How to Describe Setting

How to Introduce Setting

Story: “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins, published by Boulevard

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly? Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently.

How to Choose Which Details to Show the Reader

Novel: The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle by Jedah Mayberry, excerpted at Amazon

Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that the best writing omitted far more detail than it included–meaning that a story or novel resembles an iceberg, ninety percent of which is underwater. Critics have turned this idea into a theory for art, but, in truth, it merely describes an inevitable problem faced by all writers: if you’re writing what you know, then you know more than can fit into the story. But you can’t simply include and leave out details randomly. You need a method.

How to Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

Story: “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins, published in Boston Review

One of the most famous first sentences of all time—’It was a dark and stormy night’—sets the stage for a particular kind of tale. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more.

How to Add Historical Context to a Short Story

Story: “Makedonija” by Miroslav Penkov, published at FiveChapters

In any work of fiction, it’s useful to ask what experience most haunts a character or narrator. That experience will likely shape, in subtle or obvious ways, the character’s decisions and reactions for the rest of his or her life. Here is a paragraph from Penkov’s story that does exactly that.

How to Create the World of the Story

Story: “Eggs” by Alex Perez, published in Subtropics

It’s not actually enough to create a world for the story to enter. That world must lean on the story, shaping it so that the story isn’t generic but specific to that place.

How to Describe a Thing Without Naming It

Story: “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll, published at Gulf Coast

The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.

How to Set the Mood

Novel: Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston, published by Random House

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. The opening shots of any given episode of Breaking Bad, for instance, are pretty different from the opening of any episode of Parks and Recreation. One is almost always foreboding and dark, and the other is light, fast, and witty. Even if you were to encounter these shows with no knowledge of them, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered.

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

Memoir: Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson, published by Gotham

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves.

How to Reveal the Universe through a Single Detail

Novel-in-Poems: In the Circus of You by Nicelle Davis, published by Rose Metal Press

In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Aleph,” a character goes into a cellar and looks at a particular part of it, a mere point, and through it he sees the entire universe. It’s a dizzying concept that makes graduate students go, “Ooh,” when they read it, but it’s also a metaphor for how writing often works, especially descriptive passages. A single detail can provide a glimpse of something much larger—the universe or a relationship or the internal self. The problem is finding that detail and, when you do, knowing how to look through it.

How to Intimately Connect Character and Setting

Story: “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble” by Erin Pringle

Sometimes you’re reading along and hit a line that makes you stop. You can see in your mind the thing the words are describing, not just an image or a person but the whole thing: the world, the characters in it, the way they’re all connected. Setting isn’t simply a green screen behind the characters. It shapes every moment of their lives, big and small. Anyone who’s read the high-school literary classic “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is familiar with the big ways that setting shapes character, but the smaller ways are just as important.

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

Novel: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

Some stories are blessed with great settings, such as shadowy mansions with secret gardens and skeletons in the closets. This is a description of many great novels and also a brand new one: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. One of the things she does so well in the book is play up this great location. But it’s not enough to make a mansion very very shadowy and its gardens very very secret. A novel must also personalize the setting so that its importance becomes acutely attached to one character in particular. That attachment is often what will drive the story forward.

How to Describe Your Character’s Sense of the World

Novel: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

When I was an undergrad, one of my writing teachers lamented that too many novelists were trying to write books that could easily be filmed. A good novel, she said, moved differently than film; it created a kind of narrative space that could not be captured on a screen. And what filled that space? Human thought. This isn’t the only view of what constitutes good writing, and it’s probably not even a majority opinion, but it does suggest an interesting question. If a scene that can be filmed—i.e. one with dialogue and action and subtext to inform both—is not the only approach to a scene, then what else is there?

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3 Responses to “How to Describe Setting”

  1. bedankt May 19, 2015 at 8:02 p05 #

    This is my first time visit at here and i am in fact impressed to read all at alone place.

  2. Ziyad Khatb December 29, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    This is just amazing. Keep it up

  3. nataliya October 10, 2016 at 8:02 p10 #

    This is so great

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