Infusing Your Settings with Emotion

Editor Robin Patchen wraps up our look at fatal flaw #10: Description Deficiencies and Excesses (If you’ve missed the other posts on this topic, start with this one here):

After I finished my first novel, I paid for a critique of the first fifteen pages. It came back so riddled with red, I feared she’d bled to death on my manuscript. One of her comments was, “Floating heads in a blank space.” Apparently, writing description didn’t come naturally to me. I remedied that, and my next critique partner highlighted paragraph after paragraph and added the comment, “You don’t need this.” I still didn’t have it right.

Years have passed, and find myself making similar comments to my clients. Yes, we need to describe our settings, but we don’t want to bore our readers. There’s a balance. And a great component that makes setting meaningful in a novel or short story.

Emotion Makes All the Difference

You must infuse your descriptions with emotion. Put your characters in the scene, and don’t just show us what they see—show us how they feel about what they see. Unless your character is Mr. Spock from Star Trek, he will have some emotional reaction. Two people can look at the same thing with very different opinions. Think of George Bailey and Mary Hatch from It’s a Wonderful Life. Remember the scene in which they are walking home from the party and stop in front of the old house? He sees a broken-down place worthy of nothing more than target practice. She sees a home. For each element in your scene, think about how your character would see it.


The covered bridge served as the gateway into Nutfield. Its weathered boards and planks dated back more than a century. I crossed the bridge to the sound of those creaking boards ,then passed the apple orchards. The scent of ripe fruit filtered through my open window. The post office was the first building in Nutfield’s town square. It stood on my right. On the opposite side of the street, McCall’s, the department store that had been there forever, advertised a sale on men’s suits. Overhead, the sun shone and the birds flitted from branch to branch on the sugar maples that lined Main Street, singing their songs.

I followed the road and passed the old high school, a low-slung brick building with tall windows in each classroom. The flag waved on its pole in front of the school, signaling me that a slight wind blew. Beyond the high school stood the new police station, which was attached to the courthouse. Across the street, the park was filled with people enjoying the early fall day.

Bored yet?

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this passage. It describes a town that’s very important to the novel, and I’ve even been careful to include a few of the senses—the sight of the town, the scent of the apples, the sound of the old boards, and the birds singing. I’ve included lots of details—the waving flag, the sugar maples, the brick on the high school. I even put people in the park.

What can we tell about the main character? We get a sense that she knows this town—“the department store that had been there forever.” Still, it’s boring. Why?

The passage is missing emotion. Whether you are writing in first person or third person, you can infuse it with emotion. So how might we fix it?


The covered bridge had been old even when I was a kid. I inched my Honda across, waiting for those creaking planks to crumble and dump me into the river below. When my tires were back on solid ground, I looked in my rearview and hoped the bridge would stay standing long enough for me to cross one more time.

Beautiful downtown Nutfield, New Hampshire. It had hardly changed since I was a kid. The post office had a fresh coat of white paint. Across the street, McCall’s was having a sale on men’s suits. I peered in the window at those circular racks and remembered hiding inside them, the clothes hanging taller than I was, Dad sliding pants and sports coats aside to find me. His hand, warm and comforting, gripping my arm, his gruff, “Gotcha,” sending me into fits of giggles.

If only Daddy were here to welcome me home.

The police station had gotten a makeover. The courthouse, though, looked the same. My eyes were drawn across the street to the park. Bright green grass beneath a canopy of sugar maples just starting to turn red. On a clear day, I swore the New Hampshire sky was bluer than any in the world. I barely took it in. My memories brought me back all those years until I could see nothing but the horde of reporters shouting questions.

“Reagan, did you know what would happen?”

“Reagan, what would your father say?”

“Reagan, how do you feel . . . ?”

Stupidest question ever.

The park hadn’t been beautiful to me in a long time. I’d hated reporters back then. Well, at least my brand of journalism never had me harassing eleven-year-old girls.

I hope you found that segment a little better. You’ll notice there are elements from the Before that didn’t make it into the After. Rather than try to keep everything, I focused on the things that would bring an emotional response from my POV character. The covered bridge, for instance, signifies Reagan returning to her hometown. And you get the sense she’s not thrilled to be there—that look in the rearview should show us that. The store brings back happy memories of her father, but the park across from the courthouse—what’s that about?

And what didn’t I mention? The singing birds, the waving flag, and the happy people. Those elements might be there, but we want the feelings in the scene to mirror hers, and she’s feeling unsettled, not cheerful.

I left out the high school, because later in the story this character is going to visit it, and I can describe it then. And I left out the apple orchards, because it added nothing emotionally.

From the first segment, you got a nice view of an old New Hampshire town, but from the second, I hope you got a peek into a compelling story. Imbue your descriptions with emotion, and they will be as compelling as the rest of your story.

Your turn:

Do you have trouble adding emotion to your descriptions? What tricks do you use to connect the reader to your setting?


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  1. Your post on emotion was very timely. I just finished a 1,900-word article on plot and storyline. The article focuses mostly on the importance of emotion in a story. I intended to read it at our next writers group meet, but I may read yours instead. Following is an out-of-context excerpt of my opinion on the subject:
    “…The plot is your protagonist’s physical journey, e.g. what happens to and around your character to make he or she do what they are doing. It is the foundation of any story, it’s the physical engine that keeps the story moving, if you will. The purpose of a great plot is to immediately bring the reader’s senses into contact with the story world, be it on Earth or some far off planet. It is the one element that the story can’t do without…
    “The storyline is your protagonist’s emotional journey, or how they change inside. It drives the characters emotionally, and it’s what make them grow and seem more appealing to the reader. Where plot is engine that keeps the story moving, the storyline is the fuel that feeds that engine…”
    Thank you for all you do for writers.

    1. What an excellent way to put it. I love that.

      I find the most difficult part of writing is getting emotion into the manuscript–not just telling it or showing it, but evoking it. I don’t want my reader just to know how my protagonist feels, I want her to feel it, too. I haven’t quite arrived there yet with my stories, but it seems a journey worth taking.

  2. Great post. I have to constantly remind myself to add emotions, hopefully it is starting to come a little more natural. Fantastic example.

  3. What a great post. I am so guilty of this but could never understand what I was doing wrong. Great to know now!

  4. You wrote “since I was a kid” and the almost identical “even when I was a kid” within a few sentences of each other. Not great advice.

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