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An Exercise in Setting Description

November 18, 2018


Now, we all have different strong suits as writers. Some of us are really good at crafting realistic characters, others can make engaging plots, others can bend and twist words in beautiful ways. And while it's important to recognize and play to your strengths in writing, it's also important to work to improve things you aren't so good at. For me, that's description. I tend to forget about it or not include it, and when I do try to write it, I can't think of what to put. I'm sure there are plenty of others that are like me on here, and even if description is your strong suit, it can always be improved, right? So here is a quick exercise based around that.

First, think of a place in your life that you can remember vividly, preferably a very sensually stimulating place. For example, a cafe that you frequent or a woods you hike in. I'm going to choose this bakery that I've gone to multiple times.

We'll start with the five basic senses--- touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. Close your eyes and try to imagine that you're in the place you've chosen; imagine it using the above five senses. So for example, the bakery I chose smells like chocolate and cinnamon, and you can hear the low chatter of people and the employees shouting instructions to each other. Transport yourself to your place. Now, open your eyes and type out a description based off what you saw in your mind's eye. It doesn't have to be a perfect description, but remember to use the five senses in it. It can be one paragraph or a couple of paragraphs, whatever you feel like.

Now we'll try to probe a little deeper, add more detail to flesh it out, and to do this we'll be using questions. Usually, there are multiple layers to each sense, it's not just one smell or one sight or one thing you're hearing. What are the loudest sounds? The softest? The filler noise? What's the lighting? Is it warm or cold? How busy is it? Are there lots of smells, sights, sounds, even tastes and textures trying to capture your attention all at once? Is it more bare? Is it crowded or open? Taste and touch are often neglected, but usually even if you aren't eating something or touching something, you're imagining how things will feel and taste. Like in the bakery, I can practically taste the rich, dark chocolate. Add these layers and details to your description.

The third step is incorporating more senses. Yes, the five listed are the basics, but technically humans have hundreds of more specific, smaller senses. For example, there's also:
- temperature
- pain; if it's too loud or bright in your setting, or your senses are getting overwhelmed, you may get a headache
- balance and acceleration; normally this isn't that important, unless the setting is a plane, a car, or something else in motion, or the floor is for whatever reason shaky and throwing you off balance
- time; a cafe will feel very different at 3 AM versus 6 PM, as we all have these sort of internal clocks (also, the time will affect the lighting, possibly temperature, and business of the place)
- moisture; is the place dry, humid, cold and wet, cold and dry?

Now you can add those to your description, too! If they apply, of course; if your setting isn't in motion, then you don't need to mention acceleration or balance. 

The final phase is figurative language. Everyone has their own writing style, and some use more figurative language than others; your description doesn't have to be stuffed with metaphors and similes. However, writing is an art, and it's a bit bare if you don't experiment or use some figurative language. This is another stage where we'll ask questions, but these ones are going to be more abstract. Let's use the cafe again. If it were a person, what would it look like, how would it act? Does it seem to stand tall and proud or droop? Old or young? What color is it? Generally, ask questions based around the "vibe" of the place and what emotions are attached to it, how it feels for you when you go there.

Once you incorporate that into your paragraph, read it over and revise it where needed, and you're done! Here are some more things to consider about description to help you revise:

1. Vocabulary. No, not every word needs to be fancy, and if you use too many obscure or hard words, the paragraph will just be hard to read. But consider if there are any words you could use that would be better when reading through it. For example, you could use "red", or you could use "crimson" or "maroon" or "scarlet." None of those words are particularly fancy or difficult to read, but they're more specific.
2. Mood. This is probably the most important thing when writing a description of the setting. Everything revolves around the mood of the place. If the mood of the cafe is worn-down, almost abandoned, then you'll describe it very differently than you would a cafe with a more energetic, cheerful mood. Combine this with vocabulary to know what words to choose. If you're going for a harsh, barren tone--- think a hospital room or the arctic--- you want to choose harder, shorter words. If you're going for a bubbly, happy tone, you want to choose words that feel bubbly and happy. 
3. Genre. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but generally certain genres have certain moods linked to them, which will affect the description. Horror tends to use dim, cold places, while romance will tend to use warmer, rosier places. Again, not a strict rule, and breaking it may have interesting results.
4. This is just an exercise. It sounds obvious, but what we're doing here is writing a large, detailed chunk of description, which is something you generally want to avoid in writing. Description and detail is not always necessary (how and when to use it will be covered another day), and this exercise is just so you can be better at it when it is. 

We hope that you enjoyed this exercise! If you participated in it, copy and paste your paragraph into the comments, or publish it with #settingexercise in the detail (or put the link in the comments)! We're interested to know how it went and if you found it helpful. If there's anything you struggle with or would like to know about in the next exercise or advise-type thing, or if you have any questions about writing, just comment whatever it is and we'll consider making a piece about it! Happy writing!


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  • November 18, 2018 - 1:50pm (Now Viewing)

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  • Anha

    Yes, this is super helpful! I'll definitely be using this tutorial in the future, and I agree with @Kahasai in that if you did similar things for plots or characters that would be amazing!

    over 1 year ago
  • Kahasai

    Good exercise! Description is my strength, but this sounds really fun. Could you post other exercises, like for character, plot, and theme? I'd appreciate it. It'd be a cool sort of pattern to do, too.

    over 1 year ago