“Description does nothing to move a story forward on its own. It’s how it interacts with the characters that makes or breaks it. What we want, are details that breathe life into both the characters, and the setting.”
Janice Hardy is a writing coach and the author of several novels and how-to guides; her site, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, offers a host of helpful articles. In a recent post, she gave five questions to ask about setting that can help a story come alive:
1. Who’s doing the looking? Each character in your story will look and see the setting around them differently based on their attitude, mood, and knowledge. As Jane suggests: “Think about how they would describe something, not how you would.” Who is your protagonist — what problems are they facing in a particular scene? How will their mood affect the details that create the setting their in?
2. Why are they looking at it? Whatever the setting in a scene, a character interacts with it differently, depending on why they are there: Sometimes they’re happily expectant; sometimes, afraid and alert. As Jane notes, “Your reasons for looking impact what you
see and how you feel about it… using details to bring out an emotion or thought from your protagonist helps make the setting more memorable.”
3. What’s important to them? Whatever the setting, people notice what’s important to them in it and so do characters. Highlighting details that matter can help reveal character; throwing in extraneous details can pull the reader out of your story.
4. What’s important to the scene or story? Sometimes a detail needs to be in a scene to advance the plot; but these should feel natural, not artificial: Bring them in from the character’s point of view and they are meaningful — and telling.
5. What tone and mood do you want? “Small details can really add to the emotion of a scene. They give you opportunities for similes and metaphors that flow seamlessly, because the detail evokes a feeling in your protagonist.”
For the full story and examples, see: