As an editor, however, I can't just skip the scene-setting; I have to read each and every word. So I've pondered what makes descriptions of place compelling and effective. What makes them too good to pass up? Writers of both fiction and nonfiction tend to make three common errors in setting the scene:
- Rambling, lengthy descriptions
- Commonplace descriptions
- No sense of place
I call the second problem the "Fodor Dependency," which refers to a description that sounds as if it came from a guidebook. It's a postcard that matches everyone's visual expectations and contains no surprises. Again, asking yourself questions can help avoid this problem. What's special about the place? What makes it unique? For example, the high desert air in Arizona carries a scent after the monsoon rains that I've never encountered anywhere else. And that brings me to my next point: don't rely on your eyes alone. Use all your senses. How does the place sound? What does it smell like or taste like? What does the air feel like on your skin? You may not include all this information, but the exercise allows you to discover striking sensory details to create a compelling description.
The third problem, no sense of place, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The description is either so skimpy or mundane that the story feels like it could take place anywhere. While this problem is perhaps most noticeable in fiction, it applies to nonfiction as well. Even reports and newsletter articles can almost always benefit from a strong sense of place. Defining the purpose of the description and finding what's unique about a setting can solve this problem too.
Using these three strategies -- exploring why you're writing the description, defining what's unique, and locating the sensory details -- will all help you to create a compelling sense of place.