How to Write Effective Descriptions and Nail Your Scene’s Setting

One of the things that made me fall in love with books, was the magic of seeing the world that the words evoked in my imagination. Words create this magic that describes taste, smell, touch, sight, and noise so well that you can live in the story with all of your senses. You can experience everything.

Taking a seat in the writer’s chair now leaves you with the tricky task of evoking those same senses for your readers in your scenes. But there’s no need to stress over it, I have some tricks laid out below for this very thing.

Setting the scene

The goal in writing scene description is to make it read effortlessly. When describing a scene make yourself your character for a moment. What is it that your character is picking up with his/her senses? Go through each sense individually.

What does your character see? Is it snowy mountains against the baby blue sky or an old tattered couch in a rundown apartment?

Is your character near food or in a garden with growing flowers? What does it smell like?

Does your character drink some tea? What does it taste like?

Can your character feel the press of the wind against their skin or the grains of sand  between their toes?

Do they hear the smooth notes of stringed music or the bells of fishing boats?

You want to get as many of these senses written in as you can, but you won’t always get all of them in, and that’s okay.

Also, don’t stress if you cannot pinpoint all five senses. Your character will not always be eating or drinking. Get what you can, and add what makes sense with your scene.

Don’t over describe

While you want to have a well rounded description for your scene, do not over describe. With too much description, your reader will get bored and either sludge through the passage or give up entirely. Pages of detailed description is not what you want to go for.

Here are some things to look out for and what to do instead:

  • Do not dump your description all in one place. Instead, sprinkle description throughout the whole scene, seasoning your narrative. Use actions like your character putting away the groceries or walking down the street window-shopping to spread out your descriptions so they flow.
  • You also don’t want to describe every single detail. The most effective description is not the description of everything, but the description of some choice details.

– Describe what would stand out most to your character. What in their living room stands out most to their eyes?

– Describe what will make the biggest impact on your reader. What describes the situation of the character more? The tattered couch, or the immaculate granite countertops in the kitchen?

– You can also use description to set the mood of your scene. If it is a lighthearted scene on a rainy day, describe the pitter patter of the rain on the roof and the warmth of the indoors where your character is drinking tea. If you want a gloomy setting, don’t mention the rain cleansing the air, focus on the mud and sludge in the streets.

These choice details will be enough to let the reader know what the setting of the scene is like, and give them the freedom to make the rest up on their own. The reader does not need every single description. Your reader is smart and is able to fill in the blanks where you leave off, building off of your choice descriptions.

Action Step

Practice description. For ten minutes write a scene or take an already written scene and season it with description using as many of the five senses as you can.

Related post I recommend:

“Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 47: Ineffective Setting Descriptions,” by K.M. Weiland from her blog Helping Writers Become Authors.

What is something you love or struggle with while writing description? Share in the comments.

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