Establish Vivid Settings Without Slowing Your Plot

By Emily Golus

As a fantasy writer, I spend a lot of energy creating a sense of place. After all, people read speculative fiction to escape to exotic new worlds.

But vibrant settings are important for any genre. Your reader is far more invested in your story when she can feel white sand between her toes or hear the slosh of carriage wheels in the rain-soaked streets. 

Your physical and cultural setting has to feel real to the reader—but you want to do this without channeling Charles Dickens and writing two solid pages of description. (Sorry, Charlie—that technique just doesn’t fly with today’s reader.)

Below are three ways to make your settings come alive without interrupting the story.

Show everyday objects

You don’t have to write a full description of the room your protagonist is in. Instead, hint at the larger physical context with the objects the character actually interacts with. For example:

Sunlight filtered through the yellowing lace surrounding Anna’s bed. She pushed back her hand-stitched quilt and reached for her whalebone comb.

Eve bolts awake at the sound of a blaring alarm, hitting her head on the rusty metal ceiling of her tiny bunk. She grabs her harpoon blaster and races the other cadets through the narrow steel corridor.   

A handful of specific details can reveal much about time period and genre—no blocks of description needed.

Describe food

What your character eats immediately clues the reader in to his culture, time period, and social class. Imagine where you would be sitting if you ate the following breakfasts:

  • Tea with buttered toast and perhaps a scone
  • Rice poha with curry and a cup of chai
  • A technicolor bowl of Fruity Pebbles
  • Fresh Neeble milk that glows a faint blue

Caution: If you’re writing about a historical period, don’t just guess about food. Many of the things we take for granted—such as coffee, sugar, rice, potatoes, and chocolate—haven’t always been universally available, and you don’t want to make a distracting error.

Illustrate social conflicts

Don’t tell us that your character lives in a world of injustice or a peaceful utopia—make us experience it.

Write a scene early on in the story in which Toby slinks around the market, recalling the stinging slap he received for looking a shop owner in the eye. Show a Roman solider grabbing Miryam’s aging father and forcing him to carry a burden all the way to the Fish Gate.

A scene like this can also do double duty, setting up future conflicts or revealing your character’s feelings about his world.

Of course, in order to make your setting feel authentic, you have to understand it backward and forward—and that requires research (yes, even for science fiction and fantasy). The more real your story’s world is to you, the more vivid you can make it for your readers.

Happy world-building, writing friends!

(Photos courtesy of ShanLiFang on Unsplash.)


Emily Golus has been dreaming up fantasy worlds since before she could write her name. A New England transplant now living in the Deep South, she is fascinated by culture and the way it shapes how individuals see the world. She aims to create stories that engage, inspire, and reassure readers that the small choices of everyday life matter. Her first novel, Escape to Vindor, debuted in 2017 and won the Selah Award for young adult fiction. Its sequel, Mists of Paracosmia, released in April 2019. Emily lives in Upstate South Carolina with her woodworking husband, an awkward cat, and the world's most talkative baby.
Keep up with Vindor news at and, or find her on Instagram as WorldOfVindor. 


  1. Great article Emily! You drew me in instantly with your little vignettes.

  2. Thank you! One thing my writing teachers over the years have taught me is use specifics whenever possible (i.e. "rusty red Jeep" instead of "vehicle" or "Cornish game hen" instead of "chicken"). That simple tip can help fit a lot of memorable detail into a short space :)


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