Three Tips to Inject Life into Your Story Settings by Debbie Burke

When Elmore Leonard advised leaving out the parts that readers skip, he was probably referring to long, boring location descriptions that bring the story to a screeching halt.

But a rich setting is necessary to ground the reader in the story world. Readers want to feel immersed in the fictional universe, experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations the characters do.

So how do you write setting descriptions that people won’t skip?

Here are three tips to inject vivid life into settings:

1. Incorporate setting into the action.

Have characters move through the location, observing and noticing the surroundings as they go.

In my thriller Deep Fake Double Down, investigator Tawny Lindholm is supposed to meet a fugitive near a desolate Montana lake.

              Even in daylight, the supposedly haunted highway northwest of Great Falls looked eerie. Tawny told herself the Indian ghost was just a legend.

              Spring rains had filled Black Horse Lake. The wetlands felt alive with waterfowl picking along the shallows, hunting for fish and insects. Tawny wondered what creatures lived there later in the summer when the seasonal lake would dry to mudflats.

              She veered off the highway to Powerline Road, a short distance beyond the north end of the lake, and parked. The car radio broadcast static with occasional snatches of music or a few words from an announcer. She couldn’t listen to updates on the hunt for Lucille [the fugitive].

              Her phone showed one bar that blinked on and off, teasing.

              Not surprising, but it still made her uneasy to be alone, unarmed, and unable to reach [her attorney-husband] Tillman as she waited for a woman who had apparently killed a prison guard.          

2. Use sensory detail to draw the reader into the setting.

Sight is important but so are sound, smell, taste, and touch.

In this scene, a crooked prison warden searches for a place to hide the body of a murdered inmate.

              At the old Radersburg Cemetery, Joe Jon spotted a mound of freshly disturbed dirt from a new grave, which gave him an idea [to bury the body in the same grave].

              When he got out of the car, the fragrance of sage filled his lungs, refreshing after the stink of the prison full of sweaty, farting men. Quiet enfolded him, also a contrast from the constant din of the prison—the inmates’ loud trash talk, laundry machines, clanging kitchen racket, humming floor polishers, buzzing alarms, and other machinery that kept prisoners fed, clothed, and working.

3. Use setting to foreshadow.

In this scene, Tawny and Tillman drive into a surprise spring blizzard while following the fugitive Lucille who witnessed a murder:

              Fifty miles outside of Great Falls, dark clouds caught up. They tumbled across the sky and blocked the sun, changing midafternoon to dusk. When the first flakes hit the windshield, they melted but soon turned into pellets of ice. Gusts moved the truck sideways. Snow swirled on the pavement and piled against the shoulder of the road.

Moments later, Tawny and Tillman find Lucille’s car that slid on ice and rolled over.   

Setting doesn’t have to be dull, static description. When you make settings active and vivid, the reader is eager to enter the story world and share the characters’ adventures.

What is your favorite technique to make settings come alive?

Debbie Burke writes the award-winning Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. She lives in Montana where stunning mountain scenery offers plenty of opportunities to kill people…on the page, that is. Debbie also blogs for The Kill Zone, a popular crime writing site.

In Deep Fake Double Down, videos are manipulated to create false evidence against an innocent woman. Investigator Tawny Lindholm and her attorney-husband Tillman Rosenbaum enter a sinister world of deep fakes where video is illusion, but death is real.

Deep Fake Double Down is a finalist for the BookLife Prize sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly.

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Twitter/X: @burke_writer


  1. Not sure if it makes the setting come alive, but when I need to show a brief passage of time, my POV character observed something in the setting. In San Francisco, it’s the sound of a cable car bell clanging or a ferry horn blaring. Or maybe she sees a seagull swoop by.

  2. This could not have been more timely! I have finally received all 5 of my beta reader feedback on my first cozy, and in general, each reader liked it and offered quite useful answers to the Constructive Feedback sheets I sent them. However, there is a passage in the first chapter that describes a relatively quick–I thought–background of the small town (based on a real part of North London, Crouch End). But one of the readers commented,”You nearly lost me there.” This is a guy I know and respect. Another suggested breaking it up into bits throughout the first chapter. The other 3 loved it. Said it made them feel like they instantly knew the town. I’m. So. Confused! So this piece of yours patted me on the back, offered me a nice goblet of mulled Christmas wine, and said,” You’re okay! You’ll figure it out.” What do you think? I would SO value an outside opinion!

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