Crafting Settings that Steal the Scene: Think Like a Designer

I consider myself a visual writer: when a project’s really going well, I can see my characters, the action, and the setting all playing out like a movie in my head. It’s really awesome. And fun. And a great way to kill time waiting in line, sitting in traffic, or ever-plentiful staff meetings. But my real goal isn’t to amuse myself with super-detailed daydreams, it’s to tell a story. And since it’s my story, I want to do as much as possible to make my readers see the story as I do. Just call me a control freak. As a reader, I’m little better: I want to know details, dammit! I hate not knowing what a character looks like or what they’re wearing—or even worse, to form my own images of the story’s world, only to find out the heroine I assumed was a petite blonde is now a tall redhead. I’ve even been known to check out the copyright date just so I can mentally dress the characters properly! Of course, nobody wants pages and pages of needless minutiae. When I write description, I want to make the most of as few words as possible. One way I’ve found that helps me do this is to think like a designer.

Maybe I’m weird, but I spend an inordinate amount of time mentally dressing my characters down to the smallest accessory—even if I never mention any of it in the book. I know what color my heroine’s apartment looks like, right down to the color of the tiles in her bathroom (they’re retro aqua and black in case you were wondering). I often find myself returning to the same color family in different scenes in the book. I never set out to do this consciously, but it’s something I’ve noticed in my work, and I think it helps to create a coherent vision for the story—and I think it helps my descriptions build on each other. Your setting should guide your color palette, and when you have a detail you’d like to describe, using one of your go-to colors will add another layer of cohesiveness to the scene.

For example, an important part of one of my stories is set partly on a sailboat in the Florida Keys. Naturally, all that water and sky pull a lot of blues and greens into my description of the scene. When the setting shifts to other locales, I still include references to those colors in other things to keep the connection going. If it doesn’t really matter what color your character’s car is, why not make it echo the ones already in your theme? Or, it might better suit your story to pull in a contrasting color if you’re at a turning point or it’s something you want to stand out.

If visualizing an overall design doesn’t come naturally, a collage can be helpful. Include pictures of people, settings, colors and textures for a “look book” to help jog your imagination if you have trouble with description. Disclaimer: I don’t make collages. I do this in my head instead—if I did the collage thing, I’d be obsessed with it and the story would never, ever get written.

Other things to consider in your design: mood and theme. Is it a dark urban fantasy? A frothy historical? A glamorous contemporary? I bet these genre descriptions alone inspire a particular “look.” Work with it. Play around, and have fun. When you layer color, description, and mood together, you can go a long way toward making that little movie in your head visible in the heads of the people who count: your readers.

Happy designing!

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