So how do we achieve great setting description? Two words, people: Sensory information. The five senses Sight, Touch, Smell, Taste and Sound are key to involving the reader, because they transform descriptive word choices into experiences.
Let’s look at the difference sensory description can make.
This spot in the shade was much to warm for the suit jacket her new job required her to wear, so she stripped it off and then dug out the leftover pasta salad she’d brought from home. The wares from the hot dog cart stationed on the other side of the park fountain looked much more appealing that the mush trapped inside her Tupperware. Sure, why not? she thought, and returned her lunch to her satchel. After all, I might not even be here tomorrow.
Devil’s advocate says: What’s the big deal—it’s a park. Seen one, seen them all. I get an instant image, so don’t waste my time with sensory fluffery!
Okay, so let’s look at the same passage written with stronger language and more sensory description:
Laughter rang out from the park’s small stone fountain, where a mother stood within reach of two toddlers wading in the knee-deep water. Brenna smiled and shrugged out of her suit jacket, wishing she could join them.
As Brenna dug in her satchel for her lunch of leftover pasta salad, the wind shifted, bringing the salty aroma of hot dogs. Her stomach grumbled, urging her to forget the mush inside her Tupperware and visit the hot dog cart near the park entrance instead. Sure, why not? she thought. I might not even be here tomorrow.
Do you see the difference? Reading the first one, I feel like an observer. The second, I feel involved, connected by common experiences. I can smell those hot dogs, and I know exactly how it feels to stick my sore feet into soft grass, I also smile when I see kids having a good time. (If you would like more information on why sensory description is so important in creating an emotional connection in your readers, please check out this great post at Headdesk!)
BTW, did you notice that the second passage has less words than the first? This is because stronger imagery means fewer words are needed to show the same thing.
However, if I describe the sharp prickle of pine as I inhale, show the reaching, sun-lit branches and how the ancient furrowed bark embodies a sense of time and patience, the reader will know I feel the tree is beautiful without me ever having to say it. Strong language and concrete description is what we need to master to be effective writers.
Which brings us to the new Setting Description Thesaurus!
Each Saturday we will explore a common setting location and list out possibilities for description using strong associative language and the five senses. We hope to cover everything from deserts and mountains to basements and playgrounds. You in turn can use it as an idea bank when describing your own settings, but remember that all description should be used like seasoning. Choose a few powerful details to give the setting texture, not paragraphs or pages that will encourage the reader to skim.
We hope you find this thesaurus just as handy as the Emotion Thesaurus. If you have a setting you’re struggling with, feel free to let us know. The current list of settings can be found in the sidebar, next to the Emotion Thesaurus.
PLEASE NOTE: these entries are pure imagination. :) Location, climate and access to technology will cause variations, so please do further research if you don't have first hand experience to make sure details are accurate. I know, it's common sense, but someone out there might assume we have actually been to all of these places. Thanks! :)