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Background

I've been working on doing nitty-gritty editor revisions of my detective novel in preparation for publishing, going over sentences and picking through details. In the course of the story, the detective visits a variety of locations in the setting of the story to interview witnesses and gather evidence about the case, most of them within the city where he lives; think a Hercules Poirot kind of "traveling detective" narrative. He typically visits one or two settings per chapter and spends enough time there to get acquainted with the locals and talk to a few important characters - that is, he doesn't deeply dive into each place, but you do get a feel for how each place looks and feels as he explores them.

Recently, I received some editor feedback that the settings needed to be better distinguished from each other - that is, I have to do a better job of making each place "feel" different from each other. She pointed out, for example, that while I do a good job of writing the sensory details of each place, the places need to stand out from each other better in terms of how I describe them and how my POV detective experiences them. To quote her feedback:

You do an excellent job of describing these places, but the Amish settlement comes across similarly to how the diner or the strip club comes across, and I want you to make those immediately distinguishable in that first impression he gets when he walks in. What's weird about this place? How does he get struck by this place as opposed to that place he visited last chapter? What just grabs him and slaps him in the face about it? They have to feel really different and memorable.

I've been mulling on this feedback for a while, and I decided it would make a really interesting question to ask this site for advice, so here is my question:

How do you clearly and immediately distinguish settings from each other, and make them more memorable? What are some prose tactics for achieving this?

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    Could you give an example of two of the different settings? – motosubatsu Sep 8 at 14:57
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    @motosubatsu From the quote, I think we have an Amish settlement, a diner, and a strip club – DM_with_secrets Sep 8 at 16:11
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    @DM_with_secrets Apologies I wasn't clear - I was meaning for the OP to provide some examples of how they are describing the character's initial encounter with the diverse settings, and how the settings are described so we can see where the beta readers feedback is coming from – motosubatsu Sep 8 at 16:15
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    @motosubatsu Ah, I see, sorry! Yes, I agree that that would be useful :) – DM_with_secrets Sep 8 at 16:17
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    @DM_with_secrets No worries.. I can totally see how you interpreted my initial comment that way, this one's on me :) – motosubatsu Sep 8 at 16:18
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I think what you are being asked for is to personalize the settings.

Imagine yourself walking into two places — one is place you think is dangerous and the other place is your safe-space or homey.

For each of us, we might choose different places — like a biker bar and a democratic rally. The physical details — the leather, the guns, the healthcare is a human right banners — all evoke different emotions in us personally. For some people the biker bar is home and the rally is like evil, and vice versa.

once you know what elements of the settings cause what emotional response, then you can tie that to the characters memory or physically sensation to communicate the what and why the setting evokes the feelings that they do for the character.

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  • This is great advice, I think you have a great point about including more details of how the protagonist feels as opposed to just what he notices. Thank you :) – Sciborg Sep 8 at 23:16
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    +1 - "emotional response" is the key phrase to me. The reader's interest in the location is dictated by the protagonist's feelings about the location. – codeMonkey Sep 10 at 13:44
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To make scenes feel different, you have to use a different set of descriptive words.

For a diner, it could fee cozy and quiet, and the first thing they notice is how warm and comfortable the diner is. For the strip club, you paint a picture of flashing lights and loud noises, music pumping through their ears. What your editor is getting at (i believe) is how the main character feels in the setting and how they act in each setting. How do they feel in the strip club? Do they like it or are they uncomfortable? In the diner, does it remind them of their grandmothers baking when they were a child, or does it feel old and dusty?

The main thing you need to ask yourself is this: what does the character see, taste, hear, feel, and smell, and how do they react to those sensory details? The goal of a book is to transport a reader into the story, so adding those details can do that.

I hope that helped.

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  • This is great advice, thank you. – Sciborg Sep 8 at 19:58
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In my experience, when your settings run together, it's because you haven't done the work to fully imagine and render them in your mind. I'm not the most observant person, so whether I'm remembering a setting or inventing one, it tends to be fuzzy and abstract by default (writers who are highly visually observant tend not to have that problem).

What helps is to make the places more real in your mind. If possible, go in person to a similar location and observe it with all your senses. If not, do some research , find pictures online, draw maps, do some visualizations, and so forth.

You won't end up using all those details, but just having that in the back of your mind will make your setting more rich and three-dimensional. The same goes for character descriptions as well. It's work that doesn't come natural to me, but when I do it, I notice the difference. Your characters stop feeling like they're floating in a formless void.

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I think the advice to focus on sensory details is spot on. You want to create an association in the reader's mind between your setting, a sensory impression and a lived experience.

Of all the senses, smell is a particularly good way to do this. Smell and memory are powerfully linked, and you can make associations that act as a bridge between the reader's memories and something that is outside their experience.

I've never been to a space station, but if I land my spaceship, step out into the cargo bay, and it smells of day-old fish and warmed-over garbage, I (and the reader) immediately know a lot about that space station. But more than that, I've had a visceral response and will be more likely to remember that first impression.

Smell can also be especially evocative. Step into the strip club uptown and you're hit by the aroma of Cuban cigars and new money. But the one downtown smells like filthy bar rags and desperation. I could never describe the smell of "new money" or "desperation", at least not concisely, but I don't need to. The reader knows what they are, based on their own web of olfactory memories of similar places or situations.

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One important but easily overlooked point is how quickly a character gets a grasp of their surroundings. In a place they're enjoying and feel comfortable they will want to savour the experience so will take in every detail one at a time. Somewhere they're scared of or escaping from, they will take in many distinct details very quickly, and will notice different things (danger spots and escape routes). Somewhere they're bored or preoccupied, they won't bother noticing too much around them.

Therefore, you can and should adapt the writing style to support this - particularly sentence structure. An enjoyable place would get described in long sweeping sentences with lots of detail and perhaps more intangible adjectives, whereas a scary place would be shorter intense sentences with sharper details as the character sums up their surroundings quicker. As per @EDL's response it's about emotions linked to a place - and this can totally mean that you'll describe the same place different ways in different sections of the narrative, depending on what's going on there.

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