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Tuesday Ten: 10 Ways to Craft a Sense of Place

Cheryl's Musings: Tuesday Ten: 10 Ways to Craft a Sense of Place

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Tuesday Ten: 10 Ways to Craft a Sense of Place

You know the basics of setting creation: describe the who, what, when, and where of your character's surroundings. But how do you move beyond a mere list of details to a setting that draws the reader into your story? 
Setting can—and should—accomplish far more than simply setting a visual backdrop for plot. Setting can:
  • Create a visual image specific enough that the reader isn't confused by the characters' actions and movements
  • Support the plot and action
  • Enhance the mood of a scene
  • Draw the reader into the story, making it more real and immediate
  • Reflect the story's theme
  • Assist in character development
  • Deliver clues for later use
Thanks to Maureen for suggesting that I create a Tuesday Ten as a more doable alternative to the Thursday Thirty list posts that have been such a success. I’m kicking off the Tuesday Ten as a new blog feature this week with ten tips for how you can craft settings that resonate. Enjoy!
Present the Right Details
  1. Choose the specific: When you’re writing (or rewriting) setting, avoid the vague and non-specific.
    Vague: A red car
    Vivid: A candy-apple red station wagon
  2. Choose sensory images: When choosing which details to include, make your setting more vivid by appealing to your reader's senses—and move beyond the sense of sight. What does your character hear, feel, smell, and taste? 
    Flat: he saw the ocean
    Multisensory: the taste of salt and smell of rotting kelp rose from the waves
  3. Choose the unique: Look for details that are unique to your particular story’s time and place. Does your story take place in particular era? In a specific location?
    Generic: The train pulled into the station
    Unique: The steam locomotive pulled into Liverpool Station
  4. Choose details that reflect culture: Differences in culture can help you identify unique details for setting creation. Find details that stand out because of location, such as customs, dress, dialect, and traditions.
    Hum-drum: a man practicing Tai Chi in public, in shorts, in the U.S.—no one would give him a second glance
    Surprising: a man practicing Tai Chi in public, in shorts, in Afghanistan, where men don't usually wear shorts in public—onlookers would react with surprise, amusement, or disgust.

    Choose Character-Specific Details
  5. Choose details that reflect point of view: What would your point of view character notice?
    Ignores character: a 12-year-old boy observes the sunset’s beauty (unless said 12-year-old has a particular reason to be interested in the sunset)
    Builds character:  a 12-year-old boy observes the way the sun reflects off the face of his watch, and the fact that he can make his teacher squint by flashing it in her eyes
  6. Choose details that reflect emotions: Color your characters’ observations with their emotional state.
    Normal: a teen girl notices the room is rectangular in shape
    Gloomy: the teen girl notices that the room is shaped like a coffin 

    Choose How You Present Details
  7. Show details through character response: Avoid static description by implying information about setting by how your characters behave.
    Cliche: she stepped into the dark and stormy night
    Novel: she pulled her hood lower, cursing the wind and rain
  8. Weave setting specifics into action: Provide details—but avoid lists.
    Static: she saw a set of marble steps leading to the door
    Active: she mounted the curved marble stairs with mounting trepidation 
  9. Season your scene: Use simile and metaphor to evoke an in a few words an image or mood that would take paragraphs to describe or explain.
    So-so: the sun hung low on the horizon, a dark red color, and shot beams of golden light through the surrounding clouds
    Vivid & surprising: the sun sat on horizon like a fat red spider on a web of gleaming gold

    Select the Best Details
  10. Be profligate, then prune: How do you come up with great details in a first draft? By coming up with lots and lots and lots of details, most of them crappy. When you start with a laundry list of what your character might see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, you can go back and choose only the best. Ultimately, the best scene-setting is the result of a few, carefully chosen details that evoke a sense of place, not an exhaustive description.
How do you craft a setting that is tight, yet evocative? Share your tips below!

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At July 5, 2011 at 12:11 PM , Blogger mooderino said...

Thanks for the top tips.

Moody Writing

At July 5, 2011 at 4:02 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Great tips Cheryl. Setting can be a powerful tool if used appropriately. Just look at setting based works like Silent Hill (series not movie), Twin Peaks or even the works of Lovecraft. Setting and tone are powerful elements.

At July 5, 2011 at 9:32 PM , Blogger Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

This is always a great reminder. I am still learning to do this well. Or, rather, better than well =-). I love reading scenes that I can feel.

At July 5, 2011 at 9:38 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

@mooderino Thanks back at ya :-) for making me smile

@PW.Creighton There's food for thought--what are the best inspirations for use of setting to create mood? You give some great examples.

@Kathryn I'm still learning, too--I think that's where I come up with blog ideas--from the challenges of that week's writing. I, too, love a scene that pulls me in. They look so easy until you try to write one :)

At July 6, 2011 at 3:05 AM , Blogger Jacqvern said...

Great tips and I liked your examples on each very much :)

Thank you for the interesting post

At July 6, 2011 at 3:05 AM , Blogger Jacqvern said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At July 6, 2011 at 8:26 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Jacqvern, thank you!

At July 6, 2011 at 8:43 AM , Blogger Julie Musil said...

Cheryl, this is awesome. Sometimes I worry that I'm too detailed, and yet those details, if properly placed, make such a huge difference. Your choice of rotting sea kelp? Awesome. I actually smelled it!!!

At July 6, 2011 at 8:47 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Thanks, Julie. I tend to over-describe and be too detailed as well; I usually need some down time to gain the perspective needed to prune ruthlessly :)

At July 6, 2011 at 9:40 AM , Blogger J.L. Campbell said...

Really good article, Cheryl. Stopped here as I caught Julie's tweet. Specifics help so much with creating vivid pictures. Great tips.

At July 6, 2011 at 8:22 PM , Blogger Robin Lythgoe said...

Great post! Love the way you explained what to emphasize, and those are some really good examples. Must employ the five senses! :D

At July 21, 2011 at 11:15 PM , Blogger Maree Kimberley said...

Some excellent tips here! Thanks :)

At August 4, 2011 at 7:27 PM , Blogger Julie Beddoes said...

Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing. I will definitely keep these in mind.


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