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How Do I Describe Scenes
in My Novel?

In the section on character descriptions, we saw how important it is to avoid a flat and unemotional list of a person’s features.

The same applies to describing physical locations. Emotions are what bring novels to life and entice your readers to keep on reading – and buy your next book.

In a purely factual sense, the homes, offices, gardens, mountains, beaches in your novel may not be much different from those in many other writers’ books.

Where you can set yourself apart from the rest in describing settings is through the emotions that the locations evoke in your characters – and your readers.

Let’s look at an example involving Andy, who, after many years living overseas, has returned to the village cricket ground where he spent many happy days in his youth:


There were three small steps leading up to the pavilion entrance. The home dressing room was first on the right. A smell of linseed oil hung in the air while, by the large double-glazed window, was a long table with benches on either side. Over in the far corner was a smaller table with four chairs round it.


The way the setting is described in this version provides us with enough information to form an image of the pavilion. The problem is that it’s a two-dimensional image. There’s no emotional depth, no sense of what the building means to Andy, no sense of why he’s made a point of coming back to visit.

Here’s how it might read if we add some emotional texture to the scene description:


Andy walked up the three steps to the pavilion as he used to do after each innings, sometimes triumphant, sometimes apologetic. Turning right into the home dressing room, the smell of linseed oil hit him, testament to the loving care shown to bats down the years. The long table and benches by the window had been the setting for Elsie’s legendary teas – it was a wonder anyone ever made it back out onto the field. The window was double-glazed now, probably a bit more resistant to towering sixes than the old frequently broken panes had been. And then over in the far corner were the familiar table and chairs. He smiled… the card school.


Now we understand why Andy’s come back! All those happy memories of cricket, cards and Elsie’s delicious teas. The pavilion is no longer just bricks and mortar; it’s a vibrant reminder of Andy’s youth. We can imagine him thinking of it fondly while he’s been far away and share his joy at being back.

The physical locations you use are just as much a part of your novel as the characters who inhabit them. And like your characters, they need to connect emotionally (in a positive or negative way) with your readers.  A former Cold War spy walking round the room in eastern Europe where he was once interrogated would experience very different memories to those Andy did in the pavilion. Once again, it’s vital that the reader gets a vivid sense of these from your description of the setting, rather than a list of the room’s physical features.

There will be many times when your viewpoint character is in a new location, with no memories to share with the reader. The need for emotional connection in the way you describe the scene remains, though. Always take a good look at the features of your setting – what do they represent, what memories, hopes and fears do they evoke? What thoughts will be going through your viewpoint character’s mind as they take in their surroundings?

In the following example, Jane has been invited round to her new boyfriend’s house for a meal with him and his parents. She finds herself alone in the living room:


There were lots of expensive-looking ornaments and paintings. Lush carpet covered the floor and over in the corner stood a mahogany drinks cabinet. At the far end was an open log fire, surrounded by a leather three-piece suite.


This gives us an idea of what the room looks like – but not what it feels like. What is it like for Jane, someone from a very different background, to be walking into it for the first time. Let’s see what happens when we create an emotional connection between Jane and the scene description:


It was like an episode of The Antiques Road Show. Ornaments and paintings were placed at strategic points around the room, probably enough to pay off her student loan. Jane gave the door of the mahogany drinks cabinet an experimental pull. Locked. Probably only opened in the presence of a member of the rotary club. The lush carpet was thicker than the football pitch at college – and that hadn’t been cut for a month. At the far end, a log fire bellowed out heat to the leather three-piece suite. Jane walked over to an armchair and slowly lowered herself down. It let out an indignant squeak of protest – was this his father’s seat?


That’s a lot better! As well as getting a more vivid impression of the room, we get an insight into Jane’s personality and her feelings as she sees the room for the first time.

  • Jane’s aware that she has entered a totally different world from the one she’s used to. The paintings and ornaments that her boyfriend’s family use just to add some colour to the room are worth as much as the loan she will spend decades paying off.

  • She’s trying to cover up her unease with humour as seen in her references to the rotary club and the football pitch. Jane’s not someone who likes to think she is the underdog – she is trying to poke fun at the family and the home in order to make them feel less intimidating.

  • The fire bellowing out heat evokes a feeling of power – reflecting Jane’s view of the family.

  • For all her attempts at bravado, Jane feels nervous and out of place. Lots of leather arm chairs squeak when someone sits in them, but Jane imagines it is a squeak of protest and immediately fears she has done something which will offend her boyfriend’s father.


Describing settings in a novel: Conclusion

As when describing characters, it’s important to avoid simply providing a factual run down of a location. This will quickly bring a predictable, robotic feel to your novel. Readers may be tempted to skim over the text each time they come to a description, drawing them out of the story and disengaging them from the world you’ve created.

Always look at the scene from the perspective of your viewpoint character and focus on the feelings it will evoke in them. Both the examples we’ve looked at in this section have featured sympathetic viewpoint characters – Andy and Jane. 

The principal applies equally to unsympathetic characters, though. Imagine if, rather than Jane, the person looking round the living room is a burglar.


They are consumed with anger and jealousy about all the things the family can afford, taking malicious pleasure from thinking about how much they will get for the ornaments and paintings, and what they will spend it on.

This will read very differently from the example with Jane – but will still have an emotional impact on your readers.

Descriptions of settings are an intrinsic part of your novel – make sure you use them to help bring it to life!

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