to write more descriptively #how to describe scenery in writing #how to make a novel longer

How to Describe Settings

Focus On Just A Few Details

Some writers balk at the idea of describing settings because they don’t know how to go on and on with descriptive writing without getting boring. Good news: you don’t have to go on and on. For a scene, just think of a few details that will convey the mood you’re looking for.

For instance, let’s say your character visits her grandma, who’s lived in the same tiny New York City apartment for fifty years. You might write about peeling paint on the walls, shelves full of framed photos and knickknacks, and the fact that the old-fashioned radiator heater  makes the place too hot for your main character. There! Your reader already has a feel for the space.

Intersperse Details Here and There 

This is another way to avoid going on and on. Instead of writing one big paragraph describing the setting, weave some of the details into the narrative. (You can do the same thing when you’re describing people’s looks.)

For instance, in the above example, your main character might notice the heat and the peeling paint on the walls right away. Then she might sit down on a floral sofa and notice the knickknacks and trinkets on the shelves. A little later, her conversation with her grandma might be interrupted by the banging from the radiator.

 

 

Start a Description Journal

I’ve written more about this here. This is a great way to make all kinds of descriptive writing in stories easier for you. It’ll give you material to draw from, and it’ll give you practice. Like anything else, the more you practice descriptive writing, the easier it’ll get.

Use Photographs and Videos

If you’re having trouble visualizing a scene in your head, do online searches of similar settings for inspiration. To describe the sunrise in the opening of my latest novel Sunrise Cabin, for instance, I used a photo of a sunrise that I’d taken myself (even though Paige’s sunrise was over the Colorado Rockies.)

 

Morning sky over the Kansas City skyline, river in foreground.

Use Sounds, Smells, and Tactile Sensations

Most of us focus on visual description when we want to evoke the environment or surroundings, neglecting the other senses. While authors of novels, short stories, and other fiction can’t usually add a musical soundtrack to their story, the way a filmmaker can, they can still bring a lot of sound into their story to engage the readers even more.

Tactile sensations, or the way things feel — the cold wind against a character’s face, the soft mud under boots — can also evoke setting. And smells are especially powerful ways to trigger your reader’s emotions.

I have lists of suggestions for sounds and smells in my book Master Lists for Writers.

Remember, You Can Add Descriptions After Your First Draft

If descriptions of scenery slow you down when you’re first writing out your story, leave them until later. They’re easy to insert during revision!

 

Image of rooftops in an urban neighborhood.

 

Does description come easily to you, or do you have to work at it? Do you have suggestions for how to get better at describing settings, or at descriptive writing in general? I’m always learning a lot from the comments section, so please share! Thanks for reading, and happy writing!