How will you reveal your setting to the reader? You don’t have to give them everything, only the important things. Most people don’t pay attention to trappings that don’t affect them directly. And if you don’t show them everything, they’ll fill in the rest.
If you want to adopt a sort of omniscient view, you can describe the setting in general terms and then zoom in, as in a film. Or, and this is more fun, you can show your setting in the character’s point of view and reactions rather than tell the reader about it. Let the reader infer. Here’s an example–the opening to a story. See if you can guess where the person is:
Helen turned away from the clock and reclaimed her seat on the bench. The checkered tile floor at her feet wavered and blurred like bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, seen through a lens of tears. The inside of her nose prickled at the sharp odor drifting upward from its shiny surface.
Sounds jangled around her in a jumbled cacophony: rubber squeaking on the tile, a metallic clatter, voices strained in hushed anxiety, the blaring crackle of a loudspeaker high on the dingy yellow wall, the faint warble of a siren, and somewhere far off, a scream. Her knobbly fingers slid restlessly over the smooth wooden beads of her rosary and she wondered when the news would come, if the next shriek would be hers.
Did you guess yet? You should be able to tell what Helen is doing and where she is though I never actually say, if I’m any kind of writer at all. (Shhh; let me maintain my delusion at least through the rest of this post!)
Helen’s reactions and the details of her surroundings will clue your reader in. Make certain that the details of your setting have a purpose.
Dingy yellow wall; anxious voices; a scream. This is not a pleasant place, nor is it one where Helen wants to be.
Objects in the room the characters will use
Helen’s rosary; a bench; the tile on which she may collapse if the news isn’t good.
Objects or furnishings that reveal character (what kind of person makes use of this space?)
A siren; a loudspeaker; the bench; a stinky but clean floor; rubber-soled shoes that squeak on it.
A more complete description at the outset indicates a setting we will return to later. When people pass through a place, especially when they’re in a hurry, they don’t notice details. Make sure if they do that there is a reason for that particular detail, and that your character’s traits and state of mind would allow him to see it.
For example, a terrified person trying to escape a monster in a forest might run right past a spring when he becomes hopelessly lost. A gunslinger, trained to observe and make use of his surroundings, would see the spring and note it even as he ran, though he would probably be pursuing the monster rather than fleeing it. He might return to it later to fill his waterskin before he continued on his quest.
Many writers tend to describe things by sight; it makes sense, since it’s the primary human sense, the one we use most. But the world has other elements and if you use them, you’ll make your setting much more vivid. Use the five senses to acquaint readers with your world.
We have a sixth sense—our intuition—that gives us the ability to make instantaneous judgments from an amalgam of sensory input. Have you ever, while driving, knew without knowing how you knew that the person in front of you was going to turn? Or walked in on an argument, and though you heard nothing, the room had a sort of tension?
These cues provide valuable information that can help your reader enter your world. Use all of them. But do it sparingly. Your reader should form the picture inside his own head. One limitation of film is that the viewer can see everything, but in only one way–the way the director has decided it will look. In prose, you have endless possibilities, limited only by your reader’s imagination.