This post builds on something I brought up in the last post, about your character and how he/she sees the setting.
Who is your protagonist? Is your character a stranger in a strange land, who will discover the setting along with the reader? Or is she already an inhabitant of that world? Your character’s viewpoint and her connection with her surroundings will affect how you portray your setting.
Example: a cluttered basement. If your character lives in the house, she might view it as a treasure cave filled with exciting possibilities of discovery. In a large outbuilding on the property where I grew up, the attic crawlspace above a built-in apartment was crammed with items that had belonged to my grandparents. I would climb on top of the old upright freezer, hoist myself up there and crawl around the ductwork for hours exploring piles of old receipts, ledgers, etc. I dream about that attic space sometimes.
The basement in your story, like my attic, will be a well-loved and familiar place. If your character is a hostage held against her will in that same basement, it will become a frightening prison cell with unimaginable terrors lurking in dim corners, where strange noises of scuttling and squeaking emanate from that pile of dusty boxes. Who knows what could be in there, or when she will escape?
This also will show in your narrative voice, in the point of view you choose for the scene. When you write the setting, try to incorporate it into the character’s experiences instead of merely describing it.
Example: Sarah lives in London. Her cousin Harriet does not. When Harriet visits Sarah, they both see the same objects, infrastructure, and landscape, but they interpret it differently. When you write from Sarah’s POV, she will use different words to describe things with which she is familiar. She won’t notice details of things she sees every day; Harriet will.
Sarah takes the bus to the tube station and then gets on the train to go to work. She does this every day. She might not even notice, or only see peripherally, the color and pattern of the seat upholstery on the Victoria Line. It won’t register to her because it’s not only familiar, it’s unimportant.
Harriet has never ridden the tube before. Everything jumps out at her thus:
The swirl of people disoriented her. She tried to hear the announcement, but the thud of many feet obscured the words and she only caught a few. “Your attention…now approaching the platform…mind the closing…belongings…exit the train.” Sarah steered her firmly toward the opening in the side of a nearby carriage.
Harriet clung to her bag. “Mind the gap between the train and the platform,” she heard the recorded voice say. She glanced at her feet; the black maw seemed huge, ready to swallow her if she misstepped. She stretched her leg over the painted line and the yellow words that echoed the announcement (no doubt meant for silly tourists like her) and boarded the carriage.
The doors whooshed shut behind her and the train started with a jerk. Harriet clutched at the blue pole. When her hand had it firmly, she glanced at Sarah. Her cousin stood serenely beside her, eyes on her phone, her fingers lightly resting on the pole.
“Crikey,” Harriet said, her voice shaking a bit. “You do this every day?”
When you find a place in your narrative where you’ve lapsed into description, try doing this instead.
Prop masters and set dressers know that the objects in a room tell an audience a lot about the person who lives there. The way actors interact with these objects says the same. Things they touch and use often are favorites. What are they? What do they represent? Can you use these objects to advance the plot?
Incorporate items in your setting that have value to your character, or will have. Let your character bring your setting to life.