June 24th, 2019

Make Your Setting REAL With Strategic Description

by Lisa Hall-Wilson

Deep point of view really isn't difficult, but it requires a shift in your mindset in how you craft your fiction. Choosing setting and description details becomes very crucial to making a story come alive for readers. All things being equal (assuming you don't have a broken story, flat characters, lack tension, or poor writing), the details you choose for your story can do so much more than create a setting in your reader's minds. They can put your reader IN the story with your character.

Your Character Is Telling The Story - You Aren't!

Whatever your character walks into - a new setting, a new conflict, a new emotional trauma, really try to pull yourself out of the story. You have a whole setting in your mind - that's actually important for you to have, but what's not important is that your reader pictures everything precisely as you do. The reader isn't picking up this book to make you feel better or pat you on the back, they're looking for an emotional journey and an escape from real life. This isn't about you.

Avoid the temptation to tell the reader what YOU’RE seeing or the urge to impress readers with how much thought you’ve put into the setting or backstory for a character. Focus on what’s important to your character in that moment – not what’s going to be important, not what was important. In deep pov, we want to write with as much immediacy as possible.

Filter Everything Through Your POV Character's Priorities

Instead, see the new setting, trauma, conflict, or another character as your POV character sees it. What's important to them RIGHT NOW? When my son comes home from school, he's always hungry (he's 16). He heads immediately to the cupboard where I keep the Mr. Noodles (his go-to after school snack) or searches the fridge like he's catalogued everything that was there in the morning and zeros in on what might be newly purchased or still available.

He notices first what's important to him IN THAT MOMENT. Everything he takes in is filtered through that priority - I'm hungry. Do you like the new paint color in the front hall? You painted? How the house looks doesn’t even register on his priority list. When your character is focused, they will miss or over look a lot of things except what's important in that moment.

Your character should have a goal for each scene - what are they trying to accomplish? That priority, need, whatever -- that will create a unique-to-that-moment filter through which they take in information – and this is how show how your character feels.

Avoid Cataloguing Details And Use Setting To Show Emotion And Desire

Your character visits the hospital. What do they notice? If they walk in and note every aspect of the setting objectively - like they're starting at point A and moving in a circle 360 degrees and capturing everything they see, the reader has no idea what’s important or stands out to your character, or how they feel about what they see. You've put the reader in the theatre seats watching the story (and in deep pov we want the reader to feel like they're IN the story). Instead, drill into why your character is there, what do they want/need/aim to accomplish. Let them focus on details that bring out emotion/desire/goal for readers.

Let the character feel their way through the setting or scene (instead of describe). When they interact with the setting in some way, that’s a more natural reason to think about what’s in the room. Don’t catalogue the broad coffee table, have them bump their shin on it or have to walk around it to get to the sofa.

Here are two different ways to describe the very same setting. Notice how the priorities or needs of the POV character dictate what they notice and how they describe it. Exactly the same setting.

Woman with bad past experience:
The searing antiseptic in the air stung her nose. She sucked in a breath through her mouth and held it. She clutched the new teddy to her chest and raced for the open elevator. She punched the up button and kept tapping until the door shut out the smell and the indifference of the white walls.

Woman with positive/neutral past experience:
She strolled in the front entrance of the hospital, new teddy under her arm. She squinted against the bright light. The new wall of tinted windows looked modern and a little cold from the outside. She tipped up her face to the warm sun. But all of this sunshine must be very healing.

Do you see how they’re feeling their way through the setting? Now you know how they feel, instead of simply what pieces of furniture are present.

Use Setting And Description To Show Familiarity

We notice different things when walking into our own home that someone who's never been there before doesn't see. Or sees differently. How we feel about our home, our vulnerabilities, or pride, show through the cracks of any facade (especially in internal dialogue).

A person concerned about first impressions, who is a perfectionist, or wants to impress, might zero in on the scuff marks on the wall by the door. The person who is frustrated with her kids might apologize for the mass of tangled shoes in the front hall. The person who feels vulnerable, less than, or self-conscious might apologize for imagined dirt or mess.

The person who's new to the home may not notice those same things at all, or see them in a different way. A friend, someone who's gracious or an empath might try to put the other at ease - it's lived in. Don't worry about it. Someone who's a perfectionist might smile and put a host at ease, but in internal dialogue critique everything they see or find fault with.

By overlooking the obvious big items and zoning in on small details, you cast an impression for readers. Using verbs and descriptors that are either negative or positive help the character feel their way through the setting. Instead of walk (which is neutral – doesn’t connote any emotion), let them stomp, march, skip or stroll. Any of those verbs give more of a hint of how a person feels than “walk.” Used sparingly, like spice in a casserole.

Keep writing and dive deep!

How do you infuse more emotion into setting and description when writing in deep point of view? Do you have any deep POV questions you wish to ask?

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.

Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com.

Join Lisa’s deep point of view challenge group. Three to four times a year, participate in free training on writing effectively in deep point of view – https://www.facebook.com/groups/5daydeeppovchallenge/

13 responses to “Make Your Setting REAL With Strategic Description”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    I think it's like we all wear glasses - your prescription is different than mine, because mine is made up of all the things that have happened to me in my life. Just remember to put your character's glasses on before you write. He'll I'll see things differently than you do....perfect example: Clowns. I loved them. Many don't. And I get it, after IT.

    Great post, Lisa, thanks for blogging with us!

    • Yes, that's exactly it. I called my deep point of view class Method Acting For Writers because for deep pov, you really have to step into that character's shoes the way an actor brings a character to life. Writing that immersive requires a shift in how you tell stories for sure.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    This is so true. I've read books where the author stops to describe a new scene in painstaking detail, as if they're checking of the "use all your senses' tick boxes, but not only does it slow the story, too often it's not what the character would notice, but rather what the author "sees." (Often after doing research on a specific place.) When I teach my POV classes, one exercise is to take the setting/situation and then write it from different characters' points of view. Cowboy, musician, cop, mail carrier, teacher, etc.

    • Yes, that's a great exercise. I've taken it a step farther with my deep pov class and given a POV, but also a goal or motivation. I always have Brad Pitt pop in my head and ask "What's my motivation in this scene?" lol I don't know why. Maybe that's a line from one of his movies.
      Like the example above, a mother is visiting her adult daughter in the hospital after the birth of her first grandchild -- and then add a goal. But she wants to get out of there as quick as possible. But she's hoping to run into the dreamy doctor she met at the coffee shop earlier that morning - whatever. It really skews what a character notices and ignores.

  3. alicemfleury says:

    Great explanation of how different character sees a setting. Shed light for me. Thanks.

    • Awesome! Glad you found it helpful. Lots of writers seem to trip up on deep pov, but it's just a shift in how you tell the story -- it's less about what kind of story you want to tell.

  4. Rick George says:

    Terrific post...I'll save it, and I'll use these principles when I revise my WIP. I've read a lot about deep 3rd person POV, because it;s how I write, but I haven't read such a concise piece about how the descriptions can most powerfully be conveyed through deep POV.

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    Thanks for the wonderful perspective.

    denise

  6. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Such a clear explanation, Lisa! Writers are looking through their characters' eyes, not their own eyes. Thanks! All best to you.

  7. Fae Rowen says:

    What a great lesson on how to use exposing your eating as an exercise in deep POV! I'd never thought of doing that before, Lisa. Thanks.

  8. Julie Glover says:

    This is something that doesn't come naturally at first to many writers, but oh the difference when you hit upon it! As you do so well in showing how it's done and giving comparative examples. Thanks, Lisa!

  9. mcclellanelias says:

    This is an invaluable skill for a writer. I swear to Yoda my first few drafts I was one part cartographer, one part interior decorator, and one part fashion designer. Or, I ate like all three, anyway. Thanks for posting. I can't wait to share this for Writer Wednesday.

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