Why describing your setting is so important…

people gathering in dome building
The Pantheon of Rome

The setting for a scene, or series of scenes grounds your story in more ways than one. Locations can impact everything from mood and theme, to climate and time periods. How you describe those elements can make or break a good scene (or scenes). Memorable settings come alive with appropriate (not just detailed) descriptions.

For example, how could I describe the Pantheon of Rome from the picture attached to this post? Depending on the scene I’m writing, there are any number of details that I could include. But the scene, and to an extent, the characters determine what is important for the reader to experience.

Is there action in my Pantheon scene, or is it a a puzzle to be deduced like a Dan Brown thriller? Maybe I’ll try my hand at Romance and describe two history buffs exploring the rotunda. They would notice far different things than a super-sleuth. Perhaps the building and it’s history are irrelevant to my story, and the people crowded inside are the focus of the characters.

It might go something like this:

A shaft of sunlight pierced the ancient oculus in the ceiling of the former temple. It bathed an empty niche high on the wall in vibrant light, as it had for two thousand years. The couple stood transfixed by the light that managed to reach them on the polished marble floor. For just a moment, they could step back in time together.

Even stripped of it’s Roman identity, and festooned with later Catholic regalia, the sight reminded Ian of the glory that was Rome. He squeezed Miranda’s shoulder as they gazed at the wonder of engineering the Pantheon represented to both of them. The crowd of tourists faded away as he imagined statues of the Gods in their niches, and bronze eagles surrounded by laurel wreaths representing the majesty of the Empire.

The characters drive the description but I still have to pick the right details

Ian and Miranda might not even see the same details, but writing the scene with a single character’s Point Of View requires a good understanding of Ian, too. A historian (even an amateur student of history) would pick out different details. Ian is focused on the Roman history of the temple, but in modern times, the Pantheon is a Catholic church. Miranda might pick out those details.

Even two people with similar interests might see things differently. Had I written the scene from Miranda’s POV, the later pieces of Christian decorations might have been her focus. Either way, the couple moving through the space determines what elements the readers see through their perspective.

Fantasy descriptions and real locations can overlap…

The Pantheon of Rome is a fabulous location, but it isn’t a fantasy setting as we know it. One thing I love to do is dress up a real location with fantasy trappings. I can imagine the same setting Ian and Miranda moved through, with an added fantastic element (or several). Not to detract from the real location, but to raise the expectation of the audience.

Perhaps the characters are fleeing a horde of zombies, or are racing against time to perform a ritual in the ancient temple. Only a site standing for thousands of years can give them refuge, or allow the spell to reach its intended effect. The appropriate details would be far different than a casual stroll through the rotunda. Barring the doors, measuring out the space for the ritual, setting up barricades, or lighting ceremonial candles might be more important. Characters and the events they are involved in direct their focus and what details I include in the scene.

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