By Lori Freeland
Think about the way you craft a scene. Dialogue is pretty much a given. Some of us even use what our characters say as a backbone to begin filling in the blank page. Action is the same. We’ll often unconsciously describe what our characters are doing as they’re speaking. But unless your natural inclination as a writer leans toward setting, location doesn’t always score a lot of space on the page among the rest of the scene elements.
Where your story takes place is just as important as what your characters say and do. Sometimes we get caught up writing witty banter and choreographing every move that we forget to write in a backdrop. This is especially true if we tend to be more character-driven in our writing.
Let’s take some time to focus on what’s important when writing location.
You’ve probably heard this phrase before. It applies to everything from buying real estate, to where you raise a family, to where you post an ad for your next book release. Location also applies to setting.
It matters where and when your scene takes place. Check out the buildings below.
Although both are pictures of a house, there are differences! The mood of the scene will change in each of these places—even if you use the same event and the same characters.
Think about it this way. John invites Lisa to his house. Lisa can barely afford groceries and rent on her salary and is trying to raise her daughter as a single parent. When she arrives, John tells her that he’s her biological father, he has a terminal disease, and has left her everything he owns in his will.
Depending on which house is his, she’ll feel two totally different ways about that news.
You’ve also probably also heard this phrase, especially when it comes to world building. Being stranded at sea in the middle of a storm (The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger) is different than being stranded on an island with carnivorous dinosaurs (Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton). But both the ocean and the island become an antagonist in each story. If you want a more concrete example, let’s take Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Hogwarts, with its hidden passages, shifting stairways, and talking portraits is definitely a character of its own.
We’re taught that showing a story is far more powerful than telling a story—to hook your reader, to build in emotion, and to keep a deeper POV. For a deeper look into this topic, see Show Don’t Tell: The 3 Most Misunderstood Words in a Writer’s Vocabulary.
If I asked you whether a movie better demonstrates the concept of “show” or “tell,” you’d probably pick “show,” because it is a visual medium. If I asked you if a book or a movie gives you a better feel for the location of a story, you’d probably pick the movie.
While books don’t have the luxury of green screens and CGI, they do have a hidden power. The power of words and imagination. Movies are bound by their visuals. They “tell” us what to see in such a specific way that our imagination isn’t required. But words come with a freedom that invites imagination in and lets us create our own visuals.
Painting a vivid picture using only words isn’t easy. Some writers are great at it. For them, it seems to just show up as a natural skill in their writing toolbox. Most of us aren’t that lucky, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn. One step to cultivating this talent is to realize location is our weak spot in writing and then be deliberate as we “sketch” our location into our work in progress.
In our heads, we know exactly what our scene looks like, but our readers don’t. That’s why it’s so crucial to make sure the idea in our heads makes it to the page. Whether you want to create a visual outline for your reader and allow them to fill in the details, or give concrete descriptions key to your story, you have to take your vision and share it in a clear manner to provide your readers with the intended experience.
This is one of my favorite quotes when it comes to painting a word picture. So remember, provide a picture of the location to let your readers know:
When a movie opens, the location of the scene is the first thing you notice. You can’t help it, because those visuals set the stage and we want to set our stage in the first few paragraphs, too. Be sure to bring your location into the start of every scene or location change. It’s hard for readers to “see” your brilliantly crafted set or even fill in your more abstract outline if they have no idea where the scene is taking place.
Imagine you are in a movie theater, ready to watch the latest blockbuster, you wouldn’t simply close your eyes and listen to the opening dialogue, would you? Readers need the context of location to be grounded in the scene or they won’t stay engaged. Just like the movie, provide the visuals and keep your readers turning the page.
Don’t leave your reader “stuck” inside a white room. Orient your readers to location with at least a minimal description—even if you’re picking up from a previous scene.
Example: We ended the last scene in a parking lot, and it's also where the next scene begins. Because the reader might’ve bookmarked and walked away for a while, you want to jog the reader's memory using a few words. Perhaps something like this:
Now our reader has context of the location that will keep the continuum of the story flowing and keeps them engaged in our book.
Sometimes, though, too many details can overwhelm a reader. You don’t always need to paint every detail of a location. Use other ways to give a visual, like incorporating places most people are familiar with even if they’ve never been there. Try visualizing a scene while reading the next examples.
Most of us will form an instant picture—though we might not see exactly the same thing. Your experience with each location will dictate what pops into your head. This technique can easily add details of location to your writing.
Location sets the mood of a scene. How you describe a place tells readers the tone of the scene and shares how the character feels about it. What moods come to mind when reading the following examples?
The faint glow of the floor-to-ceiling fireplace plus a few table lamps cast the great room in a mix of light and shadow. A long brown sofa on a thick shag rug faces the hearth. Two overstuffed loveseats and a cherry coffee table complete the room. Compared to the cutting chill of my current company, the chalet teases me with visions of books, blankets, and endless mugs of hot chocolate.
It didn’t help that I was alone in a house that was more “modern mausoleum” than “contemporary living.
Oak Cliff High: Preparatory Academy and Boarding School. Breeder of the best. Alma mater to the elite. Nanny for the neglected. And—thanks to some poor choices I’d made my first week here—my hell away from home freshman, sophomore, and now junior year.
It is best to provide the reader with the most description the first time we see a new place. When you introduce a location, your reader forms a lasting impression, good or bad, that’s hard to change. Make sure it’s the impression you want them to have.
The sixties had birthed this office. Shaggy avocado carpet covered the floor. Old books with multicolored spines bulged from the bowed shelves lining two of the four walls floor to ceiling. The hulking bookcases gave the room an I’m-closing-in-on-you feel. There were no couches or lounges. Just an ugly metal desk, a tall gray filing cabinet, and two retro command chairs that could have come off the set of the original Star Trek.
Location has many layers of action when we consider our stories in real life. Take out your “word” camera and pan out on your writing scene. What’s going on in the background? Is your character alone? In a crowd? Watch for characters who seem to show up suddenly when they’ve been standing on the sidelines all along. Make sure the reader knows who’s in the scene.
The drone of everyday conversation buzzed through the congested coffee shop like annoying insects Kim wanted to swat away.
This is a great way to avoid an information dump. After the initial setup, you can add interesting details that further your story, creating a more vivid picture of location for your reader.
I pull my ’69 mustang along the curb behind David’s boring black sedan. That’s where I lock my gaze. Not on the iron gates to my right or the sprawling estate behind them that could be a fancy bed-and-breakfast—but isn’t.
When to add and how much is a delicate balance that you, writer, can decide. Use pacing within your story and consider how you sprinkle the location throughout each scene to decide.
If your main character is running away from an evil clown, we’d expect a short, choppy description of where the action takes place. If she’s describing a boy she likes from school, we’d expect longer, more descriptive flowing prose.
Beware, though. Location can pull us deeper into a scene or boot us right out because it is a powerful element in writing. It can also make us root harder for the characters or decide we don’t care if they survive the story, but we risk losing the reader altogether if we don't add the right amount of location description.
How do you know if you’ve painted a solid word picture?
How can you be sure the story in your head gets onto the page?
Be deliberate when writing about location.
I think you’ll find that polish how you present your locations will deepen and strengthen your story and your scene.
* * * * * *
An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her book, Where You Belong: a runaway series novella, is currently free on Kindle Unlimited.
Top image: Palapa restaurant. Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico by E.L. BuikemaII
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Thanks for these reminders. I lived in south and central Florida for decades. Any book set there that ignores the oppressive heat, humidity, and thunderstorms loses me as a reader. The only thing I'd add to your post is if you write in deep POV, as I do, the descriptions need to be true to the character. A cop is going to see a setting differently than a cowboy or a ballet dancer.
Excellent point! You are absolutely right about being true to character 🙂
Sometimes I get lost in dialogue and need to revisit the location of the scene, otherwise my characters are talking away in blank space.
I like your idea of weaving the description into the story instead of using an information dump.
Thank you! I too get lost in dialogue and have to be very purposeful about writing in location.
Great post and wonderful reminders!!
Thank you for reading 🙂
Thanks for these great reminders. What changed the game for me was switching to a Deep POV that forced me to step back from the limelight and not over-describe. What I knew was there became less important than the character's reaction to their surroundings. There are exceptions, though, like making sure the character dismisses something as unimportant that'll be important later.
Yes, setting up what's going to be important is crucial. 🙂
Love the examples! Great post! I try, like Terry Odell says, to stay true to my characters in picking out setting details and using their words in the description.
Yes! Yes! Yes! to staying true to your characters 🙂
I like to think I do a great job describing settings as a show and not tell.
Awesome! Love your examples. I always thought I was a good setting describer- but in reading my adult work, I am trapped in dialogue! Even though I see it all in my head, I am not writing the visuals down to fully flesh out where my characters are. So this had lots of helpful advice to work on that. Thanks!
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