Using the 5 Senses to Write Memorable Settings
“An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.” ― Tony Hillerman
Q: Can you guess these literary settings?
1. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” —The Hobbit
2. “At length, with a wild desperation at heart, I quickly unclosed my eyes. My worst thoughts, then were confirmed. The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. I struggled for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. The atmosphere was intolerably close . . . Had I been remanded to my dungeon, to await the next sacrifice, which would not take place for many months? This I at once saw could not be. Victims had been in immediate demand. Moreover, my dungeon, as well as all the condemned cells at Toledo, had stone floors, and light was not altogether excluded.” —The Pit and the Pendulum
3. “After a few hours the road began to be rough, and the walking grew so difficult that the Scarecrow often stumbled over the yellow bricks, which were here very uneven. Sometimes, indeed, they were broken or missing altogether, leaving holes that Toto jumped across and Dorothy walked around. As for the Scarecrow, having no brains, he walked straight ahead, and so stepped into the holes and fell at full length on the hard bricks.” —The Wizard of Oz
4. “Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains.” —Alice in Wonderland
5. “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” —The Picture of Dorian Gray
Let's Start with the 5 Senses!
● This is the first sense we go to, for obvious reasons. It’s the most common one.
● Try to focus on the most visual details and bring them to the scene one at a time. Sight is the most straightforward way to describe setting, so your descriptions should be anything but cliche.
● Focus on the most descriptive details. Be specific. Instead of “she wore lipstick,” my author friend wrote, “She wore arrest-me-red lipstick.” I’ve never forgotten that detail. Although that’s describing a character, the same can be done with your setting. Visually, what is so enrapturing about your setting? Or what is so desolate about it?
● Don’t shy away from mood and emotion. For example, is it a tall building your character sees, or does he “come face-to-face with the looming skyscraper.” Looming is more specific and it matches the character’s emotion.
● While it’s true that every story needs a landscape, they also need a soundscape. When you think of a thriller, you think of a lot of eery silence being used; but an action/adventure novel will have explosions, big booms.
● If your character is walking in a forest, is the setting more interesting when wolves howl or someone steps on a tree branch? Does he hear a bird squawk overhead?
● Sounds have a huge impact on humans. They can make us smile or cry, tense or relax. Various noises have associations that writers can take advantage of. For example, the gentle purr of our cat friend, Baxter, makes us feel safe, at home; while creaking floorboards put us on edge.
● Tip: Imagine your setting is in a movie. What would it sound like to you?
● Quote: Good writers will evoke the unique sense of place by inserting ordinary sounds, such as the clink of glasses, the tinkle of happy banter, the drip of a faucet in an abandoned building, the screech of tires from a car racing away from the scene of a crime.” —C. S. Lakin
● Often underused, this sense is usually used when something smells awful or amazing. But using it for nostalgia or memories is an excellent opportunity. Using it to describe your setting in a neutral way—neither good nor bad—like a sterile hospital as the character walks down the hallway or musky attic as the protagonist pulls out her old wedding dress.
● Smell works best when a reader has a memory of it. If you have a new or unfamiliar smell, use similes (“it smells like . . .”) or focus on the emotion the smell activates and let the reader imagine the actual scent.
● Tip: Read wine blogs and perfume sites to build up your smell vocabulary.
● Quote: “Visualize what the smell does. Does it creep into your nose? Wrap around you? Follow you? Make you fly?” —Ivan Siarbolin
● This evokes an immediate reaction. You need to appeal to the reader’s sense of touch.
● Is your setting so cold that the protagonist’s hair stands up when he walks outside in that forest with the howling wolves? Are his lips chapped? Is his old wool coat too scratchy?
● It's more than detecting whether something is rough or smooth, or hard or soft. Touch also includes temperature, vibrations, pleasure, and pain. It can activate a few nerves on your skin, or all the nerves down your body.
● Tip: Have a friend place several objects on a table without you seeing them. Have him blindfold you. Reach out and pick up an object. Start describing what it feels like to you and have your friend jot down your descriptions. This a good way to start, but take what you’ve learned and use it with your setting. If you could reach out and touch your setting, what would you feel?
● Obviously, we think of food when we think of taste, but your characters aren’t always tasting bubbly champagne and sugary cakes. They taste blood when someone punches them; they taste dirt when they land face-first into the ground; they taste the salty seawater.
● In your setting, what can you taste?
● Read food blogs and magazines and note how they describe taste.
● If you read all of the Pit and the Pendulum, you’ll notice Poe uses all of these senses.
- Where does the scene take place?
- What do the immediate surroundings look like?
- What time of day is it?
- Can you intensify the scene with meaningful similes, metaphors or personification?
- How does the point-of-view character feel emotionally?
- What do they feel physically?
- What do the characters hear?
- What do those sounds remind them of?
- What do their voices sound like?
- What do the characters facial expressions look like?
- What are they physically doing at this moment?
- What are the characters saying, or not saying?
- What are they remembering?
- What can they smell?
- What do those smells remind them of?
- Can your characters taste anything?
- What is the conflict in this scene?
- How does the scene’s conflict reflect the overall conflict of the story?
- What do your characters want at this moment?
- Are there any opportunities to foreshadow future events in this scene?
- How do your overall themes connect to this scene?
The Yukon Writers’ Society is an encouraging, supportive group for fiction writers in Yukon, Oklahoma. They meet biweekly on Thursdays to embrace accountability, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to help group members start and finish their books. The Yukon Writers’ Society was founded in 2016 and provides free meetings for its members. Their group anthology, Shivers in the Night, was published in April 2018.