Designing the settings within a story can be a creative person’s dream, especially in genre fiction where the only limitation is the author’s imagination. Sometimes an explosion of place description is just what the story demands. Other times you need to show restraint. Knowing what description to include and when is made much easier if you plan ahead. Choose your settings based on their potential to play a meaningful role in the story, and then practice using—but not over-using—all the five senses to write descriptions that not only produce alluring settings, but also evoke emotion, develop character, and reinforce your themes.
Let’s consider each of the five senses and how they can be used in writing settings…
This is obviously the big one, and it’s easy to see why. Describing the visuals in your scene is the go-to method to conjure up a mental model in your reader’s brain. It’s so easy to do that writers can fall victim to over describing sight. In today’s market, it’s going to be hard to hook a reader if your story begins with three pages of visual descriptions of a setting. There are always exceptions, of course, but generally, err on the side of caution and prepare to cut nonessential description.
The quality of sensory details is even more important to think about than the quantity. Let’s take a minute to describe the home of a character. Maybe you write that they live in a blue house with green shutters on the windows and a raised porch in the front. Sounds nice, right? Actually no. None of that description actually reveals anything to the reader. It adds nothing to your story. You could change it to a white house with blue shutters and no porch and it wouldn’t make any difference, so why include the description at all? Just say ‘house’ and the reader can use their imagination to fill in the details.
Or... Maybe instead you write that there are three bullet holes in the front door, that the curtains are drawn 24/7, and that the owner has recently placed a heavy padlock on the shed in the backyard and none of the neighbors know why. That’s an example of a visual description packed with meaning, backstory, and plot potential. Those are the types of visual details that draw in a reader and keep them turning the page.
Sound is second only to sight in writing the senses. It’s found most often in the description of characters’ voices and sound effects within the scene, but it can do much more. Soundscapes create a powerful sense of space and breathe life into the prose. Descriptions of the ambient sounds of a setting—the sighing wind, tweeting birds in the bushes, the grumble of distant thunder—can draw the reader further into the story while adding layers of emotion to the writing.
Sound can also give the reader a break from constant visual descriptions. So instead of saying that characters walk into a cathedral and it’s huge with big pillars and a really high ceiling, you could describe the echo of their footsteps, the reverb of their voices, and the eerie groans of the pipe organ.
Writers often forget about the power of smells, and though it would certainly be weird to describe the scent of every scene, occasionally using smell descriptions can heighten a sense of place. And skipping over smell description entirely can even be distracting to the reader if the setting is a place everyone associates with strong odors: a school locker room, a slaughterhouse, a hospital hallway.
Smells can evoke hunger, disgust, and even memories. What better way to introduce a flashback then by having a character suddenly perceive a powerful scent from their childhood? That’s an experience every reader can relate to.
This one doesn’t come up much in a discussion of setting. Most touch details will deal with character actions, not the places those characters are at. Though it is certainly important to consider the temperature of a setting and how it might affect the characters and the actions within a scene.
Taste: There’s not alot to say about taste in regards to setting. Unless of course you’re telling the tale of a cosmic horror world-eater feasting on the Earth itself, in which case I'm guessing our planet tastes like slightly salty lava. Or possibly chicken. Hard to say.
When to Use Which Senses
The type and amount of sensory detail you should include changes from story to story, from scene to scene, and from viewpoint to viewpoint. Don’t think of the five senses as a checklist you have to go through in each scene, rather, think of them as tools. Maybe a scene just isn’t working. Maybe it’s supposed to feel unsettling and foreboding but that’s not coming across in the prose. Okay, play with your descriptions of ambient sound, or scents, or even the temperature of the setting. Little details often have a big impact on the way a scene makes the reader feel. And make conscious choices about which details are better left up to the reader’s imagination.
Don’t forget about the POV
As an author, you might find it useful to know all the details of a setting in your head before you write, but that doesn’t mean all those details belong on the page. And I’m not just talking about the worry that overly descriptive writing can tip into purple prose.
If you’re using an omniscient narrator, then sure, you can choose to describe anything you like. But if you’re writing in a POV where the reader sees through one character’s eyes—like first person or third person limited—then only those details that your narrator would believably notice should be written. If your narrator is a near-sighted, absent-minded math professor, then it wouldn’t make much sense to spend a lot of words describing the intricate architecture of the university where the story takes place, even if in your head you’ve designed a really interesting setting. The same goes for the other senses. If your narrator is a slob who never showers or leaves their bedroom, they’re probably immune to the odor of their setting, and the smell shouldn’t even come up until another character enters the scene and comments on or reacts to it.
If there are specific details you feel need to be included for the story to work, then make sure to design your POV character as the type of person that would notice those details.
Genre readers sometimes have specific expectations about descriptions. Bending the rules of genre can be fun, of course, but you don’t want to make your readers feel cheated. If you intend your book to be marketed as a fast-paced political thriller, for instance, it would be unwise to spend pages and pages describing the sights and smells of the settings. Whereas in a sci-fi novel about a newly discovered planet, you could get away with including lots of sensory details about the landscapes. But in a case like that, you shouldn’t feel obligated to write those details.
Orson Scott Card’s novel “Speaker for the Dead” takes place on the alien planet Lusitania, but in the whole of the book he never gives any description of the world beyond a general ‘it has some forests, some meadows, some rivers’. The scarcity of description works in the case of “Speaker for the Dead” because it is a character-driven story and the planet’s details don’t impact the characters or the plot.
Make the Details Meaningful
Everything you put on the page should be pulling at least double duty, and the sensory details of your setting are no exception. Don’t just include details to set a scene, use them to add layers of emotion, bolster your themes, or better prepare the reader for what comes next.
Let’s consider what could be done with just an identical setting.
A bus stop on a country road.
How would you describe the way it looks, the sound of the bus coming nearer, the smell of the dust in the air, the heat of the day? Depending on the story you want to tell, the answers to these questions should be radically different. Imagine this setting as the start of a light-hearted romance where the leading lady is waiting for a bus to take her to the big city for the first time. Now pretend it’s a setting in a graphic horror story and the main character is desperately hoping the bus will arrive before the ax-wielding murderer finds him. Now it’s in a dystopian future YA novel; the bus service has been down for a hundred years, but our young heroes suddenly hear a vehicle coming down the road.
How could an author best use sensory details to describe this setting in each of these stories? Answer that question, and you’ll find yourself seeing, hearing, and smelling your way to better writing.