L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

In this article, author Jonelle Patrick shares her expertise on how to create settings that will bring your reader in and make your characters shine.

Jonelle Patrick

Creating a sense of place can be so much more than a painterly description of the sea, or the comforting smell of coffee in the kitchen. Places aren’t just sets to be described. They exist in time. They have a history. The same place can be comforting or menacing, depending on who’s experiencing it, when they’re experiencing it, and what else is happening while they’re experiencing it.

You can use a sense of place as a powerful tool to pull your readers into your world and not let them go until the very last page. Today, I’m going to show you six ways you can create a sense of place that will boost your writing to the next level, and don’t rely on the same, overworked five senses.


1. Use the weather, temperature, and season

Let’s start easy: What’s the weather like? A chapter that takes place in a thunderstorm will feel very different from one that takes place in a heatwave. Extreme weather—like a blizzard or a hurricane—creates tension that can amplify what your characters are feeling, spur them to action, or cause them to make decisions they’re either proud of or regret.

What’s the temperature like? Heat and cold can slow down your characters’ ability to make decisions and act on them. Tempers flare with discomfort, characters relax and are lulled into complacency when the temperature is balmy. Does your character suddenly go cold, even though the room is hot? Do they flush with shame, even in a snowstorm?

What time of year is it? Can you enhance a sense of hope or melancholy by changing the season when your chapter takes place? Can you use the season to turn an unremarkable setting into an extraordinary one? A suburban street feels quite different when the trees are in full bloom than when the branches are bare.

2. Choose the time of day for maximum effect

Most places feel very different at noon than at 2:00 a.m. Can you change the time a scene happens to enhance your characters’ state of mind?

3. Take advantage of the character’s point of view

A setting seen through the eyes of a child isn’t the same when seen through the eyes of a basketball player—a room looks different from three feet above the ground than it does from six. A small person (or someone who is sitting) will notice different details than a tall one (or someone who is standing). A space that dwarfs the viewer feels different from one where the viewer feels cramped.

A character’s experience level also alters the feeling of a place—imagine how differently an alien from another planet would describe a church, compared to a vicar who preaches there every Sunday. If you describe a place from a position of long experience—making the reader take small leaps and guesses until they catch up to the character’s level of experience—you can make your reader feel like an insider. And the opposite technique—making a character guess wrong about what a familiar place is used for—can do the same.

4. Use the past to set the stage for the present

Knowing what happened in a place—either recently or in the distant past—changes how a character reacts to it and how a reader feels about it. A cave that was sacred to Native Americans feels different from one that harbored escaped slaves, even if it’s the same cave. And a room where a murder occurred feels very different from a room used to store copier paper, even if it’s the same room.

5. Let the character’s expectations color how the place is seen

A place where someone waits for their lover feels very different from a place where someone fears they’ll meet an accuser. A sense of place can be enhanced by describing it in terms of what the character expects to happen there.

6. Axe the adjectives and adverbs

And finally, I’m going to tell you to forget what you learned in school. Use adjectives sparingly, and insert adverbs only when nothing else will work. Your writing will instantly feel much more professional.

Consider this paragraph that probably would have gotten you a solid “A” from your sainted high school English teacher:

“The dark church is scary at night, with only two flickering candles on the shadowy altar. When the bell begins to toll at midnight, the candles go out, and the room grows colder. A ghostly blue cloud begins to gather near the peaked ceiling. As the phantom figure grows more distinct, I recognize its face as a long-ago vicar whose death had been blamed on my grandmother.”

A perfectly workmanlike description, right? You can picture the place, maybe even feel a shiver of apprehension. But look what happens when we deliver the same information without any adjectives or adverbs:

“I shiver as the bell begins to toll. …nine…ten…eleven…midnight. As if on cue, the altar candles flicker and go out. He’s here. I can feel him. His presence sucks the warmth from the room, makes my hair stand on end. Before the shape even begins to swirl and coalesce between the rafters far overhead, I know it’s the vicar. The vicar who had died because of what my grandmother did.”

Instead of using adverbs, use verbs. Instead of using adjectives, use the time of day, the temperature, the history of the place, the experience of the viewer and what they fear might happen next.

Using all the subtle ways we experience a sense of place in real life will transport your readers into a world that feels far more real. When they look up from that last page and blink, surprised to find themselves back in their favorite armchair, you’ll know your work is done.

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