Setting: Techniques and Devices


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Settings can be tricky for authors. In our desire to firmly ground readers in the scene, we often write too much, adding way more details than are necessary. Alternatively, we also tend to write our settings in somewhat bald terms, keeping them simple so readers can easily envision the time and place. The problem with these approaches is they result in descriptions that are flat and boring—even when the places themselves are not. To be most effective, setting descriptions should be concise and economical, conveying just what’s necessary in a way that brings the scene to life.

Figurative language can often help with this. Similes, metaphors, symbols, and personification can succinctly express the heart of a setting with an economy of words and in a way that appeals to readers. Particularly effective is personification, which is when we assign human characteristics to an inanimate object. Done well, this can add a sense of movement and emotion to an otherwise sterile scene. To see how this works, let’s start with a setting that contains a simple house on a cliff:

        At the edge of the bluff stood an old house with chipped paint and crooked shutters.


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