It’s another first Wednesday, which means it’s time for another Insecure Writer Support Group post. Hope this bit on engaging readers’ senses will help all you up and coming scribes out there.
PUT YOUR READER FULLY IN THE PICTURE
If you want readers to identify with – and hopefully love – what you write, you have to engage them in the story. This of course means having characters with whom readers can identify and snappy dialogue that moves the story along. Another element of the story, though, that should not be overlooked is the setting. Giving readers a good sense of time and place puts the characters and their witty dialogue in a frame that will help with a reader’s effort to become a part of the story. Every tale takes place somewhere, and how you describe that ‘somewhere’ is important.
Setting can be described in detail – as some authors do – or sketchily. I tend to the latter. Which road you take is up to you, but if you engage all the reader’s senses, she’ll go along for the ride.
A room, a house, a town, whatever; what does it look like? Is it neat or messy? Gloomy or well-lit? You can use visual descriptions of the setting to help set the mood for your story, or even foreshadow events in the story. By letting your character(s) react to what the scene looks like, you can use it to give the reader clues to them as well.
Do the floorboards creak? What about the sound of wood settling in the cool of the evening air? The sounds of traffic or birds singing? You don’t need to go into excessive detail. A few words about the sounds in a particular setting tell the reader where they are.
This sense is often overlooked in describing settings, but used properly it can do a lot to help establish the setting in a reader’s mind. The smooth hardness of a metal door knob or the silkiness of a linen bedspread can evoke memories for some readers – or, more importantly, for your character as he or she navigates the setting.
Think back to your childhood. Remember the smell of bacon frying early in the morning, the pungent, sweet smell of the trees in a pine forest? How about the dusty smell of a closet, or the talcum that your favorite aunt sprinkled on her ample bosom? Everything has an odor, and describing a few of the main smells of a place will help to make it unique.
You probably think this is reaching, but think again. Think about how your mother’s cooking tasted as compared to the same dish at the local greasy spoon. How does your food taste when you’re angry or upset? I’ll wager not the same as when you’re happy. While description of taste is character-specific, when done in conjunction with a particular setting it can be extremely effective in establishing mood or motivation.
If you want to see how setting is used effectively in fiction, check out the works of some of the masters. George Orwell in 1984, for instance, opened with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Another excellent example of describing setting is from William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” As a final example, here is Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt, “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.”