Long descriptions of setting that function merely as backdrop or atmosphere can quickly wear a reader's patience. When describing the city or vacant lot or mountain range or fire escape that serves as your story's setting, keep in mind, always, that you are telling a story. How does this particular setting bear on the characters' actions? How do the characters perceive this setting? Does anything about this setting—its colors or odors or sounds—suggest the characters' inner conflicts and desires? The story's setting should be an integral part of the story you wish to tell.
Settings shouldn't be "the parts people skip." You must add details that remind readers that the setting has a purpose. An abandoned fishing line at the shore of a river, a pile of books on the library floor, a badminton net tangled on the church spire—these details keep the readers aware that a story is being unmasked even as it is being "set."
To get the most out of a description of setting, make the details relative to each other rather than important only to themselves. A thatched hut is made small by a description of the giant palm trees that shelter it; a crumbling brick sidewalk is made luminous by a description of the sun's path over its chipped surface. Remember, too, to engage all the senses: a place can be "seen" through sound and scent and touch and taste.
Sometimes the history of a place can be used to the story's advantage. An orphanage restored into a hotel might make a good setting for a story about a couple on vacation, hoping to get pregnant. A construction site might enhance a story about a friendship in need of repair.
Descriptions of setting can be majestic or modest, depending on the story's needs. The broad view—the vast rippled surface of a lake— can bring grandeur to your setting, and the specific details—the silvery eye of a fish—can bring to your setting a cozy smallness.
Real places present special description problems. A place you describe today with dogged accuracy may have been razed by the time your book or story gets into print. Also, when you try too hard to be accurate you risk the fretful reader's complaint that getting from Main to Broad requires two left turns, not three. On the other hand, real places lend authenticity to stories. You might experiment a little with blending fact and fiction. For example, you might set a story in a real city, then make up a neighborhood within that city. Or, you might use the actual neighborhood of that city, then change the name of the church or school or monument that defines it. Readers are very forgiving as long as they recognize the rules.
Setting can be as important to a story as character or plot, and requires as much descriptive attention as any other element of fiction. Give it the care it deserves—your reward will be a story that feels authentic and unified.
SPECIAL DESCRIPTION PROBLEMS
No matter how good our writing becomes, certain description problems are bound to crop up again and again. How do we describe an animal without making it seem like an illustration in a Peterson guide, or, even worse, a character in a Disney movie? How do we describe weather without resorting to cliche? How do we make a reader "hear" sound? The following strategies may help you solve these reoccurring problems of description.
If you include animals in your stories you are probably an animal lover. If you are an animal lover you probably share quarters with the world's smartest dog, the world's prettiest cat, or the world's most talented parakeet. Perhaps you talk to your animals as if they understand you. And, who knows, maybe they do. Please remember, though, that what works in life doesn't always work in fiction. Your eight-year-old Siamese might fetch your slippers, but a reader might not believe this of a fictional cat. So, as you are booting up your computer or sharpening your pencil or looking for your lucky pen, remind yourself that animals are not furry people, no matter how much you adore yours.
That said, how do you handle animals once you decide they do belong in your story? Like human characters, animals deserve to be rendered accurately, interestingly, and truthfully. If you err too much on the furry-person side, your animals end up looking like Cinderella's sidekicks; too much on the field-guide side, your animals look like something mounted in a taxidermist's window.
Describing animals accurately is difficult, because all individual animals of a species, with few exceptions, look exactly the same. It is difficult to tell squirrels apart, for example, or rose-breasted grosbeaks, or caribou, or grizzly bears. Therefore, if you describe an animal accurately you offer a perfectly serviceable picture of a certain species of animal:
Lisa's Saint Bernard followed her into the living room. It had a huge rounded head, a massive body, and loose jowls. "Sit, Chuckles," Lisa demanded, and the dog obeyed.
What you don't offer, however, is a picture of any particular animal of that species. Like human characters, each animal, closely observed, is unique:
Lisa walked into the living room, her Saint Bernard lumbering behind her. It moved like a stevedore, barrel-chested and full of purpose. "Sit, Chuckles," Lisa demanded, and the dog obeyed, its wide and mournful face listing downward.
Here, you describe the dog as a Saint Bernard like any other—don't they all have mournful faces and barrel chests?—and yet you suggest the uniqueness of this particular animal through muscular verbs ("lumbering") and good use of simile ("like a stevedore") and intimations of personality ("full of purpose") that don't go so far as to make the animal a furry person. The vivid presentation has an added bonus: the name "Chuckles" is quite funny when applied to this serious, "mournful" creature.
Descriptions like this can so easily go wrong, of course. Language must be precise. Replacing a phrase like "his mournful face listing downward" with "he hung his head sadly" would violate the dog's animalness. In the first phrase, you are merely observing what the dog looks like, and in the second you are attributing emotion to a dog. Attributing human characteristics, emotions, or motivations to animals is called anthropomorphism—a major culprit in sentimental writing. The phrase "full of purpose" flirts with anthropomorphism, but it doesn't cross the line because it describes the dog's way of moving, not his moral integrity. Only if the passage were stuffed with other, similar phrases (describing, say, the dog's loyalty or bewilderment or fear or guilt) would the phrase "full of purpose" feel sentimental or corny.
My favorite animal description of all time is from Ralph Lombreglia's story "One-Woman Blues Revival":
It was a mammoth raccoon on the windowsill, looking at her with his broad masked face. He was moving his pointy nose all around, smelling the pantry smells. His long, black claws hung over the edge of the sill.
You couldn't live in Vermont without seeing lots of raccoons, but she'd never seen one this close up, so trusting and calm. She felt, after all these unsatisfactory years of adulthood, that she might finally be in a fairy tale. "Who the hell are you?" she said. "Do you talk?" To her great disappointment, he did not.
In this delightful passage, Lombreglia weds Disney to Peterson. The raccoon has a fanciful, cartoonish demeanor, "moving his pointy nose all around, smelling the pantry smells," but the description is accurate: "broad, masked face"; "long, black claws." Raccoons, perhaps more than any other animal, make fools of humans, because they're so darned cute we want to turn them into friends. Lombreglia acknowledges this impulse by revealing the woman's hope that "she might finally be in a fairy tale." He then yanks away any potential for sentimentality by having her ask, "Who the hell are you?" instead of saying something gluey like "Why, hello, little fellow." It's a brilliant passage because it acknowledges all our projections and (understandable) silliness about animals while reminding us that a raccoon is nothing more than, well, a raccoon.
Even if you stick to the most basic animal descriptions, you can jazz up the prose by paying attention to shades of color, thicknesses of coat, shapes of tails or paws or snouts. Consider different words for common features, or fresh similes that describe those features. A spotted leopard becomes a dappled cat. The shell of a tortoise might remind you of the sun-leathered surface of your grandfather's hands. The tail of a dog can resemble a hose or a bottle brush or an ostrich feather. You can make your animal characters seem unique or intelligent or charming or menacing by celebrating the very features and qualities that make them animals.