How to write descriptions and evoke a sense of place in creative writing

All novels benefit from feeling properly placed in time and space, as do memoirs, travel tomes and most other forms of narrative non-fiction.

This quick guide tells you all you need to know, and how to get your settings right.

 

How descriptive writing matters

The Handmaid's Tale

It may sound a little obvious, but simplest and most important: don’t forget to describe where a particular scene takes place.

That means:

(a) tell the reader where they are in a paragraph (or so) close to the start of any new scene.

Don’t just say in a room, rather tell them what the room was like, but share just enough to paint a vivid enough image in readers’ minds without going on or clogging your writing with too many details (which readers may then skim over).

Gabriel García Márquez, in his opening to One Hundred Years of Solitude, doesn’t just give us a village by a riverbank. His style is lyrical, but his words create specificity in our minds, too:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

Straight off, we get a clear idea in few words of how the water and stones looked, thanks to word choices. But even if you’re describing a more ‘boring’ space, it is still possible to create vividness and atmosphere through specificity. So in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian thriller The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her sparse room with choice details that not only grab us but hint at something dark to come:

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

Morbid as it reads, details like this, in such clipped words, transport us straight to Offred’s enclosed space. We’re also told just enough to give us an image of that place, just enough to heighten tension, just enough to tease our curiosity. We’re intrigued, and we read on.

(b) remember to keep reminding the reader where they are. Unless you exit that particular location almost immediately, just keep jogging the reader’s memory as the scene progresses. More long paragraphs aren’t needed, just little nudges, such as Offred’s here.

Atwood continues to throw in details that set Offred’s story in context: why the window only opens partly, why the glass in it is shatterproof. A seemingly simple setting is used for drawing us slowly into the horrors Offred lives out as the property of the Commander in the Republic of Gilead.

But never inundate.

Paint a picture in your readers’ minds, and enough context to leave them curious to read on.

 

Choose your descriptive details

A Clockwork Orange

It might be tempting to share every detail with us on your surroundings.

But don’t.

Even for a place like Hogwarts, where readers really do think they want to know everything, J.K. Rowling doesn’t share how many revolving staircases students climb, how many hidden treasures in the Room of Requirement, how many trees in the Forbidden Forest, etc., etc. That’s not really the point. (And it would write off a little of Hogwarts’ magic and mystery if we had to count trees.)

The reader doesn’t care a hoot about these sorts of facts, so if you’re describing a bar, don’t say:

The bar was approximately twenty-eight feet long, by perhaps half of that wide. A long mahogany bar took up about one quarter of the floor space, while eight tables each with 4 wooden chairs occupied the remaining area. There were a number of tall bar stools arranged to accommodate any drinker who didn't want to be seated at one of the tables. The ceiling height was pleasantly commodious.

The reader wants atmosphere. That means mood.

Nothing else really matters, unless the facts are actually essential for the reader to make sense of what follows, and that bar already sounds pretty boring. Nothing happening, no sign of a character.

By contrast, we are told enough about the Korova Milk Bar by Alex in A Clockwork Orange that we sense its intimacy and darkness in just a few words: 

The mesto [place] was near empty … it looked strange, too, having been painted with all red mooing cows … I took the large moloko plus to one of the little cubies that were all round … there being like curtains to shut them off from the main mesto, and there I sat down in the plushy chair and sipped and sipped.

Point is, we don’t need to know how many cows there are on that wall, how many curtains and chairs there are. Alex’s story wouldn’t be so gripping if Anthony Burgess had taken that route, either.

We’re told what we need to know, we’re thrown into that murky Korova atmosphere and Burgess moves the action on.

A tip here from Anton Chekhov: ‘choose small details in describing [and group] them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing.’

 

Write for all the senses

Chocolat

Obviously, visual details are important but don’t neglect the other senses. Offering a full range of sensory information will really round out your descriptive writing.

Herman Melville describes to us the chowder for the ship’s crew in Moby Dick: ‘small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes.’ Such descriptions are deft, specific, and just enough.

Joanne Harris’ opening of Chocolat plays to readers’ senses, as we’re immersed straightaway in the world of her book through scent, sound and sight:

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.

Make sure that all the details you give for your story either support the overall mood or contrast usefully with it, though. In a novel like Chocolat, this sensory description is deeply relevant to the spirit of the story and none of it overdone, either.

It must all be relevant, so don’t just add in random frills that don’t build up to a coherent whole; choose details specifically to create interest.

 

How place and action work together

Above Suspicion

You need to use the atmospheric properties of a place to add to the other (more important) properties of the scene. That doesn’t mean you should always play things the obvious way: no need for cliché.

You can have declarations of love happen in idyllic meadows, à la Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, but why not at a bus stop in the rain? A real dump of a drinking hole? Shouted over the central reservation of a motorway?

Your character also brings one kind of mood to the scene, and the action that unfolds will bring other sensations.

Lynda La Plante’s crime novel Above Suspicion makes a home setting frightening after it becomes obvious a stranger has been in protagonist DS Anna Travis’ flat, and she’s just been assigned to help solve her first murder case.

So the place is influenced by action, once Anna notices:

Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.

So a comfy, nondescript flat can suddenly be a frightening place because of what else is going on. Go for those angles that add drama and excitement to your work.

 

Using unfamiliar or foreign places

Twilight

Using unfamiliar settings adds real mood and atmosphere.

Stephenie Meyer, when writing Twilight, decided she needed a rainy place near a forest to fit key plot elements, despite having never been to Washington State.

Like protagonist Bella, she was raised in Arizona, but explained the process of setting Twilight in an unfamiliar setting on her blog:

For my setting, I knew I needed someplace ridiculously rainy. I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs, and looked for the place with the most rainfall in the U.S. This turned out to be the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I pulled up maps of the area and studied them, looking for something small, out of the way, surrounded by forest. ... In researching Forks, I discovered the La Push Reservation, home to the Quileute Tribe. The Quileute story is fascinating, and a few fictional members of the tribe quickly became intrinsic to my story.

As shown by Stephenie Meyer, it’s possible to write very successfully about a place you don’t know, as long as you (fairly soon) make it your business to know as much as you can about it. (Or if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, plan your world down to the most intricate details, so you know all you can about it.)

The key thing here is to really do your research to nail the specifics of your setting, even if they are unfamiliar, foreign, exotic.

Just read how Tokyo is described in Ryu Murakami’s thriller In the Miso Soup:

It was still early in the evening when we emerged onto a street in Tsukiji, near the fish market. ... Wooden bait-and-tackle shops with disintegrating roofs and broken signs stood next to shiny new convenience stores, and futuristic highrise apartment complexes rose skyward on either side of narrow, retro streets lined with wholesalers of dried fish.

There’s authenticity, grit to this description of Tokyo, as opposed to using ‘stock’ descriptions that could apply to many modern cities.

Girl with a Pearl EarringNote this same thing with foods: in Japan, your protagonist could well be eating miso soup, as per Ryu Murakami.

Or say if your story was set in Hong Kong, you might write in a dai pai dong (a sort of Chinese street kitchen), something very specific to that city if you’re describing a street there.

Alternatively, if you are setting something in the past, get your sense of place right by doing your research right, too.

In historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, set in Holland in 1664, maid Griet narrates how artist Johannes Vermeer prepares her for her secret portrait:

“Lick your lips, Griet.”
I licked my lips.
“Leave your mouth open.”
I was so surprised by this request that my mouth remained open of its own will. I blinked back tears. Virtuous women did not open their mouths in paintings.

That last sentence is just a tiny detail. But Griet’s tears show us how mortified she is. Modern readers won’t (always) think about seventeenth-century connotations like this when we look at Johannes Vermeer’s real painting of the anonymous girl, on which the novel idea is based.

So if you’re writing a scene set in a very different era or culture to what you know, be sure to do your research so you’re creating a true, real sense of place.

 

Using place to create foreshadowing

Harry Potter

The idea here is that descriptions of place are never neutral.

Good writers will, in overt or gently subtle ways, introduce a place-as-character; if that character is dangerous, for example, then simply describing a place adds a layer of foreboding, foreshadowing, to the entire book.

Just read how J.R.R. Tolkien describes the Morannon in The Two Towers: ‘high mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained ... like an obscene graveyard.’ It’s obvious from this description trouble lies ahead for Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee.

But even if you’re not writing this sort of fantasy, character psychology and plot (as we saw above from The Handmaids Tale) can also render seemingly harmless places suspect, too. A boring apartment in Above Suspicion becomes scary when it seems someone’s been inside, could still be there.

In the same sense, we thrill to the sense of a place with excitement and promise, too, like when Harry Potter makes his first trip to Diagon Alley (in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to shop for Hogwarts equipment with Hagrid:

There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon. ... They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk.

Just weave place and action together like this to create atmosphere, excitement, tension, foreboding.

 

Think what you’ll add to settings

The Handmaid's Tale

One final thought. When you’ve written a piece, go back and check your nouns.

A bad description will typically use boring nouns (or things) in settings, i.e. a table, chair, window, floor, bar, stool, etc.

If you try to fluff up that boring description by throwing in some interesting adjectives (i.e. a grimy table, gleaming window, wooden floor), the chances are you'll either have (i) made the description even more boring, or (ii) made it just plain weird.

Of course, this all works for that first passage we looked over from Margaret Atwood.

We sense Offred counting the few things she has in the little room she calls hers, the window and chair, etc., in terse phrasing. We sense her tension, her dissociation, creating both an internal and external sense of place for us, her readers. We feel trapped with her.

All the same, you’d be advised as a writer picking off interesting nouns, to begin with, when setting much of your action (nicotine, wallpaper, parchment, teak, jukebox, sawdust, etc.). Play with nouns, with taking your readers to new surroundings. Give them a Moloko. Play with your surroundings, how you can make them a bit different, or how you can render the ordinary extraordinary. With the right nouns in place, you’ll need fewer adjectives to jazz things up and when you do use them, they’ll feel right, not over the top.

 

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