Making your settings tangible is an important part of writing great stories, but doing that is easier said than done. Here are some things to avoid, some quick tips for writing descriptions well and a few helpful exercises for describing places in your novel.
Other related posts: Researching your historical fiction setting
How much description is too much?
Although you should describe your settings somehow, you shouldn’t do all of it at once, and usually, you should make sure your readers get to know your characters first. That said, it’s impossible to say how much is the right amount.
When your descriptions really bring your settings to life and they’re important to the dramatic effect of your story, it’s fine to have more of them. But if you’re struggling with this aspect of storytelling or the settings aren’t vital for your character’s experience, I’d recommend sticking to the bare minimum.
If you’re not sure, ask for someone else’s opinion! Show them your writing and ask if they get a real feel of your settings or if they think your descriptions add nothing to the story.
What is exposition?
Exposition is close to description, and it means inserting background information into your story. Some exposition is usually needed to make your places feel realistic because knowing the history and meaning of your settings is important too. The names of characters and places also count as exposition, and those things are obviously important.
You might feel like it’s absolutely necessary for your reader to know everything about the places in your story. After all, you’ve imagined these settings, and it’s important to you that your readers see them as they should. Still, you can’t give all the information at once. Let your readers discover the world at a slower pace.
Try to find a balance between inserting information in your narration and having your characters think or talk about your setting. Of course, this is easier said than done, but that’s what editing your novel is for.
The best ways to describe places in your story
Here comes my best tip for describing places in your story: use your character’s senses. Preferably all five of them.
How does this work? It’s essentially just a more specific way of saying “show, don’t tell”.
So instead of writing “The house smelled bad”, you could say “Steve covered his nose, hoping he wouldn’t gag.” And instead of telling your readers how cold and rainy this village in Scotland is, you could show us how her wet shoes make your protagonist feel and how she’s shivering despite four layers of clothing.
That said, not everything in your story needs to be or can be described in this way. Sometimes you just need to use a single adjective, and that’s okay. Experiment with different levels of descriptions and see which one fits the tone and pacing of your scene the best. But anything that you want your readers to really experience should be described in a way that involves your characters’ senses.
Show your story settings through character actions and feelings
Another way to show what your settings are like is through the actions of your characters. Maybe they wipe the dust off their trousers, or they could be slipping on ice in addition to shivering in cold. Characters also have feelings about everything, which they express through thoughts and words as well as actions.
Imagine you’re writing about a mansion with several very expensive things. If you were just listing all these items, your reader would likely get bored, and none of that would bring the story forwards. If at all possible, always have your characters moving! Have them close the heavy velvet curtains, dust off the silver candlesticks and fall onto the marble floor.
You could also write something like “Maureen had always had certain disdain for people who lived in places like that. People who had inherited everything from their ancestors and hadn’t worked a day in their lives to earn the luxuries they were drowning in.” This, of course, says something about the character as well, because it’s impossible to describe things without revealing a bit of yourself. (This goes for the writer as well, just to be clear.)
Writing exercises for describing places
Let’s pretend you’re a character in a novel. (Or were you doing that already?) Look around where you are right now and write down these things with a word or two: temperature, what it smells like, how bright or how dark it is, what the surface of what you’re sitting/standing on feels like, what is the most noticeable feature in your surroundings.
Let’s say you’re reading this outside and it’s very sunny. Instead of flat out saying how sunny it is, you could say how the sun makes you squint and how it makes your eyes water. You could say how glad you are you took sunglasses with you so you can avoid getting another headache. Now do the same for all the other items on your list.
The second exercise requires you to watch a movie or something on television, and pick a scene where one of the characters arrives in a new setting. Pause the movie and write down what the setting is like. Then press play again and pretend you can’t see the setting at all, just the character. How is the character experiencing the setting? How are they interacting with it? Write it down.
Your third exercise: Choose a place you absolutely adore and write about it in detail. Then write about it from the point of view of someone who completely despises the place. If you don’t think there’s a difference, you need to re-read my tips above and try again.
Are there other aspects of storytelling besides describing places that you struggle with? Let me know in the comments and I’ll write another post for you!
Get even more writing exercises
If you would like to get more writing exercises that teach you about describing things in your writing and everything else important that a great story needs, I’ve got what you need. I made the 30 Day Writing Challenge for writers who want to stop reading writing tips and start to actually apply them to their writing. You get a writing exercise for each day and an explanation of why it’s important, and after a month you’ll be a considerably better writer.