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.
For a detailed list of essential story elements, see Layering Your Scene: The Five Key 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.
Location is Everything
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.
Setting is a Character
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.
Show versus Tell
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.
And I’d disagree.
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.
Words Have Unlimited Potential
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.
“Don’t tell me the morning is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Anton Chekov)
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:
- If it’s night, show the stars in the sky or the headlights of a car.
- If it's unbearably hot and humid, show the sweat on your character’s face and the haze on the horizon of heat rising off the pavement.
- If it’s raining, show water soaking your character’s blouse and puddles she’s avoiding.
Set the Stage
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.
We want the reader to see this: Not this:
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:
The blacktop in the parking lot was hot enough to fry eggs.
Now our reader has context of the location that will keep the continuum of the story flowing and keeps them engaged in our book.
When Less is More
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.
What comes to mind when you read the following?
- maximum security prison
- small-town grocery store
- hole-in-the-wall diner
- Lake Superior in July
- Times Square in December
- an old mining camp in the Colorado mountains
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?
Example 1: Sometimes you only need an idea to tap into a mood.
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.
Example 2: Sometimes you don’t need any actual physical description at all.
It didn’t help that I was alone in a house that was more “modern mausoleum” than “contemporary living.
Example 3: Sometime the context to the character's world view.
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.
First Impressions are Crucial
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.
What does your character hear, smell, feel? Go beyond what can be seen to give a more 3D visual.
Weave in Description
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.
How Much is Enough?
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.
- Search for where you’ve written descriptions of location.
- Make sure it’s at the beginning of each scene.
- Ask someone to read a random scene without giving them any background information or set up. Then have them describe what they “see.”
- Can someone describe what you wanted them to see? If not, go back and fill in the missing visuals.
I think you’ll find that polish how you present your locations will deepen and strengthen your story and your scene.
I love your comments. Please leave them below. Does writing locations come naturally to you? If yes, why? If no, how can you be more deliberate about making sure you include great description in every scene? What are some ways you use location to deepen your characters and your story? Thanks for sharing!
If you liked this blog, you can find Part 1 of Bring Your Book to Life here: Characters are People too.
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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