Thursday, March 25, 2021

Keep Moving: Describe Your Setting on the Go

By Ann Harth, @Annharth 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Finding the right balance between a fleshed-out setting and an under (or over) developed one can be tricky. Ann Harth shares a three-step plan for describing a setting that's just right.

Ann Harth writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Strong, interesting female characters creep into many of her books, and many arrive with a sense of humor.

She taught writing for the Australian College of Journalism for eight years before taking the leap into freelance writing and structural editing work.

Ann is the Far North Queensland coordinator for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She’s had a number of fiction and non-fiction children’s books published in Australia and the UK and over 130 short stories sold internationally.

When not tapping the keys, Ann stuffs a notebook into her pack and searches for remote places to camp, hike or explore.

Take it away Ann...

Ann Harth
You’re reading through a scene at a blistering pace.

Peter, the young prince of Agapanthaland, is running for his life. The palace walls have been penetrated by an inhuman multi-fisted fiend. Its neck stretches, thrusting gnashing teeth after the sprinting boy. Prince Peter’s heart pummels his chest, his breath tears at this throat. He pounds down the hallway and bursts into the kitchen.

Rich broth bubbles in a copper pot on the black cast iron stove. Bunches of carrots, parsnips and celery lay beside a dark grey bowl on a wooden bench while herbs swing in clumps above, adding their spicy scent to the room’s meaty aroma. The bench has been well used, scarred by years of chopping and slicing. The floor is a puzzle of slate slabs and the steps on the other side of the kitchen lead down to a closed door.

Can you see it? Good. Now, where were we?

Oh yes. Peter was about to be eaten by a long-necked monster and stopped to appreciate the ambiance in the kitchen.

What happened to the blistering pace? It came to a screeching halt as soon as the door to the kitchen opened and Peter, instead of running for his life, stopped to look around. The fiend grabbed him as he stared at the pot on the stove.

Poor Prince Peter.

But the setting is important, right? We need to use sensory imagery to enrich our scenes and invite the reader to feel part of it all. Setting is also vital when the details are needed to move the plot along. So how do you encourage your reader to step into the scene armed with the necessary details – without slowing the pace?

The following three steps may help.

Step 1: Design your setting

The first thing you can do is to design your setting. Visualize this place, incorporating as much sensory detail as possible. Sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste can add depth and realism to your setting. Add tiny touches that may never be used, but knowing they are there, will help you to convey the general atmosphere of the place.

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

Step 2: Prioritize

Once you know your setting well, decide what is absolutely necessary. Prioritize the props. How can you manipulate your main character’s surroundings to either heighten the tension or give him an escape route? Peter is running for his life and blasts into the kitchen. What can he use? Choose the necessary details. Prince Peter’s quick thinking may have a use for the veggies and a hot pot of stew can always come in handy. The door at the bottom of the steps? This could be an escape route or hiding place or play some other critical role. Allow your glance to sweep across the room and highlight your necessary props.

(Here's more with 4 Steps for Choosing What Details to Describe in a Scene)

Step 3: Integrate

Once you have created your setting and have Peter’s plan in mind, you will know which props are needed to keep him out of the clutches of the fiend. Now it’s time to weave the setting into the story. Remember that Prince Peter is your viewpoint character. We can see, hear, feel, smell and taste only what he does. We know only his thoughts. When he hears the gnashing of teeth and feels the swish of talons as they whip past the nape of his neck, he will not be sniffing the spicy scent of dried herbs. Neither will his breathless readers – unless of course fiends are well-known for being allergic to basil.

It’s time to pull it all together. Prince Peter needs us.

… his breath tears at this throat. He pounds down the hallway and bursts into the kitchen.

Peter skids across the slate floor. Whump. His chest hits the edge of a wooden bench and he gasps for air, his hands scrabbling across the rough surface. Vegetables scatter but his fingers curl around a fat stalk of celery. A warm, fishy stench envelops the prince, and the hair on his arm bristles as teeth clack close to his ear.

Peter twirls around. The fiend stands between him and the stove. Steam from a large iron pot rises behind the hideous head, and a slow grin reveals glistening fangs. Peter shoots a glance to his left. Shallow steps lead down to the larder. Can he make it? The thick door might slow the creature down.

An icy talon traces a line down his arm. Peter shudders and makes his move. He thrusts his celery deep into the fiend’s left nostril and leaps toward the larder. The heavy door creaks open and Prince Peter turns around.

The celery has done its job. The fiend falls back, knocking over the steaming pot and slipping in its greasy contents. It slides towards him. Peter steps aside, opening the larder door wider as the fiend thuds down the steps and whips past, disappearing into the darkness.

Prince Peter slams the door and pulls the heavy iron bolt across. Agapanthaland is safe … for now.

(Here's more with The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)  

Weaving only the necessary aspects of a setting into your scene can increase the pace and keep your readers rivetted. If you design your setting, prioritize your props and integrate description, your scenes will be rich with imagery without slowing the pace. Don’t let Prince Peter fall into the clutches of the fishy fiend as he examines his surroundings. Keep him moving.

Bernice Peppercorn’s imagination fills her mind and her notebooks with adventure and intrigue. She sees crimes where there are none and races to the local police station daily to fulfil her civic duty.

When a real robbery is committed in town, Bernice dives into detective mode and stumbles across vital clues that could help find the thieves. No one believes her except Ike, a one-legged fisherman who lives down at the wharf.

Bernice Takes a Plunge is an exciting and humorous adventure for middle grade readers.


  1. Excellent post, Ann. I could see the whole scene with much more sensory impact, as well as it still being edge of seat reading. :)

  2. Very helpful steps for setting. What a fun example!

  3. Thanks for this useful system! Going to try it out and see if it works for me. :)

  4. These are good points, however I cannot help but think that this is a genre thing. With Hoeg or Sarte, Moorcock or Hesse, these (descriptions) would be inadequate, Lol Hesse took three chapters to describe a passing cloud in Peter Camenzind. I think there is a little of depends upon the book and what you are wishing to write but essentially good advice methinks.

    1. None of the authors you mention are modern authors. Styles have change since they published, and heavy description was the norm back then. These days, readers usually don't want to wade through pages and pages of detail. They want to get to the story.

      For today's audiences, you have to look at novels published in the last five years or so. Fifty year old novels might still be classics, but the average reader is looking for more modern styles.