Our job as writers is to transport our readers into our stories. A high-octane plot and three-dimensional characters are obviously necessary to accomplish this goal, but so is an immersive setting of a story.
The setting of a story is often overlooked when describing a scene. We all want to move on to the next plot twist and wasting important space on what trees look like will just bore the readers, right?
To draw readers fully into a scene, we need setting. We want them to forget they’re reading and make them experience everything our characters are experiencing.
Sometimes, you can get away with building the setting of a story straight from your imagination. Sometimes, you can’t.
The Argument for Going Outdoors
I’m what you would call an “outdoorsy person.” I love being outside in any weather, at any time of day. Nature inspires me, clears my head, and gets me out of my desk chair for a little while.
You don’t have to be a nature person to get the benefits of absorbing your surroundings. And you don’t have to live in the middle of the woods to write about the outdoors. Even sitting on your porch or taking a quick jaunt around the block can infuse you with new energy and enthusiasm.
3 Ways to Be More Present
Okay, you’re outside, standing on a hill, looking at the sunset. Now what?
We’re constantly surrounded by everything we need to build a great setting of a story, but we often ignore all that in our rush to the next thing.
Pay attention to your surroundings. Immerse yourself in your own experiences, and you’ll be able to draw on them later.
NOTE: I’ve used a rural setting as an example, but this applies to urban settings as well.
Here are three things to think about while outdoors:
1. Your Senses
You already know the importance of using all five senses to improve your writing, but it can be hard to notice anything deeper than the obvious.
Let’s take our sunset example from earlier. It’s obviously gorgeous, and you can probably describe the colors of the sunset quite well.
Close your eyes. Can you hear someone crunching through the woods in the distance? Songbirds? Traffic? The woman walking her dog across the field: Is she slumped from cold or fanning herself from heat? Young, old, talking on her cell phone? Is she attentive to her dog or zoned out? What does the air smell like? What does the ground feel like?
Pay attention to the less obvious and you’ll draw in your readers.
Remember: You don’t have to use all five senses in every description. Select the most useful senses for the scene.
PRO TIP: Try observing the same setting at different times of day or during different seasons.
2. Similes and Metaphors
Similes and metaphors add layers to your prose, allowing the reader to experience a deeper understanding of the setting. They also allow you to enhance character description and plot, establish mood and tone, and can cut down on overly verbose descriptions.
When you’re observing your surroundings, don’t just note the sensory details around you, but think about comparisons.
Right now, I’ve got a pile of snow outside my house that’s mid-melt and looks like a Smurfs hat. See, I didn’t have to describe the shape and curve of this particular pile of snow in order for you to get my meaning.
Back to the sunset on the hill. You’ve noticed the sunset is purple and yellow. That’s all well and good, but boring. What do those colors remind you of? For me, it’s a bruise, which enhances other aspects of my story, as my main character has just been betrayed by a friend.
The sunset swirled with varying shades of purple and yellow, spreading like an angry bruise across the horizon.
The “bruising sunset” is a bit overdone anymore, but you get the point.
Don’t just go with the obvious (aka, cliché) similes and metaphors. Think deeper. Get creative. Have some fun with it.
We don’t all have access to that hill at sunset, and we don’t all want to write about nature. (Though plenty of nature resides in cities as well.) If you or your characters prefer a more urban environment, pay attention to the people around you.
Yes, I’m giving you permission to spy.
I once encountered a middle-aged man decked out like a hippie browsing outside an antique store. Long gray hair, bellbottoms, bandana, smelled awful. He was so out of place, I just had to linger near him for a moment. He was chatting on an iPhone about his investments while thumbing through art prints. The whole situation stunned me.
To this day, he is still the most fascinating person I’ve ever seen. I possibly would’ve noticed him without consciously spying, but I wouldn’t have moved closer to hear his conversation.
No matter what you’re doing, pay attention to the people around you. What are they doing? How do they walk? Noting mannerisms can add layers to your characters. Are they talking to someone? What are they saying? Snippets of conversation can spawn an entire chapter idea, and introduce you to better dialogue.
Try not to be creepy, though.
The setting of a story is just as important as other aspects of your writing. In order to establish an immersive setting for your readers and not rely on overused descriptions, you need to go outside and experience your surroundings. Observe. Take note.
Be present in your setting and your readers will be, too.
Any other tips to immerse yourself in outdoor settings? Let me know in the comments.
Today, I want you to go outside. If that’s impossible, look out your window or find a photo of the outdoors. Absorb your surroundings, then take fifteen minutes to write a couple descriptive paragraphs. You can concentrate on one aspect of the above examples, or try to incorporate all of them.
When you’re done, share your descriptions in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.