In July’s Writers’ Studio Class, we discussed Karen Russell’s short story, “The Bad Graft.” If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you click over and read it now.
If you’ve described where your story is taking place with enough detail, your reader can enter the intimate space of your story so that they are so immersed in what is happening as if they are experiencing themselves. This immersion is what readers crave!
In the opening paragraph of “A Bad Graft,” we immediately get enough solid details to feel like we’re there. We’re in a Dodge Charger, looking out through the “goggle[s] of the “car’s windshield.” We’re on an empty stretch of highway 62, which is flattened “as if by a rolling pin.”
It’s especially important in the opening to land your reader in a place they can immediately visualize in their minds’ eye, and you do this by careful attention to describing setting.
Describing setting allows your individual style, voice and creativity as a writer flourish. How do you see the world? What unique similes or metaphors can you craft that cut to the heart of what you want to say?
Russell uses brilliant similes and metaphors to describe the setting, especially the Joshua Trees. She writes, “The Joshua trees look hilariously alien. Like Satan’s telephone poles. They’re…sparsely covered with syringe-thin leaves,” and later on, “hundreds of Joshuas shrink away into hobgoblin shapes.”
The way you describe the physical objects in a scene can reveal important information about your characters and have the power to convey characters’ emotional sensitivity and frame of mind.
Here’s a passage from the story after the Leap takes place. Notice how Russell seamlessly weaves the descriptions of setting with Angie’s state of mind:
“The world has grown unwieldy, and there are days now when the only thing that appeals to her is pulling up her T-shirt and going belly flat on the burning pink sand beyond the motel walkway.
"One night, Angie turns to face the wall. Golf-ball-size orange-and-yellow flowers pattern their wallpaper. Plus water stains from ancient leaks. She has never noticed this before. Under the influence of the Joshua, she sees these water stains as beautiful. That Rorschach is more interesting than TV.”
Description helps the reader understand the character better. The objects we surround ourselves with reveal a lot about the type of people we are. What’s in your character’s fridge? Car? Desk drawer?
The fact that Andy drives a Dodge Charger and not a minivan or compact car give us important details to the type of person he is. Don’t forget to included specific details.
Masters of narrative writing know that description of setting must work on more than one level. Description for just description’s sake is dull and bores the reader. Aim to use description to: immerse the reader inside the story, make characters seem like real people on the page, set the emotional pitch of the characters’ internal lives, and even foreshadow climatic events to come.
Throughout Russell’s story, she uses ominous and haunting description to let the reader know something bad is going to happen, and Angie will remain haunted as a result.
Setting is a powerful tool for the narrative writer. In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting writing prompts aimed at helping you play around with drafting descriptions in setting. Check out our Instagram @writers.studio.cc and our Writers' Studio Members Facebook Group for these writing exercises.
We can also continue this discussion in the comments section:
*What have been your biggest struggles with describing setting?
*Do you have any reading recommendations for authors that use setting skillfully?
*How have you been working descriptions of setting into your writing recently?