The teenage girl takes a few hesitant steps down the wooden stairs, which creak indignantly. She flicks up the light switch, but nothing happens. Power’s out. All we can see of her is a silhouette as she slowly makes her way down. In the basement, unfamiliar shapes loom from all angles. Dripping, clanking, and rustling can be heard in the background. The girl constantly looks over her shoulder. “Anyone there?” she asks.
Watching this on TV, you’ll probably feel the suspense growing. You might tense up or quicken your breathing. From the atmosphere, the imagery, and the noise, you know something bad is about to happen. The setting tells you to watch out better than any narrator could.
In writing, where there are no visual aids unless it’s a picture book, describing the setting is very important. It grounds the characters in physical space, tells us where the action’s happening, sets the mood, and allows interaction. You need to be able to set the scene in order to write a successful story.
I happen to suck at this.
Back in my glory days on Inkpop, I typically received reviews praising my proofreading. (Tragically, proper spelling and grammar are not things you can take for granted on many teen writing sites.) However, almost everyone had the same criticism: description. I didn’t spend enough time saying what the characters looked like, where they were, etc. The details I did include were “flat and lifeless”.
The problem is that I’m not a visual reader. Some people say they open a book and a movie starts playing in their head. I don’t get that. When I read, I just… read. I process information through words, not pictures. Therefore, I tend not to spend much time describing my world because I don’t know what it looks like.
Unfortunately, most people don’t share that outlook. When people tell me to add description, I don’t have the eye for it. That leads to my writing being – as the reviewer said – flat and lifeless. It lacks the sense that I can see it, that part of me is there. I don’t care enough. I want to move on to the action, the dialogue, the story.
The advice I can find on writing sites is mostly the same. Have your characters interact with the environment. See it through their eyes. For a non-visual person, this is still really hard. Does anyone else have this problem? How do you overcome it and write settings that come alive?