If a story can snag my attention with a unique voice for a character, I’m hooked. But a unique description that draws me into a setting does the same thing. I want to be able to do that, to immerse readers in the setting so completely that when they finish my story, they will feel like they have taken a trip to that setting.
Below are two examples of stories in which the authors describe the settings so well, I visit them again and again.
“Summer Job” by Amanda Witt from Life is Short and Then You Die
This crime short story is set in rural West Texas. I have never been to rural West Texas, but after reading this story, I feel like I have.
Ms Witt begins by giving a description of a house that burned to the slab. She uses words like “broken back of the roof” and “half-melted hull of the stove” and moves on to describe the chimney that still stands tall against the sky like a tombstone. Although the first paragraph doesn’t mention a single character, I was already hooked, wondering about the burned house and the loneliness of the West Texas countryside would play into the plot.
In the second paragraph, the author introduces Pete, a high school boy, hired by the late owner’s son to clear away the burnt debris and salvage whatever he can. Throughout the story, Ms. Witt emphasizes the heat of the Texas summer, the destruction of the fire, and Pete’s isolation as he works. Those three factors anchored me in a setting suitable for a crime story. I experienced the scorching temperatures, the filthy, hard work, and increasing concern over Pete’s safety as he pieces together who killed Mrs. Dean, the homeowner and his former babysitter.
“The Sign of the Broken Sword” by G.K. Chesterton from The Innocence of Father Brown
This is another mystery short story in which the author waits to introduce the main characters. Mr. Chesterton sets the stage by describing a very cold night in England. “The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver. In a sky of dark green-blue-like slate the stars were bleak and brilliant like splintered ice.” The first paragraph goes on in this vein, underlining the cold and the dark, a perfect setting for two friends to uncover the truth behind a national hero’s death.
The author brings the frigid night to such vivid life that at the end of the story, when Father Brown and his friend Flambeau find a tavern, I was relieved to get inside. Mr. Chesterton uses words like “cozy”, “luxurious”, and “comfortable”, to emphasize the change in setting and contrast it to the stark, winter weather outside.
In both stories, written over a hundred years apart, the authors use precise language to immerse readers in the setting. Ms. Witt doesn’t write that the roof is damaged but has a “broke back”. In the Father Brown story, the sky isn’t black but a specific shade of slate. These authors wordsmithed their stories, so that every word contributed to the desired effect of making the settings seem real.
Another author would have chosen different words if he used the burned house in West Texas as a coming-of-age story. In that case, the author would emphasize different aspects of the setting to set a different tone, maybe the beauty of the surrounding land. If he wanted to focus on the isolation of the home, he might use it as a way to show the main character’s maturity.
For more advice on settings, go to my post on how to maximize your settings.
What stories have you read that immersed you in the setting?