Creating a Sense of Place in Fiction


All novels benefit from feeling properly placed in time and space. So do memoirs, travel books (duh!), and most other forms of narrative non-fiction. This Quick Guide tells you how to get it right.

1. Don't leave the reader placeless

The first instruction is the simplest & 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 bar". Tell them what the bar was like:

"the bar they wound up in looked something like the interior of a coffin. The wallpaper was a dark burgundy with a strange shine to it. Either the shine was part of the effect, or no one had cleaned the place for the last twenty years or so. There was a smell of stale beer and nicotine."

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

'He reached over the bar, and caught a mirror image of himself moving like a silver ghost in the shiny wallpaper. One more reason to hate it.'

2. The reader doesn't care about facts

The reader doesn't care a hoot about facts. 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. It means that you need to pick out an aspect of the place that you want to emphasise. Nothing else really matters, unless the facts are actually essential for the reader to make sense of what follows.

3. The reader has a nose, mouth, fingers, & ears

Don't just write for the eyes. Obviously visual info is important, but don't neglect the other senses. Offering a full range of sensory information will really round out your descriptive writing.

Make sure that all the details you give either support the overall mood or contrast usefully with it. Don't just shove in random facts that don't build up to a coherent whole.

4. Make the place and the action work together

Your character brings one kind of mood to the scene. The action that unfolds will bring other sensations. You need to use the atmospheric properties of the place to add to the other (more important) properties of the scene. That doesn't mean you should always play things the obvious way. You can have a marriage proposal happen in a field of poppies - but why not at a busstop in the rain? A real dump of a drinking hole? Shouted over the central reservation of a motorway? Go for angles that add excitement to your work

5. Think about your nouns

One final thought. When you've written a piece, go back and check your nouns. A bad description will typically use boring nouns - table, chair, window, floor, bar, stool, etc. If you try to fluff up that boring description by chucking in some interesting adhjectives - a 'grimy table, two-bit chairs, 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.

You're much better off picking off some interesting nouns to begin with - nictotine, wallpaper, sheen, parchment, teak, jukebox, sawdust, etc. With those nouns in place, you'll need fewer adjectives to jazz things up - and when you do use them, they'll feel right, not just over the top.