How to write descriptions and create a sense of place
Your first job as a storyteller is a simple one, and a crucial one. You have to get your passengers into your train – your readers into your story. Only then can you hope to transport them.
And that crucial first step doesn’t have much to do with characters or story or anything else.
What matters first is this: your fictional world has to seem real. It has to grip the reader as intensely as real life – more intensely, even.
Writing descriptions that seem vivid is therefore essential. The buildings, cities, places, rooms, trees, weather of your fictional world have to be convincing there. They have to have an emphatic, solid, believable presence.
A big ask, right? But it gets harder than that.
Because at the same time, people don’t want huge wodges of descriptive writing. They want to engage with characters and story, because that’s the reason they picked up your book in the first place.
So your challenge becomes convincing readers that your world is real . . . but using only the lightest of touches to achieve that goal.
Not so easy, huh?
Set the scene early on – then nudge.
It may sound obvious but plenty of writers launch out into a scene without giving us any descriptive material to place and anchor the action. Sure, a page or so into the scene, they may start to add details to it – but by that point it’s too late. They’ve already lost the reader. If the scene feels placeless at the start – like actors speaking in somee blank, white room – you won’t be able to wrestle that sense of place back later.
So start early.
That means telling the reader where they are in a paragraph (or so), close to the start of any new scene. That early paragraph needs to have enough detail that if you are creating a coffee shop, for example, it doesn’t just feel like A Generic Coffee Shop. It should feel like its own thing. One you could actually walk into. Something with its own mood and colour. One vivid descriptive detail will do more work for you than three worthy but colourless sentences.
And once, early in your scene, you’ve created your location, don’t forget about it. Just nudge a little as you proceed. So you could have your characters talking – then they’re interrupted by a waitress. Then they talk (or argue, or fight, or kiss) some more, and then you drop in some other detail which reminds the reader, “Yep, here we still are, in this coffee shop.”
That’s a simple technique, bit it works every time.
One paragraph early on, then nudge, nudge, nudge.
As the roughest of rough guides, those nudges need to happen at least once a page – so about every 300 words. If it’s natural to do so more often, that’s totally fine.
Details matter! They build a sense of place like nothing else.
Gabriel García Márquez, opening One Hundred Years of Solitude, introduces his village like this:
Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.
Boom! We’re there.
In his world. In his village. Already excited to see what lies ahead.
And yes, he’s started early (Chapter 1, Page 1, Line 1). But it’s more than that, isn’t it? He could have written something like this:
Macondo was a village of about twenty houses, built on a riverbank.
I hope it’s obvious that that sentence hardly transports us anywhere. It’s too bland. Too unfocused. Too generic. There are literally thousands of villages in the world which would fit that description.
In short, what makes Marquez’s description so vivid is its use of telling detail. They’re not just houses, they’re adobe houses. The river doesn’t just flow over stones, its flows over polished stones that are white and enormous, like (wow!) prehistoric eggs.
The sentence works so well because Marquez has:
Created something totally non-generic
Via the use of highly specific detail, and
Uses surprising / exotic language to make those details blaze in our imagination.
That basic template is one you can use again and again. It never stales. It lies at the heart of all good descriptive writing.
So here, for example, is a more ‘boring’ space . . . but still one redolent with vividness and atmosphere thanks to the powerful use of atmospheric specificity. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her room with details that not only grab us but hint at something dark:
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
Those clipped words transport us straight to Offred’s enclosed, and terrifying, space. We’re also told just enough to give us an image of that place, enough to heighten tension, enough to tease curiosity. This is just a description of a room – but we already feel powerfully impelled to read on.
Be selective with your descriptive details
Be selective – don’t overwhelm.
It might be tempting to share every detail with us on surroundings.
Even with a setting like Hogwarts – a place readers really do want to know all the hidden details of – J.K. Rowling doesn’t share how many revolving staircases it has, how many treasures in the Room of Requirement, how many trees in the Forbidden Forest. That’s not the point. (And it would write off a little of Hogwarts’ magic and mystery.)
If you’re describing a bar, don’t write:
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.
That’s accurate, yes. It’s informative, yes. But it’s bland as heck.
The reader doesn’t want information. They want atmosphere. They want mood.
Here’s an alternative way to describe a bar – the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. This description delivers a sense of intimacy and darkness in a few words:
The mesto [place] was near empty … it looked strange, too, having been painted with all red mooing cows … I took the large moloko plus to one of the little cubies that were all round … there being like curtains to shut them off from the main mesto, and there I sat down in the plushy chair and sipped and sipped
We’re told what we need to know, thrown into that murky Korova atmosphere and Burgess moves the action on. All we really have in terms of detail are those mooing red cows, some cubies (curtain booths?), and a plushy chair. There’s lots more author Anthony Burgess could tell us about that place. But he doesn’t. He gives us the right details, not all the details.
And if that’s not enough for you, then try reading this.
Write for all the senses
You have a nose? So use it.
Visuals are important, but don’t neglect the other senses. Offering a full range of sensory information will enhance your descriptive writing.
Herman Melville, say, describes to us the chowder for the ship’s crew in Moby Dick: ‘small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes.’ Such descriptions are deft, specific, and brilliantly atmospheric. Where else but on board a nineteenth century American whaler would you get such a meal? By picking out those details, Melville makes his setting feel vibrantly alive.
Here’s another example.
Joanne Harris’ opening of Chocolat plays to readers’ senses, as we’re immersed straightaway in the world of her book through scent, sound and sight:
We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.
These non-visual references matter so much because sight alone can feel a little distant, a little empty.
By forcing the reader’s taste buds to image Melville’s clams or Harris’s pancakes – or making the reader feel that warm February wind, the confetti ‘sleeting’ down collars – it’s almost as though the writers are hauling the readers’ entire body into their scenes.
That’s good stuff: do likewise.
(And one easy test: take one of your scenes and highlight anything that references a non-visual sense. If you find some good references, then great: you’re doing fine. If not, your highlighter pen remains unused, you probably want to edit that scene!)
Get place and action working together
That’s where the magic happens!
Use the atmospheric properties of a place to add to other properties of the scene. That doesn’t mean you should always play things the obvious way: no need for cliché;.
You can have declarations of love happen in idyllic meadows, as in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, but why not at a bus stop in the rain? Shouted over the barriers at a train station?
Your character also brings one kind of mood to the scene, and the action that unfolds will bring other sensations.
Lynda La Plante’s crime novel Above Suspicion makes a home setting frightening after it becomes obvious a stranger has been in protagonist DS Anna Travis’ flat, and she’s just been assigned to help solve her first murder case.
So the place is influenced by action, once Anna notices:
Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.
Here a comfy, nondescript flat becomes a frightening place, just because of what else is going on. Go for unfamiliar angles that add drama and excitement to your work.
Descriptions as active characters
You know the way that a place can turn on you? So (for example) a place that seems safe can suddenly reveal some other side, seem menacing, then almost try to harm the character.
That’s an incredibly powerful way to build descriptive writing into your text – because it feels mobile, alive and with a flicker of risk. You can use plotting techniques to help structure the way a reader interacts with a place: starting with a sense of the status quo, then some inciting incident that shifts that early stability, and so on. The inciting incident can be tiny – discovering that a photo frame has been moved, for example.
Having your characters voice their perceptions of a place in dialogue also adds to its dramatic impact, because now the reader sees place both through the eyes of a narrator and through the eyes of the characters themselves. Good, huh?
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Use unfamiliar locations
And smart research ALWAYS helps.
Using unfamiliar settings adds real mood and atmosphere.
Stephenie Meyer, when writing Twilight, decided she needed a rainy place near a forest to fit key plot elements.
Like protagonist Bella, she was raised in Arizona, but explained the process of setting Twilight in an unfamiliar setting on her blog:
For my setting, I knew I needed someplace ridiculously rainy. I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs, and looked for the place with the most rainfall in the U.S. This turned out to be the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I pulled up maps of the area and studied them, looking for something small, out of the way, surrounded by forest. … In researching Forks, I discovered the La Push Reservation, home to the Quileute Tribe. The Quileute story is fascinating, and a few fictional members of the tribe quickly became intrinsic to my story.
As her success has shown, it’s possible to write successfully about a place you don’t know, but you must make it your business to know as much as you can about it. (Or if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, plan your world down to its most intricate details.)
And to be clear: you’re doing the research, not because you want that research to limit you. (Oh, I can’t write that, because Wikipedia tells me that the river isn’t as long / the forest isn’t as thick / or whatever else.)
On the contrary:
You are doing the research, because that research may inspire and stimulate a set of ideas you might not have ecountered otherwise.
The key thing is to do your research to nail specifics, especially if they are unfamiliar, foreign, exotic.
Just read how Tokyo is described in Ryu Murakami’s thriller In the Miso Soup:
It was still early in the evening when we emerged onto a street in Tsukiji, near the fish market. … Wooden bait-and-tackle shops with disintegrating roofs and broken signs stood next to shiny new convenience stores, and futuristic highrise apartment complexes rose skyward on either side of narrow, retro streets lined with wholesalers of dried fish.
There’s authenticity, grit to this description of Tokyo, as opposed to using ‘stock’ descriptions that could apply to many modern cities.
Note this same thing with foods: in Japan, your protagonist could well be eating miso soup, as per Ryu Murakami.
Or say if your story was set in Hong Kong, you might write in a dai pai dong (a sort of Chinese street kitchen), something very specific to that city if you’re describing a street there.
Alternatively, if you are setting something in the past, get your sense of place right by doing your research right, too.
In historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, set in Holland in 1664, maid Griet narrates how artist Johannes Vermeer prepares her for her secret portrait, musing, to her horror, that ‘virtuous women did not open their mouths in paintings’.
That last is just a tiny detail, but Griet’s tears show us how mortified she is. Modern readers won’t (necessarily) think about seventeenth-century connotations like this, so if you’re writing a scene set in a very different era or culture to what you know, research so you’re creating a true sense of place.
Use place to create foreshadowing
A brilliant technique – we love it!
Descriptions of place are never neutral.
Good writers will, in overt or gently subtle ways, introduce a place-as-character. If that character is dangerous, for example, then simply describing a place adds a layer of foreboding, foreshadowing, to the entire book.
Just read how J.R.R. Tolkien describes the Morannon in The Two Towers: ‘high mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained … like an obscene graveyard.’ It’s obvious from this description trouble lies ahead for Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee.
But even if you’re not writing this sort of fantasy, character psychology and plot (as we saw above) can also render seemingly harmless places suspect, too. A boring apartment in Above Suspicion becomes scary when it seems someone’s been inside.
In the same sense, we thrill to the sense of a place with excitement and promise, too, like when Harry makes his first trip to Diagon Alley (in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to shop for Hogwarts equipment with Hagrid.
There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon. … They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk.
Just weave place and action together like this to create atmosphere, excitement, tension, foreboding.
Think about your words – nouns and adjectives
Specific is good. Unexpected is great!
One final thought. When you’ve written a piece, go back and check nouns.
A bad description will typically use boring nouns (or things) in settings, i.e. a table, chair, window, floor, bar, stool, etc.
If you try to fluff up that by throwing in adjectives (i.e. a grimy table, gleaming window, wooden floor), the chances are you’ll either have (i) made the description even more boring, or (ii) made it odd.
Of course, this works for that first passage we looked over from Margaret Atwood.
We sense Offred counting the few things she has in the little room she calls hers, the window and chair, etc., in terse phrasing. We sense her tension, her dissociation, and we feel trapped with her.
All the same, play with nouns, with taking your readers to new surroundings. Give them a Moloko. Play with surroundings, how you can make them different, how you can render the ordinary extraordinary. With the right nouns in place, you’ll need fewer adjectives to jazz things up – and when you do use them, they’ll feel right, not over the top.
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)