Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Make Your Settings Sing—Using Narrative as a Tool

The writing world is cyclic, just like everything else. Right now, the cautionary phrase on the tip of every critique partner’s tongue is show don’t tell. They’re right, of course. Showing draws the reader deeper into the story, and adds an immediacy to the reading experience. But many well-meaning crit partners often label narrative or exposition as telling. 

Narrative is an integral tool that a writer uses to make the scenes come alive. Without good narrative the story isn’t grounded. So how do we make our settings come alive? We let the reader view the story’s settings through the filter of the POV character’s emotions, experiences and beliefs. Look at the examples below to see what I’m talking about.

Example 1
Catherine looked at her lovely childhood home. She saw the horribly neglected yard and remembered a happier time. Her feelings of despair almost overwhelmed her. She knew she would find a way to get through the next few weeks, but it wouldn’t be very easy.

In this example the setting is described in a cold and distant way. When I first began writing, I thought this example was good writing. It’s okay—but it could be great. Watch what happens when we delve into Catherine’s emotions and experiences

Example 2

Catherine peered out the car window at a past she never thought to face. Overgrown trees and bushes loomed down at her as she got out. She explored the once happy yard, games of tag and kick-the-can echoing in her mind. The familiar bench, half hidden by an overgrown wisteria bush, beckoned with promises of rest and peace. She shook her head. Peace would be hard to find without Tom beside her. How would she get through the days to come? A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She could almost hear Tom’s voice, “Work, my dear, it keeps the hands busy and the memories at bay.” 

Do you see the difference?

When we look at the setting through more than just Catherine’s vision it comes alive and resonates with the reader.

There are some things we can do to insure this kind of depth to our settings. 
  • Utilize the five senses. This will add depth to the scene.
  • Tie the setting to a dream or a memory.
  • Focus on the emotions your POV character is feeling and let that color how she sees her surroundings.

So next time you start to describe the setting in your story, slow down, take a good look at what your character is seeing and feeling. Then let the reader experience the setting through the character’s senses and emotions.

Your Turn
I want to give you a chance to practice. Here’s the thing to use: a dripping faucet. Write a couple of sentences using this part of a setting for different emotions you want to evoke in the reader. Choose from: 
  • Fear
  • Sorrow
  • Excitement 

Pick one and give it a try. Put your answers in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!


  1. Clearly, the second example draws me in. Perhaps one reason is that the description is more detailed, enabling me to picture the scene.

  2. Yes, I remember when I thought Example 1 would be good. We learn and change as we grow more committed to being a good writer, rather than simply being a writer. There is a huge difference!

  3. The drip, drip, drip of the kitchen faucet matched the tears falling from her eyes. She was alone in the house she had shared with Tom for 25 years. That stupid faucet. Tom could never get it to stop dripping and now he was gone. The tears would not stop filling her eyes, just like that faucet would not stop dripping.

    1. Teresa, that's awesome! Very well done. I love the way you used the drip of the faucet to personify her sadness. Thanks so much for sharing! Blessings, Edie

  4. The first one sounded fine until I read the second. I'm just now delving into the kinds of stories that benefit even more from this kind of writing. I've got a lot to learn.

  5. The two examples that you've explained here are simply brilliant. I find this a very happy and secure place to be for budding and established writers. Keep writing and inspiring us.