Setting the Scene How Place and Detail Shape Your Story


This week, we delve into the power of setting and the intricate details that breathe life into your narrative.

Details Matter

The right details immerse the reader in your world, whether that means a brand new universe with magic and unique creatures or a house with foundations in the real-world. Either way, the details paint the picture, the backdrop, and the surrounding walls of the reader experience.

WARNING! This does not mean provide every detail that surrounds the character. Use only the details that are important for creating the larger world.

Don't Do Generic

Instead of using generic descriptions or attempting to provide all the details of a space, use specific details to bring the world to life. For example, instead of saying "the house was large," you can say, "the house was a sprawling Victorian mansion with a wraparound porch and peeling paint." This gives the reader a much clearer picture of the house and makes it easier to imagine. The detail is not only about the size of the mansion; it's about what peeling paint signifies.

Use Sensory Details

By using vivid descriptions that engage the reader's senses (the right sight sound, smell, touch, and taste), you can transport the reader directly into the scene. Imagine reading about a character walking through a bustling marketplace. You could describe the sights of colorful stalls overflowing with exotic goods but the sounds of haggling merchants and bartering shoppers or the smells of spices and cooking food become a much more memorable experience. Even the feel of the warm sun on the character's skin is much more telling than the visual representation of the market. All of these details can work together to create a real and immersive experience for the reader.

Details prevent ambiguity and make the writing more precise. For example, instead of saying "the character went on a journey," you would write about the perilous mountains or the stormy sea. This gives the reader a better understanding of the character's journey and makes the writing more engaging.

You also highlight important information or foreshadow future events with a character's nervous habits or a strange object in their room that plants a seed of doubt in the reader's mind.Details elevate your writing from good to great. They set the tone and mood for your story.

What Would Dickens Do?

Vivid descriptions and metaphorical language are examples of detail that transport us to another world, like Charles Dickens's evocative portrayal of a polluted industrial town in "Hard Times," first published in 1854:

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black … It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness (pg 1).
Charles Dickens

Stay Way From the Expected

There are many elements at work in this single paragraph that offers the reader a vibrant sense of place. Not only do we receive the visual elements, learning about the brick buildings, but Dickens turns our preconceptions of what the red brick buildings should look like into something different—

They were covered in ash!

When I say the word brick, you already imagine a red brick. Just like, if I say the word grass, you imagine it to be green and lush.

Instead of using images we have all come to recognize, we can and should surprise the reader with brick covered in ash, or an entire field of grass dry, brown, and dead.

Dickens also has a great use of metaphorical language, providing an active visual the reader can see in the form of the piston moving its head up and down like an elephant.

Make it Memorable

However, beyond the physical descriptions of the brick, ash, and inky purple river (which is my favorite part of the description), Dickens also provides sensory details related to sound and smell. Windows rattled, we can hear the steam from the engines, and we can imagine the putrid smell of the polluted river.

In what kind of place has Dickens placed the reader? All at once we have a sense of time and place, without ever knowing or necessarily needing to know the year or exact location, yet we still have an immense awareness of the type of location we are in. It also makes me curious as to the ways in which this setting could and would affect the characters of the story. Dickens exemplifies the ways a writer can utilize the setting as a character in and of itself.

Key Takeaways:

  • Setting goes beyond location. It's a sensory feast, encompassing sights, sounds, smells, and even the emotions it evokes.
  • Details matter. They paint a picture for your reader, bringing your world to life.
  • Use setting to shape your characters. How they react to their surroundings reveals their personalities and motivations.


  • Read! Pay close attention to the author's use of setting and its impact on the narrative.
  • Write! Experiment with setting. Use different environments to explore your characters' reactions and motivations.
  • Expand your knowledge: Listen to Episode 10.26 of the "Writing Excuses" podcast for insights into world-building and scene development.


  • Setting is a powerful tool. Use it to create a captivating world and shape your characters.
  • Details are your allies. They bring depth and authenticity to your story.
  • Feedback is valuable. Seek out diverse perspectives to strengthen your writing.