Setting and sense of place

From The Creative Penn, this article: Setting And Sense Of Place

Your job as a writer is to manipulate the reader’s imagination, to make them think and feel what you want them to, but too many writers forget the importance of setting in their books. … In fact, a common error for new writers is “talking heads in an empty white room,” where characters have great conversations and undertake significant action, but it’s unclear where it’s all happening.

This is true. “White room” settings are a common failure mode one sees in workshops. The linked post adds these examples:

Morgan walked along a path through the trees.


Morgan slowly walked along a winding path that meandered through a dense forest of towering evergreens with needle-like leaves, interspersed with spindly birch trees with papery white bark. Their trunks reached up towards the sky like giant pillars, their bark rough to the touch with deep grooves and ridges that formed intricate patterns. Leaves rustled gently in the light breeze, creating a soft whispering sound as the scent of pine and earth filled the air. Sunlight filtered through the branches of the trees, dappling the ground with patches of warm light.

And there you go, that’s a good contrast. I mean, even I, who love description, would cut some of those adjectives, but nevertheless, sure, adding description is crucial. White room settings will just not work in a novel, and here I’m pausing to try to think of the most stripped-down possible fiction to see if I think I really mean “crucial.”

Yes, I really do. You cannot write successful fiction without including decent description to give your reader a sense of place. If the reader does not get a feel of the setting, the story will fail. If anyone can think of an exception, let me know.

Maybe flash fiction could do it. I mean things like “Baby shoes, never worn, for sale cheap,” or whatever that example was. But anything longer than that, I don’t think that’s possible.

Back to the linked post:

All stories, whether fiction, memoir, or narrative non-fiction, happen somewhere, so setting is a key aspect of writing.

From an epic fantasy world to a small room in a literary novel, to the open road of a personal travel memoir, your characters experience their journey in specific places.

A scene in a story has one or more characters in a setting performing some kind of action toward a specific goal. The setting is the backdrop against which the scene unfolds.

In fact, a common error for new writers is “talking heads in an empty white room,” where characters have great conversations and undertake significant action, but it’s unclear where it’s all happening.

Here are three quick tips to help you write better settings, whether you’re writing fiction, memoir, or narrative non-fiction.

  1. Use sensory details
  2. Write from the character’s point of view
  3. Use metaphor

I think all of these are good points. That is, I think the first is a no-brainer. It’s impossible to write description without including sensory detail. True, it’s possible to forget that any senses exist besides vision, but still, description is fundamentally based on the senses.

Oh, let me pause here to mention an unusual series: The Blue Place and sequels by Nicola Griffith. That does not appear to be available as an ebook, which is a shame. The publisher should be embarrassed at not converting the books to ebook format. On the other hand, Griffith really ought to ask for ebook rights back given that the publisher isn’t using them. Regardless, I still recommend this series, even if you ordinarily read only ebooks. It’s a thriller or a crime novel or something in that general ballpark, not SFF.

I know I’ve said this before, but the protagonist, Aud Torvingen, is one of the very few sensualist protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and amazingly well drawn. This makes for a remarkable reading experience, especially for readers who ordinarily may like, for example, competence porn. Thinking of it that way, you know what would be super interesting? Reading The Blue Place and The Martian back to back. Both protagonists are highly competent people, but the sensory world is so central for Aud and practically absent for Mark Watney. Description is of course important for both novels. Andy Weir has to pull the reader into the limited environment of the Mars habitat and show the deadly inhospitality of the Martian environment outside the habitat. Of course description is crucial for that. But Griffith pours the sensory world of summertime Atlanta into the reader’s mind in a way that is just so purely evocative of place.

Also, The Blue Place is a character study, and of course The Martian has about the flattest character in creation.

Do I need to pause here and add that I loved The Martian? Probably I should say so with some emphasis. I loved The Martian and I’ve read it several times. I enjoyed it tremendously. I love well-done competence porn. I am not criticizing The Martian. I am pointing out that it is way out at one end of a specific curve and The Blue Place is way out at the other end. The way each book handles description is fine, but totally different: entirely filtered through the protagonist in Griffith’s novel and almost entirely independent of the protagonist in Weir’s.

Aud is a highly competent but very physical person. Maybe I should say she is primarily competent physically. That’s very different from Mark Watney. It means The Blue Place is a highly physical book, a sensory explosion of a book, while The Martian is much more cerebral. This is true even though both are high-tension stories at times.

The third suggestion made by the linked post is something different. Use metaphor. Okay, what does that even mean?

You can even use the setting itself as a metaphor. For example, two characters walk through a graveyard in the snow on a dark wintery day. “Let’s talk about our future,” one says.

The same dialogue, the same two characters, but the setting is now a white sand beach fringed by palm trees in the glorious sunshine. The setting changes the mood and the meaning entirely.

Yes, this is interesting because it doesn’t depend on the pov of the protagonist. It arises from the, um, the stage-direction of the author. I hadn’t thought of that aspect of description, but certainly the setting the author chooses may allow certain emotions to be evoked rather than others.

The linked post is advertising a course about setting. I’m not crazy about courses of this kind, though I guess some writers must find them helpful. I would suggest paying attention to setting and sense of place in books you love. Attentive reading is, in my opinion, much more use than tips, hints, tricks, hacks, methods, techniques, or anything else that the writer is supposed to consciously deploy while writing.

I probably feel that way because I write by feel and the idea of deliberately using some sort of technique, any sort of technique, seems so alien. Nevertheless, I hereby recommend The Blue Place for evocative setting, intense sense of place, and pulling the reader into the story through the sensory world of the protagonist.

An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azaliea blossoms. Nearly midnight. I had been walking for over an hour, covering four or five miles. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t sleepy.

You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match. But no, when I turn out the lights at ten o’clock and can’t keep still, can’t even bear to sit down in my Lake Claire house, it’s because I see again the first body I hadn’t killed.

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8 thoughts on “Setting and sense of place”

  1. When I think of books with a strong sense of place, Scorpio Races springs to mind – you’re almost surprised that it isn’t a real island somewhere.

  2. Oh, now I immediately want to bring Scorpio Races upstairs and put it on the coffee table so I’ll remember to re-read it. It’s a great book — and I’ve only read it once! I definitely want to re-read it.

  3. Watch your point of view character.

    A military character, for instance, will appraise that forest in terms of ambushes and defensible places.

  4. When it comes to talking heads–the only time I’ve seen that work is the opening scene of Fletch. It’s nothing but dialogue, no attribution even, just short snappy sentences for the first page or two. Even after that, the description is at the bare minimum. It gives the impression of journalism, which is fair enough since the main character is a journalist.

  5. That forest is a little alien nowadays, what with the strange purplish hue, and underbrush of words.
    I much prefer the white room in this case, as “dense evergreen and spindly birch” and “trunks like pillars” describe two different forests!

  6. Made me laugh, Pete! I admit that those two descriptive phrases do not seem to go together at all well!

  7. On the bright side, the evergreens are pines, not fir. Trees of disturbance, growing together

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