The Poetics of Topography: How to Describe Places


I’d like to start by saying that literary criticism has a tendency to be – in terms of vocabulary, at least – up its own backside. The first bit of critical analysis I had to read took me three goes and a dictionary to get through. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration:

The over-arching imperatives of socioecological critique can detract from fiction’s own aesthetic distinction, enlisting novelists tangentially in correspondence with activist affairs. ~ David James, Contemporary British fiction and the artistry of space

Anyway, let’s move on to the ‘poetics of topography’, or (in normal language) how to describe places. There’s the obvious: physical description. Next to the pub is a post office, next to the post office is a supermarket, and so on. But that’s pretty boring to read and doesn’t actually give the reader much of a clue about what each one really looks like. It’s certainly not a story.

There’s two main tricks to describing a place in a way that will make it real to the reader: history and emotion.


Think about how your characters interact with the place. When they look at the pub, they don’t just see a building with booze in it. They see Friday night with friends, the day they went in for a meal and got caught in hail on the way home, the time some drunken idiot spilled a full pint all down their leg. You can take it bigger – encompassing a town, for example – or smaller, down to a room. If it helps (which it did for me), don’t think of it as describing the place. Think of it as using the place to describe aspects of your character.

One thing to be aware of with this approach is bias. It’s very difficult to describe something entirely without bias. Even maps suffer from this – think of the relative size of Africa and the UK on British world maps, for example. When you’re describing a place, beware of your own bias as a writer. Try to keep your assumptions and history from bleeding in. More productively, you can use it to show the reader something about your character’s bias. It can even be a subtle plot hook – if the character’s history contains a bad experience of hospitals, for example, that can be hinted at early on by how they see a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

Guy Gavriel Kaye and Kate Griffen are both great examples of authors who use history to describe places.

That's a story of imperial attitude right there.

That’s a story of imperial attitude right there.


It’s not just about how a place looks, or even smells and sounds. It’s about atmosphere. What does a place feel like? The key to all stories is to hook a reader’s emotions, and that shouldn’t stop with characterisation and plot.

My tutor gave me two passages to read. One described the setting very well, with clear topography. The other barely gave any physical description but the way it felt to the characters was extremely powerful. After reading them both, it was the atmosphere that stayed with me most strongly. This approach is all about ‘show not tell’. You can’t just tell  reader somewhere is oppressive – you have to make them feel it by showing why it’s oppressive.

I found the challenge with this is to strike a balance between the physical and the emotional. The piece I wrote for the exercise focused so much on the emotional that the readers were confused as to the physical location. There needs to be an anchor of some kind that the reader can navigate by.

Mary Stewart and Erin Morgenstern would be my recommendations for good examples of emotional places.


The idea of describing a place by emotion changed my style a bit. I think it can be too much if used all the time, but very powerful if used at the right time. Anyway, this is what I came up with. It needs some more work – the aforementioned physical anchor’s still lacking – but I was quite pleased with it. Any feedback welcomed!


The letter, hand-written on Savoy Hotel notepaper, was brief.

  Your son’s alive. You need to come home.

Trojan had to read three times before it stopped being ink and became meaning. The page fell from strangely numb fingers and slip-slid through still air to the floorboards. He raised his head, seeking comfort from the sun lancing through the wall of skylights. The sun was real. The letter could not be.

  You need to come home.

Home meant London, grey air clogged with politics he couldn’t breathe through. It meant his father’s cold house, full of closed doors and memories that could still stab through the decade to his heart. It meant an end to this exile in a foreign land.

Mr. Bloch was singing on the balcony below, a fine old voice fond of opera. Trojan had left a punnet of tomatoes outside his door last autumn in return for the music. It was the closest he’d got to a friendship in ten years. He’d never been good at making friends; never been given the opportunity to learn how.

  Your son’s alive.

That could not be real. His son came cold into the world and went straight to soil, without Trojan even knowing until after. His father had sent word, one crack in the silence that stretched like an iceberg between them. Unless his father had lied.

  Trojan swallowed, rubbing roughly at his throat. “I am alright,” he told the narrow room, answering silent concern. “Do not worry.”

The tiers of green settled a little, reassured. These were his friends, his adopted children. The palms and the succulents, the ferns and the cacti, the orchids and the jasmine. They depended on him for water and love. They listened to Mr. Bloch’s singing with him, and told him their simple dreams as he watched the stars through curtainless windows. His garret was an Eden of figs and lemons offered up for praise, gifts of blooms unfurling in purple and gold. The wealth of a king, he told them often, and no exiled prince could ask for more.

  Your son’s alive.

His son. All he had left of Sophie,  with her smile like the coming of Spring and skin the lilies openly envied. Her ghost followed him from London and, though the quiet of this place kept her gentle, he could feel the hollowness of his narrow bed. She would have talked to Mr. Bloch, coaxed her favourite tunes from him and made him laugh. She had always been good at making people laugh. Even Trojan, who had never heard such a miracle before.

  Your son’s alive.

The Kentia Palm by the window unfurled a frond as the strains of Tosca’s Recondita armonia floated past. The palm was particularly fond of Tosca.

  Your son’s alive.

He nearly didn’t go.


2 responses »

  1. I really like this way of looking at how you describe. I hadn’t considered it, but it makes a lot of sense.

    The passage you wrote is very good – one of your best bits of writing that I’ve seen.

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