Do you know what ‘good setting description’ reads like? Pick a book and spot where the author has described the place, the time period, the environment, and the surroundings where the actions take place. For a moment ask yourself, “What has the author done here to make this story interesting?” “Why am I able to picture the story and its setting?” “Why do I feel connected to the character?”
As students, most of us tend to narrate the events in the story, paying less attention to the setting of the story. The result – a plain narrative with fewer details.
You must have heard your English teacher say this a thousand times: “Your story should paint a picture in the readers’ minds.” But what does it exactly mean? Well, as writers, we only have words and sentences that we can use to show our readers what exactly happened in the story, how it happened, where it happened, and why it happened. So, we can only use words and sentences in creative and interesting ways to intrigue our readers.
One of the interesting ways to attract readers is to describe the setting of the story. In this post, I will teach you how you can describe settings through character descriptions.
Good authors use many setting description strategies to ‘paint a picture in their readers’ minds’, but in this post, you’ll learn two descriptive writing strategies that are character description strategies, but you can use them to describe settings.
What Are We Learning?
We are learning two strategies to describe settings. These two strategies are actually character description strategies that give readers a clue about the setting of the story.
Setting Description Strategies:
We know that a setting is the location, place, time, a moment in history, weather, season, and the environment where the story’s actions take place. Before we discuss the strategies, let’s read a sample setting description. As you read, note down all the details that describe the character, Ravi’s senses, actions, and reactions.
Sample Setting Description:
‘Ravi shook, then shivered with delight, with self-congratulation. Also, with fear. It was dark, spooky in the shed. It had a muffled smell, as of graves. Ravi had once got locked into the linen cupboard and sat there weeping for half an hour before he was rescued. But at least that had been a familiar place, and even smelt pleasantly of starch, laundry, and reassuringly, of his mother. But the shed smelt of rats, anthills, dust, and spider webs. Also of less definable, less recognizable horrors. And it was dark.’
(‘Games at Twilight and Other Stories‘ by Anita Desai)
Notice the Author’s Setting Description Techniques:
Let’s discuss the two description strategies the author has used to describe the setting:
Setting Description Strategy 01 – Describing Settings Through Characters’ Senses, Actions, and Reactions:
The first strategy we are going to learn is ‘Describing Settings Through Characters’ Senses, Actions, and Reactions’. Read these lines from the excerpt and see how beautifully Desai has described Ravi’s senses, his actions, and reactions that give hints about the setting and its impact on Ravi.
Ravi shook, then shivered, with delight. Also, with fear. It was dark, spooky in the shed. It had a muffled smell, as of graves.
Setting Description Analysis:
Let’s analyze how Desai uses setting description strategy 01.
The author shows how the place (The shed) looked like, and how it made Ravi feel (…Ravi shook, then shivered with delight. Also with fear). See how Ravi’s gestures and actions reveal his inner feelings while he was hiding in the shed. The words shook and shivered show that the place did not have a very positive impact on Ravi. Then the author describes how the setting looked (dark and spooky) and smelled (muffled smell as of graves). The description of the character’s senses, actions, and reactions coupled with the sensory details of the setting successfully convey what the setting looked like and how one would feel about it.
When readers read about a character’s feelings, their actions in a particular setting, and how they react to situations and places they are in, they feel connected to the setting in a story.
Setting Description Strategy 02 – Describing Settings by Comparing Characters’ Earlier Experiences in Similar or Different Places:
The second strategy we are going to learn is ‘Describing Settings by Comparing Characters’ Earlier Experiences in Similar or Different Places’. Read these lines from the excerpt and notice how Desai has described Ravi’s comparison of his present feelings with his earlier experiences.
Ravi had once got locked into the linen cupboard and sat there weeping for half an hour before he was rescued. But at least that had been a familiar place, and even smelt pleasantly of starch, laundry, and reassuringly, of his mother. But the shed smelt of rats, anthills, dust, and spider webs. Also of less definable, less recognizable horrors. And it was dark.
Setting Description Analysis:
The author uses setting description strategy 02 to show the present setting’s impact on Ravi.
She describes how different Ravi felt about his surroundings while in the shed. Desai uses flashback to highlight the differences in the two settings and their impact on Ravi (…that had been a familiar place and even smelt pleasantly…).
Notice the use of specific opposite sensory words (smell of rats vs. smell of starch) to create a contrasting effect. Before describing the dull and gloomy shed, she describes the linen cupboard (familiar place, smelt pleasantly of starch, laundry and reassuringly, of his mother…), so that the description of the present setting has a stronger impact on the readers.
Practice Task – Write A Setting Description
Now it’s time to write a setting description using the two character description techniques I discussed above.
Below is a picture of a man sitting on a bench in a garden. Describe his surroundings using his senses, actions and reactions. Also, creatively describe his thinking and feelings about a similar or a different place to highlight the present setting.
You can also watch this video to get an overview of these two strategies.