Sensory Detail and Setting as Character

Settings come to life through sensory description, strategies you use to engage and evoke a reader’s senses—all five senses and their relationship to emotions—to bring the surroundings that envelop your characters to life.

Think of settings as/or like characters: How is a messy mad scientist’s laboratory an extension of his personality? How is Poe’s abbey in “The Masque of the Red Death” a metaphor for a sealed-off nobility that has left the poor to perish? How is a singles nightclub somewhere in a desert city an expression of desire and loneliness? These are just a few examples…

So you’re writing about living in an old castle, but have never stepped foot in one…(to be general and universal).

What would it be like to be in an old castle? Close your eyes and imagine it first. Or go to the Internet and watch video tours, for example. There are many ways to investigate things and places we cannot easily access in real life—so get creative.

Old castles might have stony, mossy scents about them, embellished by the essence of burning candle wax—in days of lore perhaps accented by torches and their fuel or rotting food and dead, decaying rats deep in the architecture (SMELL). They’re forbiddingly dark where the torches’ light does not reach, one cannot depend on sunlight ever, and the obscure wall decorations have been blackened by torch and candle fire, the hidden throne room being the only location of well crafted and majestic, colorful regal luxury (SIGHT).

It’s easy to walk into the roughly hewn walls while making your way down the cold passageways (TOUCH/FEELING) and the uneven and dangerously cluttered stone floors and corridors have an echoing effect on your footfalls (HEARING). The food and drink—oh that gruesome and tasteless food and drink (TASTE), when even available, serve only to keep you alive for another day or two.

This simple example of a castle is a character/reflection, even a manifestation, of medieval times. By employing all of the senses, we have given the setting a three-dimensional “reality” and not just a storybook façade presence, flat backdrop.

You must seduce your reader into believing your world and settings, no matter how real or fantastic they may be. And you achieve this by employing sensory description throughout your narrative and even dialogue (characters commenting on their surroundings) to create a facsimile of reality your reader will find himself/herself within. Be figurative, literal and poetic as needed.

Using realistic and emotional/sensory detail will convince your readers to suspend their disbelief/accept the supernatural and/or impossible, which although they are already used to doing in our age, is not necessarily easy to do from the writer’s end—so study the techniques of your favorite craftsmen in your particular genre for specific strategies that may work for you.

How the senses bring settings and stories to life as employed through sensory description (some examples):

(1) – Vision: brightness/darkness of rooms in a house, movement of a dog with a foot injury, distance between an active volcano and a skyline, scale difference between an elephant and house cat, vibrant color of marine life and water on a coral reef, forms of orchestra instruments.

(2) – Hearing: faraway ambiance of an approaching helicopter, the up close sound of an out of tune guitar, mechanical/factory sounds, natural ambiance—waves crashing, birds singing in a forest, volume, crescendo, decrescendo of Manhattan daytime traffic.

(3) – Touch/feeling: tactile texture of rocks, temperature and physical characteristics of water or climates, feeling of moving through environments, navigating through snow versus hot sand, for example. Silk versus cement. A peach versus a coconut.

(4) – Taste: salty skin, sweet oranges, earthy beets, metallic coin flavor, fruity lip balm, bitter beer, spicy Jamaican curry or bland/no taste (bottled water).

(5) – Smell: (related to taste) briny seashores, rotting fruit in the garbage, Middle Eastern spice market, rose perfume, the bitter sting of fresh road surface, the vagabond stench of cheap beer, the foul odor of the New York City subway on a hot, humid August afternoon, a snowy pristine alpine forest, the smell of books in an old library…how does the smell of water in a swimming pool differ from that in a mossy pond?

Remember that smell is an extremely powerful sense that best evokes memories and emotions. How does a man feel, for example, when he meets a beautiful woman who is wearing the same perfume that his dear and deceased mother used to wear? (Instant emotion.)

These are just some things to consider when constructing environments for your stories and characters. Study the way your favorite writers do this in their work, as it’s a very powerful device that will bring your story fresh blood.

More to come soon…