Monday, September 25, 2023

Did You Choose the Best Words to Describe Your Setting?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your reader doesn’t know what you’re picturing when you write a scene. Make sure they see what you see.

Setting is a vital component of a novel, but it's one of the more awkward things to write naturally. People don't stop and describe the landscape, so having characters who do can feel forced and knock a reader right out of the story.

It gets even more complicated when you think about how pretty much every scene needs its setting described so readers know where they are. But if you over describe, or use the wrong details, readers can get bored and start skimming, or get confused and stop reading.

In a critique, such descriptions often get feedback such as: "The setting didn't feel real to me" or "I never felt grounded in this world" or even "I just never connected to the character."

One of the most common missed opportunities I see in manuscripts is not doing enough with the setting.

Unlike world building, setting the scene is often more about describing what’s in “the room.” What things look like, where the characters are, what's immediately around them, the time of day, and so on. The goal is to ground readers so they don't feel lost in a "white room" of ambiguity.

Let's say you want readers to know a scene occurs on a street in a small town in Georgia during the fall. You could describe the setting like this:
Bob walked down Peachtree Avenue as the autumn wind blew around him.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but what does it tell you about the setting aside from general details that could be any street anywhere?

A guy walks down a street and wind blows. If he's in Canada, that's probably a cold wind. Mexico’s wind will likely be warm. Arizona’s wind won't look the same as Iceland’s, or even Rome’s.

(Here’s more with Want Better Descriptions? Describe What Readers Won't Assume)

But the writer for this pretend scene knows what Peachtree Avenue looks like. They know the temperature and velocity of the wind. They know Bob's reaction to it and what he does when it hits him. They picture the leaves and the chill in the air and a dozen or so other details.

Essentially, they also assume that everyone who reads the word "autumn" pictures these same things, because that’s what they picture.

But this isn’t always the case.

(Here’s more with If You Can Make it There... How Setting Can Affect Your Story)

I grew up in South Florida so my autumns looked very different. There were no falling leaves, no cold breezes, or any other stereotypical “autumn” clues. Autumn was hot and humid, and basically the same as any other day. I picture Bob walking down a street in shorts, his arms wide to cool himself off in that refreshing wind. If it’s gusting, odds are good there’s a thunderstorm brewing, because that’s normal for Florida.

This can lead to a reader/writer disconnect.

Sure, readers aren't stupid, and most folks are likely to picture autumn as the writer intended, but it's probably never going to feel real to them. They won’t get lost in this world and immerse themselves in the story because the details are too vague and generally “autumn,” not a specific place during the fall.

And that’s a good way to lose a reader, and a great way to get a rejection if that reader happens to be an agent or editor.

(Here’s more with 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World)

Help readers connect to and get lost in your setting by using details unique to your story, or ones that haven't been used dozens of times before.

Let’s play a bit more with our autumn wind setting. 

What are the common things readers will imagine when they see the word “autumn?”

Fall (common): Leaves falling, leaves changing, cooler air washing away the summer heat.

These are all good details, but there’s nothing special about any of them. They’re great for little filler details that help remind readers it’s autumn without distraction, but they don’t do much to help flesh out the setting beyond the basics.

They also don’t offer much help to flesh out the characters, develop the theme, or advance the plot, because there’s not much for the character to interact with or judge in any way.

(Here’s more with How Your Setting Can Affect Your Characters)

Let’s dig a little deeper and get more specific.

Fall (uncommon): The time changing (fall back), the new TV season, breaking out warmer clothes, kids going back to school, football games, holidays, cinnamon smell in the grocery store, relatives visiting.

These are better details and things more likely to evoke specific memories in both readers and characters. Autumn for me always meant going to my aunt’s house for Thanksgiving and playing football with my cousins (usually in the dress my mom made me wear).

Such specific moments give you opportunities to trigger memories in your characters, which lets you describe the setting and lets readers get to know the characters better.

That’s where choosing the right setting details really matter.

Because you can say “a cold wind chilled his face as he debated leaving” or you can say “Honking geese crossed the sky, getting out of town while they could. He figured he ought to do the same.”

Version two gives you more to work with to show the setting and what the character is thinking and feeling.

Let’s now look at some specific details we might use to describe an autumn setting.

Fall (specific): Pumpkin spice everything. Mariah Carey Christmas memes. Halloween decorations going up. Birds migrating. Local festivals and events. The smell of burning leaves or fireplaces.

All these details came to me with just a little thought, and they’re much more interesting and evocative than traditional, generic autumn setting details. If I had a particular point-of-view-character in mind, I’d have even more specific ideas that related to them and where the scene takes place.

(Here’s more with 3 Secrets to Writing Vivid Settings)

Here’s a fun brainstorming exercise I use when I’m developing a scene:

Grab a blank sheet of paper or open a new file and take a look at your setting.

1. Write down the general setting.

For example, a street in New York, Geveg, 1672 Mexico, high school, a space station.

2. Write down the first details that come to mind when you think about this setting.

For example, tall buildings and honking cabs. Canals and tropical heat. Haciendas and local market squares. Lockers and classrooms. Docking bays and recycled air.

The first details you think of will likely be the same ones most of your readers will imagine. Because of that, the scene can feel flat, typical, or just plain boring. Readers have seen it before and it offers them nothing new.

(Here’s more with One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions)

3. Picture this setting and think about why you choose it for your novel. Look past the basics and really imagine yourself there.
  • What are the details people overlook?
  • What’s fresh or interesting about this place?
  • What do you hear?
  • What do you smell?
  • What do things feel like?
  • Taste like?
Push beyond what characters just see and imagine the setting will all of your senses.

4. Now write down the details you found after putting yourself there.

For example, street hustlers and homeless people. Bars and take-out pizza restaurants with the scents of fresh bread baking. Traffic and cabs clogging the street and honking at each other. Old trash stinking up an alley. Crowds walking along the sidewalk in all kinds of different types of clothing. Noise from people and traffic.

5. Finally, picture your point of view character. Put them in the scene and look out through their eyes. Write down the details they see.

For example, hustlers playing Three-Card Monty outside a pub rumored to be owned by the Mob. Horns blaring and cabbies shouting out the windows, reminding them of Al Pacino’s “I’m walkin’ here!” The tangy smell of hot pizza, ruined by a whiff of urine in a trash-strewn alley. Music blaring from a passing car, the base thumping so loud they feel it in their belly. They dance a little as the car goes by.

This is way better than what we used before. There’s even a sense of character here now, and a glimpse of this world from a story standpoint.

(Here’s more with Why You Should Have Judgmental Characters)

When you picture the setting from your character’s point of view, you'll come up with a lot more interesting details that carry not only setting information, but character, plot, and theme information as well.

Don’t just go with the first details you think of. Pull out the unusual aspects of your setting and surprise your readers with something new. The details your character notices mean something to them, so they’re more compelling than a general sense of “what’s there.” Through their eyes, a typical setting becomes fresh, perspectives become interesting, and readers pay more attention.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and do the above exercise on one of your scenes. Edit to use the new (and hopefully stronger) setting details you’ve come up with.

How deep do you go when figuring out what details to use to set your scenes and describe your settings?

*Originally published April 2013. Last updated September 2023.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Writing exercise time! (CONTEST CLOSED)

In 250 words or less, describe a Spring setting

But here's the catch--you can't use traditional Spring words or images. No flowers, no bright green, no new growth. Look for the unusual and personal way your character would describe the setting they're in.

Post your entry in the comments section. Deadline for entries is next Monday, April 29, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, April 30th. 

Winner gets a 1000-word critique. Previous winners are ineligible to win, but they can still do the exercise if they want. You can even do the exercise even if you don't want a critique (not everyone has something ready). Just say you're doing it for fun and I won't count you.


  1. Funny, I was just having an (on line)chat about this very subject. How difficult it is to get what is in your mind onto the page without droning on and on with too much detail...
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Such great advice. I have a tendency to go the boring, typical route with description. I could liven it up a bit.

  3. Thanks for the tips. Writing about setting is often my least favorite part of writing.

  4. Great advice! And fun exercise. Here is my entry:

    The scratchy roof shingles offered little comfort to my back, but I couldn’t care less because it was the first cloudless night we’d had in weeks. Moisture still hung thick in the air after this morning’s storm causing my arms to stick together as they rested above my head. It was only times like this I thanked God for planting me in a town so small it didn’t even have a Wal-mart. Against the vast onyx backdrop of night layers upon layers of stars danced to silence. The great stars of Orion and Gemini were beginning to dim against the brightness of Hercules and Hydra. Smiling, I found my constellation. We had much in common, Cancer and I. Smushed between two siblings and crushed by an overzealous brute of a man; yes, we understood each other well.
    A cool breeze loosened some wisps of hair into my eyes and I brushed them away to see clearly again. There was something about the smell of freshly poured rain that made me breathe a little easier; as if it had some magical cleansing power that could shed me of the transgressions I had committed. But just as the crushing of Cancer, myth is myth.


  5. Thanks for the advice! Sometimes I don't know how much of the setting to describe. I'm afraid it comes off quite boring! I should take this advice to make settings feel more real and connected to the character. Thanks!

  6. The challenge for me has been that I connect emotionally to the big picture, not the details. I'm not detail-oriented. I don't really even see the details or relate to them. That's hard to explain because it's like being colorblind. I don't have a frame of reference to compare it to. The result is that I do a lot of guesswork when it comes to describing details of setting. I end up writing the big picture emotional points for me, then go back and fill in the setting descriptions and create a conversation between the characters about it to get the emotional details. Sometimes what the readers get out of this really surprises me, and other things I really misfire.

  7. Emily, how cool. I think some of it depends on how developed the world is compared to the characters or plot. You'll see more description in a draft that's mostly setting up the world for example.

    LinWash, that's what second drafts are for! It helps me to do a pass just to tweak (or add in my case) descriptive details.

    Natalie, working it into the POV's problem or goal makes it easier for me. Maybe try that? When I have a reason for them to "look around" it always flows better.

    Eisen, on a first draft, do whatever strikes you. Too much, too little, it doesn't matter. Then on the second draft, try this character approach. Once the scene is down and you what happens and where it goes, you'll have a better understanding of what key details to add.

    Linda, I thought of you when I wrote this post actually. I know we've chatted about this on other posts. I get what you're saying some. I'll have first draft scenes with no details at all. They're not important to me because what I enjoy are the characters and their interactions. But emotional points are pretty strong things to include since readers are hooked by those emotional connections. If that's a process that's working for you I;d run with it :)

    Just find good beta readers to catch those misfires. Which happen to everyone actually. I recently had two betas take one of my scenes totally in a different light than I had intended. Totally normal :)

  8. The rains came early that year - and stayed long. The river rose almost to the level of the 1936 flood, and hung there for days, taking with it the beginnings of the crops, seeds that hadn’t but set out the tenderest of rootlets: they were no match for the onslaught, were washed away in wide swaths. Blossoms that had started to open were knocked off their branches by a careless hand. We had no beauty that year. I don’t know how the birds made it, sitting waterlogged on bare trees. Their food must have been impossible to find, insects pounded by the driving rain as much as we were.
    It was cold that year. We brought in logs that smouldered and hissed as they tried to burn. The animals in the barn were restless, stuck inside for days. And hungry. We couldn’t let them out to graze - on what? And the chickens? Well, there’s nothing as unhappy as a wet chicken.
    When the storm finally broke, we went out, Henry and I, to look at the fields of mud. I could see he was done for. He didn’t have in him the heart to plow again, plant again, to find yet another loan for the seed. Old Hemmerlane, next door - he bought us out, got it cheap. We came here - the children took us in. Henry tried, he really did. But losing his land was more than he could bear, and the flu epidemic took him. I’ll join him soon.

  9. Sorry. Was so excited to get this lovely prompt that I rushed off to produce words, pasted them in, and forgot to thank our lovely hostess.

    You got me writing today - and my brain was mush when I started. Writing seems to be the only way to get my thoughts sorted out some days.

    Thanks so much for the idea - and thinking differently to SEE differently - of NOT being able to use certain words.

    Tell me I can't do something, and it seems to connect to a whole different part of the brain. Hmm. There will be more - I'll add the concept to the list of things to do when I'm blocked.

  10. I enjoyed this prompt greatly. It inspired me to write again and I can only hope that it's the kick in the pants I needed to get finishing a couple of projects I haven't been able to bring myself to complete.

    Here's my entry -
    Clara inhaled deeply as if it was her very first breath. It felt good to get outside again without the burden of boots and bulky coats. They walked along the edge of the still salt-strewn road holding hands. Not because she thought her daughter would dart away; she was after all a very mature five now, it was more for protection from the occasional burst of wind. It was late in the day, but the sun was warm on their faces yet. She loved the recent rebirth of daylight savings time and never wanted to give up that hour of sunlight again. Soon the hummingbirds would be at the back window looking for the red elixir that kept those wings purring, and she’d be able to hear the call of balls and strikes while sitting on her back porch. She breathed purposely again; yes she loved this time of year.

  11. I agree with everyone, this is a great prompt.
    Here is my entry -
    Spring Forward

    She turned the last clock forward an hour. Whoever invented Daylight Savings Time had a mean streak. Can’t squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of a day no matter which way you turn the hands on a clock. It had to be a man who thought up an idiotic idea like that because no woman in her right mind would bother with such foolishness.
    At the refrigerator, she stopped and made a note for James to change the batteries in the smoke detectors. She didn’t think they had the right size so he’d need to go the store for more. She added a question mark to the note.
    Lord, just thinking about tomorrow made her tired. Church in the morning, assuming she didn’t over sleep, afterward lunch at the in-laws and James Jr’s T-ball game at four. Sunday hadn’t been a day of rest since the birth of their first kid.
    She slipped through the screen door and settled on the porch swing. The warm breeze and the song of the tree frogs washed away her stress. Fireflies winked in the grass keeping time with the symphony. In these stolen moments, when her world stopped spinning, she recharged her own batteries. With just eight weeks left of school, she soon wouldn’t have much time for quiet reflection.
    The door creaked behind her, and she stood turning to follow James to bed. He was right morning would come all too soon. An hour earlier to be exact.

  12. The sun we hadn't seen in months wasn't shining as bright. And suddenly, the new white paint on my house looked worn. The shouting of kids down the street was more torment than usual. Not to mention unlike every other spring, the still brown grass didn't have the still-frozen crunch. I kicked a rock. It bounced off the only bare tree in my yard.
    It was all alone without a friend...just like me. And just like me, as if I were the tree, it was surrounded by lilies just starting to poke up between the dull pine straw. They will be bright and happy, but the tree will only have to put on its leaves – its mask – and pretend to be bright and happy too. Then the annual remembrance will come, and the mask will fall, and it’ll try to protect itself, and both the tree as well as I might as well be dead.
    Just like now with this year’s horrible, lonely first day of spring.

  13. Thank you for inspiring me! This post really got me thinking, and I'm super excited to finally participate in one of your writing prompts.

    Here is my entry:

    The wind whipping around Observation Peak still carries the ghost of an Antarctic winter. The shiver it sends through my body makes my stomach churn. It’s just nerves, I assure myself. I’ve stayed inside. I haven’t been exposed.

    But I’m outside now, and I try to ignore the sickly green hue of the cloud-heavy sky. Bombs, they’d said, before the satellite went silent. For eighteen days, that word has repeated itself in every thought and every conversation. Bombs. Plural.

    A lone Petrel sprawls across a rock nest, surrounded by carcasses and broken eggs that have been picked over by the few predators still strong enough to scavenge. She doesn’t move as I pass, but warns me with a high, stuttering call that echoes and dies like laughter in an empty room.

    I reach the summit and stare down at the lapping tide. The ice has melted, making room for the supply ship that was supposed to come a week ago. But the bay is deserted even by the Weddell Seals that should be calving on the black sand.

    The transmitter’s power switch creaks under my thumb. My message won’t carry all the way to New Zealand, but if there are any ships on their way, they should pick it up. Please let them hear. Please let them hurry.

    “This is Dr. Carver at McMurdo Station. If you can hear me, please respond.” Static. “Radiation levels are spiking. People are dying. Please respond.”


    The horizon blends into the sky. Empty.

  14. Excellent tips! I can get carried away when writing about setting. I have to remember to just put the details that matter.

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  16. I don't necessarily want to read the novel - but this piece is complete in itself in some way I can't quite articulate.

    But you definitely nailed SOMETHING - and I'm still chuckling.

  17. Thank you. I wasn't thinking novel. I was just trying to describe a spring setting. You made my day.

  18. Fixed the typo . . .

    Plump Paul plopped on the bed. A spring sprung. Knifing through decrepit mattress fabric and slightly soiled briefs, the erupting coil caught the chubby crack top and pierced his coccyx. Paralysis radiated. His bladder emptied.

    The urine floated rust particles off the abused metal and into his spinal fluid. Breathing stopped when his involuntary respiratory control center shut down.

    Elvira thought he was asleep when she arrived. “Disgusting (as usual),” she mumbled. “You’d think I’d get used to it.” She smiled. She was not puking. “I am getting used it.”

    In contrast to the bedroom, the kitchen was immaculate. Elvira kept it that way. She was cracking eggs for Paul’s breakfast when she realized the smell of bacon had failed to arouse him.

    Returning to the bedroom, she shook him, called his name. He stayed a lump.

    She tried to roll him. The sprung spring sprang loose. Its pointed tip appeared bloody. She called 9-1-1. Within minutes, she heard sirens.

    As she stepped onto the landing to hold the door for the hero guys, a robin in a bare oak said, “Tweet.”

    “Oh, that spring,” she thought. “My setting is for naught. Janice won’t care about an ancient, rusty coil protruding from a ripped and urine-soaked mattress with a rotund corpse upon it. She’ll want the robin in that bed.”

    “Submit it anyway,” said the evil little voice that told her to go gross in the first place. “Nobody’ll notice. Your novel’s going nowhere, and you’ll never entice that robin to that stinking bedroom.”

  19. Well, I see I'm not the only one to take this slant on a spring setting, but I'll enter this anyway.

    Marnie stared out at the naked brown fields as endless rain pounded against the kitchen window. Brown, brown, everything was brown. The dirt. The stubble of last year’s wheat. The muddy floodwaters that were still rising, killing more and more of her fields. The half-drowned trees along the banks, trying not get washed away. Washed away like the seed she’d couldn’t afford but bought anyway. Like her last chance to keep the farm from going under.

    Crows hunched in the trees. Occasionally one would dive to catch a fish between the furrows. At least someone was eating this spring.

    The wind picked up, sending ripples across the flooded fields. Dead husks poked through the water, blemishes on the ugly face of the flood. Marnie leaned against the cool glass and wondered if the water was deep enough to set a boat on. Whether she could pack them all up, Dad and the kids and Buddy and all, and just sail away to a better life somewhere where the rain didn’t bring death and famine and a bleak, homeless future.

    Dad shuffled slowly into the kitchen, leaning heavily on his cane. His rheumy eyes sought her out, his cataracts so bad that he was almost blind now. Marnie jumped up to ease his wasted frame into a chair.

    He gave her a wavering smile. “How’re my crops today?” he croaked.

    Marnie took a last look at the huge brown lake. She squeezed his shoulder. “They’re coming along great Daddy. Just great.”

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  21. This is a helpful post, and prompt. Thanks for letting us play.

    Maya squished up the muddy path to the upper field. Nice spot, but the inflatable Stonehenge took over the entire landscape. Since they faked the whole lining-up-with-the-sun-thing with a computer and a spotlight, they could do this inside and save the dry-cleaning bills.
    Unfortunately, these outdoor theme weddings were popular and today was their busiest day of the year ––at least she didn’t have to work the dawn shift.
    She tossed her raincoat onto the heap of clothes piled on a shaded tarp. The edges of the plastic rippled with the deceptively cold breeze. Shivery goose bumps covered her bare arms, she rubbed her hands together and then shucked off her rain boots.
    Two tiptoeing steps and mud splattered up to her knees––ugh, wait until they started dancing.
    “Make sure you grab a bonnet out of the box.” Chloe called from the field.
    Right, can’t forget this beauty. Maya plopped a ribbon covered, yellow straw hat on her head. The bride wanted them shoeless and all in yellow, because nothing said Prehistoric Britain like mud-stained, J. Crew frocks.
    On days like these, she missed working the Renaissance fairs. Too bad historical accuracy didn’t make for full-time, on-the-books employment. She actually filed her income taxes early this year and expected a refund. Some spa time sounded like a good investment.
    Sunlight lit a speckled path across the slick field. Maya trudged toward the other dancers, stretching out her arms to absorb the delicious warmth

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  24. I never posed a comment using HTLM, but now I understand. This is a great post I will apply to all my work. Thanks, Janice! Here's my entry:

    It is the first of September. There is no snow, but the air is still tempered with the chill of winter. I trained all year for today, and now I can finally, finally fit into my polka-dot bikini. I picture myself at the beach, in the ocean. I can already taste the salt water on my tongue, feel the warm sand between my toes. A thrill runs up my spine thinking of Australia’s deadliest wildlife awaiting me. Not even box jellyfish and great whites can stop me from enjoying the sun, the fun. They’ll have to kill me before I pass up sundresses, sandals, and surfers. I can’t help smiling. I love spring.

  25. Janice,

    I'm relatively new to your site, but I really enjoy and learn a lot from your writing articles and tips!

    Here's my entry:

    Alex strode confidently to the first tee. Finally.

    The fairway stretched out before him lie a sea of emeralds, with waves of fuchsia and pink azaleas to-and-froing in the breeze alongside the right edge of the fairway. Bastards.

    Alex pulled his eyes away from the colorful display, knowing that they’d been placed near the out-of-bounds marker and designed to drag the golfer’s eye in that direction in order to make the club face open up and push the ball that way.

    Instead, Alex narrowed his eyes and focused on the white ball sitting up on the tee. Concentrate, he ordered himself. Just like you saw on those interminable video lessons you watched as snow continued to fall all through February, March and April. So much for global warming.

    Thwack. The ball arced into the azure sky, curled left around the dogleg, then drifted right into the rough. Damn.

    Alex stalked down the fairway. Focus. Ignore the trees, the sun, the bright colors. Distractions, all of them. This is why you didn’t complete those tax forms fanned out across the dining room table. Be the club; it’s just you and the ball.

    The longer grass grabbed at his spikes as he exited the fairway. Thirty yards away, his ball sat atop the grass, like an egg about to hatch. Alex headed toward it, worrying about his next shot and trying to ignore the birds’ chirping, the tangy perfume of new buds on the trees, the rainbow of bright colors.

    How he loved Spring.