I have a passion for setting. I've heard you should write about what you're passionate about. Now when I say passion I mean I like to visualize the fantastic place the author is describing to form a movie. Now I know characters and feelings are supposed to be focused on since people relate to that, but how does one also add settings into the mix to evoke feelings in a reader? Can one use motivation reaction units? How much should the actual description of the eating be?

Ex: take the scene in the movie Avatar when nightfall comes and the forest comes to "life." A truly unique and beautiful setting to me that was just awe inspiring, this moment was when I fell in love with this world. How do you create that sort of attachment to setting?

  • How do your favorite authors do it? Writers read to discover these techniques. Aug 31, 2017 at 12:50

6 Answers 6


There are two question here:

  1. How to create feeling with setting?

Answer: By using those aspects of our surrounding that cause feeling in us, like light, temperature, weather, architecture, etc. For example, most people get in a better mood when the sun is shining, while most people feel less happy when the sky is grey. There is some variation in how we react to our surroundings (some people like rain or moonlight, others are afraid of the dark or quickly feel cold), but there are general tendencies in your reactions to our surroundings that you can use. (You don't need to research this, just observe your own reactions to different surroundings.)

  1. How to create attachment to setting?

Answer: By imagining and describing a place that creates a feeling of well-being in your readers, that is, a place that your readers would like to be in, because it is a place where they would feel well. These places are usually safe and secure, well-lit, visually open, have benign weather, look park-like (that is, "cleaned up" nature), etc.

  • "It was a dark and stormy night." LOL. - On a more serious note, sometimes a description can be so good that it draws you in and hypnotizes you so you forget the real world. The beginning of Deer Hunter is like that although it's a movie and not written material. The book, The Worm Ouroboros (while not the best writing overall) begins with something like 14 pages that describe a throne room almost exclusively and it was riveting - even though nothing whatsoever was happening.
    – Joe
    Sep 1, 2015 at 22:56

If we start with the premise that character and feeling are supposed to be at the heart of a story, it follows that the description of setting is not separate, but it related to character and feeling.

Man people have a profound love of place that deeply affects their character and motivations. Descriptions of place therefore have a key story role for any character with that love of place. And since when we read a book we are also entering into a relationship with the author, we can also enter into and appreciate the author's love of place.

Love of place shines through in the works of many authors. It is notable in Steinbeck, who almost always begins with descriptions of place. It is there in the works of mystery writers like Tony Hillerman and Craig Johnson. Description of place is as much key to the enjoyment of their books as the description of realy big weapon systems is to Tom Clancey.

Love of place can even come across in fantasy, where the Shire or Hogwarts castle are lovingly described. Love of place is a key elements of those books as well, and a key motivation for the characters.

The key to describing place, therefore, is to focus on those aspects of place that create affection (or revulsion, for that matter) in the character. Describe it, in other words, through loving eyes. (And if the character hates a place, this is in proportion to its failure to be the kind of place they love, so love is still the key.)

  • Advice you've given here on SE has really helped me improve my descriptions. :) Jun 4, 2019 at 14:42

Try to invoke the reader's senses by addressing the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations engendered by the location. Use carefully-selected and specific details. But don't make the mistake of OVER-describing a location. Let the readers will in the rest of the details with their own imaginations, which are very powerful. Just plant a few well-chosen details to provide credibility and set the stage for the reader to fill in the rest.


I look at several aspects when describing settings:

The senses

It's helpful to look at each of the senses in turn and make a few notes on relevant things in the setting to each of them, basically answering the following questions: What can the character see? What can they taste? (might be something on the air, rather than going around licking trees and walls and stuff) What can they feel? The texture of things around them, temperature, weather... What can they hear? Close by and far away sounds. What can they smell?


When describing a place, think about how each element can be interpreted. For example:

The house could gleam brightly with a fresh coat of whitewash; have aging, peeling, lead-heavy paint; or give the impression of a gaping skull with sightless windows as eyes and a door forever gagging its silent scream.

The sea could roll heavily, recline in reflective tranquility or froth with lively white horses.

The way you describe the scene shoudl reflect the mood and atmosphere you're trying to evoke in the reader.


When describing locations, I'm always considering what the POV character would notice about it. For example and ex-police officer is likely to notice completely different things to a five year old. What is important to the character? How do they feel about different places and the furniture and others items they might come across in those places?

You also asked about motivation reaction units, and whether you can use them. I think these relate more to character and driving the plot than setting description, so trying to apply them to your descriptions might get a bit confusing. Personally, I wouldn't try.


I used to hate writing descriptions, because I approached them as flat catalogs of visual details. But descriptions come alive when you understand all the different things they can do.

1 - Put yourself in the mind and mood of the narrator: "The trees stood like silent sentinels..." versus "The trees were angry soldiers, with branches like spears..." versus "The dancing trees opened their branches to the sky..." It's the same forest each time, but the person seeing them is experiencing them very differently. You still get a strong visual image, but the seemingly external details are giving you an internal portrait at the same time.

2 - Foreshadow the future, or illuminate the past: "That old tree looked like it was waiting on a hanging" "Mama's oaken wardrobe, with its battered and splintered wood --how many times had I hidden inside it as a child?" This is a good, gentle way to include scraps of your backstory without it getting overwhelming.

3 - Tell an embedded story: "A dog cloud chased a cat cloud across a stormy sky, and just as the dog caught up with the cat, it transformed, and became a dragon instead.

4 - Develop the voice of the narrator or the characters: "Falling feathers filled the air, a swirl of softly soaring snow" is a sentence that gives you a sense of voice that is very different from "No one couldn't tell that damn mutt from a pile of its own turds."

You can use all these techniques to develop a sense of a beloved place. Find loving metaphors in which to describe it, and then coat it in a fabric of treasured memories and imagined possibilities.


IMHO, one good way to create feeling is to elicit sensory memories in the reader of place(s) they've been or vividly imagined that are like your setting. I say elicit, because there's always the show vs. tell way of conveying those. Don't limit yourself to the visual; consider hot/cold, humid/dry, quiet/noisy (what kinds of noises), smells, tastes, tactile if it works in your narration.

In SF and Fantasy, the author https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Vance Jack Vance was a past master of this; suggest you take a look at some of his writing if you can. Wonderfully vivid!

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