Narrative Basics Lesson 3: Setting

Describing the Physical World

Putting it all together

We’ve talked about a lot of different techniques for painting a picture of a world in your reader's mind. 

Here’s a snippet from Tracy Baptiste that combines a few of these techniques at once. 

The character in this snippet is a monster called the jumbie. The physical world is a thick forest.

The jumbie crawled with ease over thick trunks and gnarled underbrush, even though night in the forest was pitch-black. After centuries of moving among these trees, she knew the paths through the dark and tangled roots as if she had carved them out herself. The branches that caught at the hair of humans and the picker bushes that scratched their skin never hurt her. She knew each one. She also knew when people had walked through them. She could smell their blood on the edges of thorns and the scent of their skin on even the tiniest thread that got ripped off of their clothing.

The JumbiesTracey BaptisteSource

Let's break this down:

  • Establishing world through character action: First, Baptiste sets the scene with the jumbie interacting with the physical world. Note that this sentence by itself contains expanded detail: it's not just a forest, it's thick trunks, gnarled underbrush, pitch-black night.
  • Adding history: She gives us some history of the jumbie's intimate relationship to the forest.
  • Expanding on details: Baptiste expands on the jumbie's knowledge by describing specific details about the forest.
  • Showing meaning and value: Finally she tells us how this intimate knowledge of the forest means that the jumbie can track humans, and she expands on the detail about how this power works.
Hold on, is this scene describing world, character or action?

Kirra climbed over the metal and wire fence and dropped into her own yard. The main gate had been rusted shut since before she was born. While the hooks at the top of fence could tear your clothes, Kirra knew how to climb over without getting snagged. When she was younger, Mama would pick her up and place her over; now she was grown she jumped it by herself. It was a test. Mama said that anyone who couldn’t get over the fence could stay outside.

Notice how this example uses the same building blocks, but adds a bit more history.

Agatha swooped low over the maze of rooftops, so close that the bristles of her broom swept snow off the chimney caps. To think she had once been afraid to fly, scrunching her eyes closed and clutching Granny’s waist as they soared above the crowded streets! Now, Agatha wove gracefully between columns of smoke, dancing on the edge of the glow cast by street lamps. Flying was freedom. She waved at the children who gasped and pointed as she passed over them, and laughed at their squeals of delight as she showed off with a loop-de-loop.

This example follows the pattern of the snippet, but it adds more detail about the character action than the physical world. 

Does it work? Well, how clearly can you picture the scene? How much detail can you see?

That's a sign of whether or not the description has worked.

Even though this example might have more action than the others, the details about the maze of rooftops, the bristles on the broom brushing snow off the chimney caps, columns of smoke, dancing glow of the streetlamps, the children in the streets below: these all paint the picture.

Do you understand how this snippet works, and what the highlights mean?

Study it closely, because on the next page we'll write a checkpoint piece using a different inspiration image.

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