Vivid story setting descriptions helps us anchor a story’s action in place. Here are story setting description examples that reveal the varied functions of setting description:
1. Use setting description to highlight characters’ turning points
What characters do in a place is telling about their personality. A change of setting, too, can reveal an important moment of change in a character’s life:
Example of a watershed moment setting description
In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Archie Jones’s first encounter with his future wife is in a post-war cafe. The details of the setting reveal the life-affirming pleasure romantic interest brings after World War II:
The first spring of 1946, he had stumbled out of the darkness of war and into a Florentine coffee house, where he was served by a waitress truly like the sun: Ophelia Diagilo, dressed all in yellow, spreading warmth and the promise of sex as she passed him a frothy cappuccino.Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000), p. 8
The simple cafe description is brief but effective. All the details of setting suggest renewal and rebirth after the war’s ‘darkness’. It’s the ‘first spring’, and his future wife is dressed in summery yellow. The ‘frothiness’ of the cappuccino even has a fecund quality (in ‘promising’ sex).
Here, setting conveys Archie’s optimism in a watershed moment – leaving behind the horrors of war for new post-war possibilities. Use setting description similarly to highlight characters’ emotional states and key transitions.
2. Reveal characters through their homes and haunts
The places where characters spend much of their time reveal much, too. A home or a favourite restaurant, for example, may reveal characters’ connections, passions, and more:
Setting description example in which home reveals character
In Kent Haruf’s novella Our Souls at Night (2015) he explores the intimacy that grows between an elderly man and woman who start having sleepovers for company. Here, Haruf describes the first time the man, Louis, is left alone in Addie’s home (the woman):
While she was out of the room he looked at the pictures on her dresser and the ones hanging on the walls. Family pictures with Carl on their wedding day, on the church steps somewhere. The two of them in the mountains beside a creek. A little black and white dog. He knew Carl a little bit, a decent man, pretty calm, he sold crop insurance and other kinds of insurance to people all over Holt County twenty years ago, had been elected mayor of the town for two terms.Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (2015), p. 11
Seeing Addie’s photographs via Louis’ eyes, we get a sense of her and her late husband’s relationship, and Carl’s character, too. Description of Addie’s home supplies background, yet without it being an info dump – it is relevant to the action (Louis’ being left alone and looking around).
Because Louis and Addie have already at this point discussed having sleepovers, Louis’ focus is on other men in Addie’s life, too, and he has some anxiety around them. After the above description, we read:
Louis never knew him well. He was glad now that he hadn’t.
This suggests unease around the boundaries of relationships, of ‘who belongs to whom’. The photographs in Addie’s home help to convey the uncertainty and newness of Louis’ and Addie’s arrangement.
3. Build tense or suspenseful situations
Many great setting description examples create suspense or a sense of urgency. Take for example the following from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees (1990):
Example of setting description adding tension/urgency
Kingsolver’s novel tells the story of a young woman from Kentucky named Taylor Greer who unexpectedly becomes a mother to an abandoned baby. At this point, she has recently been handed the girl at a gas stop on her route west:
My car has no actual way of keeping track of miles, but I believe it must have been fifty or more before we came to a town. It was getting cold with no windows, and the poor little thing must have been freezing but didn’t make a peep.Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees (1990), p. 19.
The simple description of the windowless car creates a sense of tension and urgency, as we realize Taylor’s worries are greater than her own needs now. She could perhaps shiver her way on, but with a baby to consider she needs to find warmer shelter. The setting description thus immediately lends her arrival in the town urgency as well as relief.
Think of ways setting may affect your characters’ choices and needs and increase (or reduce) their intensity. These small moments create push and pull, forward momentum and ease, keeping characters’ paths dynamic and interesting.
4. Describe setting to create tone and mood
Setting description also helps to establish tone and mood. Is the world your characters inhabit brimming with life and joy or a desolate wasteland? Is it a claustrophobic cityscape or an expansive rural haven? Great setting description conveys:
- How places feel (whether they’re relaxing, frightening, intriguing, ominous, bleak, etc.)
- What the character of a place is (place, like a person, may seem friendly, severe, harsh, warm, inviting, and so forth)
Setting description examples that create tone and mood
The opening to Mervyn Peake’s gothic epic The Gormenghast Trilogy conveys a strong sense of the dark majesty of Gormenghast castle:
Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946), p.7
The ornate style of Peake’s prose here mirrors the ornate, ‘time-eaten’ architecture of the fortress. Peake’s descriptive language here is full of images that suggest brute physical strength. The tower is an ‘echoing throat’, the masonry resembles ‘knuckled fists’. The word choice (e.g. the tower resembling a ‘mutilated’ finger) creates spooky eeriness.
To recap, you may use descriptions like the above story setting description examples illustrate to:
- Draw attention to changes and turning points in characters’ lives: Winter giving way to spring, war giving way to peacetime.
- Reveal characters through the places they frequent (and what these places’ details tell your reader about them).
- Build tense or urgent aspects in a character’s situation: Like Taylor Greer rushing to find a warm place for her new baby, how might your characters’ environs shape or necessitate their next moves?
- Create tone and mood: How do the describing words you choose to describe places build towards an atmosphere?
Get help developing your story settings. Use the Now Novel story dashboard to outline your core setting and creating additional story locations by answering easy step-by-step prompts.