Essential Tools: Building Your Sensory Setting Bank Account

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens
July 21, 2016



Setting is the key to making the world of your story feel real and three dimensional. Setting can be as simple as a classroom, a school bus, or a backyard. It doesn’t need to take pages or even paragraphs of description (and in most stories, it simply can’t. Readers won’t put up with a lot of static setting description). In response to that, some writers simply don’t bother with setting at all.

For setting-averse writers, common scenes involve mysterious voices with no (or few) hints about where the people belonging to those voices might be located. Often the only thing you’ll see other than the voices themselves are the tag lines identifying the speaker. But creating “limbo” scenes of voices (no matter how thrilling the dialogue) strips us of much of the sensory richness that comes from setting.

Setting involves the sights, smells, and objects surrounding the characters. Setting will influence dialogue and action, because a conversation being held on a bench seat of a school bus is not going to be the same as a conversation being held while sprawled on the grass of the playground. The bus is noisy and it smells like sweat and maybe a little bit like dirty feet or just plain dirt. It rumbles and wheezes. And it is filled with other voices having their own conversations. Kids are moving up the aisle (or down the aisle) as the driver stops to pick up people or let them off. The sights out the window change. The physicality of trying to hang onto a backpack on the lumpy bus seat while bumping along will have an impact on the conversation. And all of those things come together to make a scene that is more real, more vibrant, and more exciting than one that takes place in limbo.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!

One way to begin building a really good bank of sensory information that can be used again and again in stories is to simply go to places you might write about in your story and record sensory details while there. What is the park like in the winter when the sky is grey and the paths are muddy and slick? What is the same park like in a spring rain? A hot summer day? You can have the exact same place and find there are completely different sensory options depending on weather or season. And that can be true even when the setting is indoors. The grocery store is a different place on a snowy day when the shoppers track in slush and the shopping carts are damp than it is in summer.

Try going someplace you’ve been before (though not lately) and sitting down to make a sensory map. A bus or train station. A tiny grocery. A busy park. A hospital waiting room. When you’re not there to accomplish your own tasks, you can better make note of the scents, sights, sounds, and textures of the place. How are the seats different in a bus station from a doctor’s office. Why might they be different? How does a tiny grocery differ in its smell from a megamart? What sounds do you hear on a walk in the woods? How about on a walk through a really big library or a museum? The more you record interesting sights, scents, images and textures of the world around you, the more you’ll have them at the ready when you need them for writing. And your writing will benefit in ways you’ve only begun to consider.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!


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Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Take the free aptitude test here.

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