Friday, April 3, 2015

Picture This

I hope you’re enjoying some ideal spring weather. Resurrection Day is almost here! As I look around outside, watching everything green up or flower, I feel thankful for where I live. The setting of my life impacts me every day, whether it’s my environment, my location, or the current times.

And just like real life, the setting of a story impacts the story in a big way. 

I saw the new Disney Cinderella this week and enjoyed it for a vast number of reasons … but one of the biggest was the sets and the cinematography used to present them. Everything was beautiful and idyllic, and somehow made me feel hopeful and positive about all of life since such beautiful places and objects exist. The sets contributed to the movie’s message: have courage and be kind, look for the beautiful in life. If a movie’s visuals can so greatly influence how you feel about the overall feature, it seems the setting of a story and the way it’s presented can also be influential.

Obviously a book works differently than a movie, but some of the best books feel like a movie in certain respects. One of them is setting. I’m a little biased … I usually prefer a richly described setting, where you can form a movie-like picture in your mind of the world and the scenes where the characters are living. But I grant that certain books don’t require a richly described setting (Jane Austen’s novels, for example) to do what they are meant to do. There are probably certain books where bare-bones description is even necessary to the story. However, sometimes young writers forget to describe any setting at all unless it directly has to do with the plot, and even then, the details are so sparse as to be very general or vague. (“She walked through the woods.” “He skated on the street.” “There were some trees nearby.”) Good writing is supposed to take you somewhere when you read it … but how can that happen if you have no idea what to picture in your mind as you are transported?

I encourage you to take a second look at how you’re using setting in your story … if you feel that a scene is vague because you don’t give any description, how about determining the most relevant details of the set and mixing them in with the actions of your characters? You’ll suck your reader even deeper into your story if you give them something they can imagine with their senses—one or all five. I tried to do this in this scene from my book England Adventure:

When our Dallas flight came to a stop at O’Hare, Emma, Caroline, and I stood up, completely swallowed by the crowd of passengers as we prepared to get off. Emma’s slight form squeezed into the aisle, reaching up for our carry-on bags; she was plenty tall enough to reach them, but she still looked so young and small among the press of people. I was starting to feel desperate now to meet our cousins, to stifle our loneliness and vulnerability in this crowd.

Be careful not overload on unnecessary details (which detracts from the story), but use the details to your advantage. Setting can add depth to your character when you mention the type of house he lives in, or it can add intensity to a scene when you tell us about the wind buffeting her at the edge of a cliff while miles of desolate, waving prairie grass stretch away to the horizon. That’s where “cinematography” comes in … deciding what details enhance the story and how they should be presented. Make your character respond to the setting—capture his feelings about it. Does he like his house, or does it make him feel ashamed whenever he comes home? Why? Make your reader feel the same way about it, and you’ll have used setting as it is meant to be used: to make your reader live your story.

Do you like describing the setting of your story? Or do you find it better to keep your details sparse? Why? What authors do you think do a great job at evoking setting?

Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog


  1. I love settings and describing them! One way I practice this and had my students practice is to take old calendar pictures (just about any picture would do, I just like calendars because they are so varied) and write a paragraph describing the picture. What do you see, feel, hear, smell? If you can put yourself in the picture, it's easier to tell it so others can see it too.

    1. That's great, Rebekah! Describing pictures of that type sounds like good practice. It's definitely important to remember all the senses.
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I love describing settings, but I find I also like to use less detail when the speed of my story needs to pick up for action. I agree that the setting of a story really makes its mood; and I would say that C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Elizabeth Enright are some of the masters in this area.
    Do you have any tips for sorting through which details add and which ones don't?

    1. Besides helping to pick up the pace, less detail during fast-paced scenes is certainly realistic, since we're less likely to notice our setting when we're focused on something more serious at hand! I agree with you about those authors being masters at setting (though I have not yet read any Enright).
      Alicia explained a great technique for sorting through details: using character. Usually what I try to do is imagine what would be important to my point-of-view character at the point of the story in question ... are they in a contemplative, noticing mood, or are they focused on something narrow? Use the details on the most important aspects of setting.
      Another thing I usually end up doing is writing possibly too many details in my first draft, and when I go back and edit, trim what seems to make readers forget what the story is actually about.
      I bet there are other tips! It's an important question and one I have to ask myself all the time to help me keep focused on my story. :)

    2. Thank you for responding! Those are excellent tips!

  3. I like to immerse my readers in a scene rather than always describe it from a third person overview. For historical-fiction, it seems to work better than actually writing paragraphs about the scene and setting. Rather, the description flows through what the character's are seeing and feeling and doing... If that makes sense!

    1. Great technique, Alicia! It's definitely effective to describe setting through your characters, using it to add details that enhance readers' understanding of them and make readers feel as if they are seeing and feeling the same things.


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