5 Ways to Capture Brilliant Ideas for Your Novel

Are You Utilizing Ugly Settings?

In lieu of the usual video post (as I continue my week off), I thought I’d share a reader’s response to the post “The Importance of a Fabulous Setting” from a couple weeks ago. David Taylor emailed me the following, and his thoughts were too good not to pass along:

I watched your video and wondered if you have ever considered how wonderful ugly settings can be? In the novel Storm Warnings, a group of German sailors as well as civilians set out a on a voyage aboard a sailing barque, going home during WW2. In the book, there is a scene where a novice nun who is the love of a German sailor is trapped aboard a sinking vessel during a winter storm. He cannot free her but chooses to not escape himself, instead holding her hand till overcome by the sea. In the horror of the surroundings, beauty won out because those last seconds for that sailor were enough to exchange for a lifetime then maybe he exchanged survival for a lifetime.

The book All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind. There, in the awful scene of hellish trench warfare, a slight thing of nature becomes something of a magnificent beauty as it is illuminated by the squalor of waste and destruction. The man [the main character] wants so much to be a part of it, he forgets his place, and his soul soars upwards. But like Icarus, he is cast down, his body broken, wasted, a part of the carnage he sought to escape.

Using your distinction between writers and authors, would not an author accept a greater challenge? Even crave the challenge to take the ugly or unattractive, making it somehow beautiful or magnificent? Many tread the path of the mundane, but the exceptional blaze a different trail.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever chosen to use an “ugly” setting to intensify a scene? Tell me in the comment!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Absolutely. I LOVE doing this. In college, I wrote a short story set in a Roman slum. The setting was a big hit. I described the piles of rotting fish tumbling out of overfilled dumpsters after fish market days, the sidewalks frosted with trampled dog feces, gang graffitti climbing up concrete walls and metal shutters like weeds, and travertine carvings and statues pocked with black pits from diesel pollution and acid rain.

    Strangely enough, I was worried that people would be turned off by the grossness and filth of my descriptions, but all my readers called them “beautiful.”

    When I read others’ works, I also find myself especially touched by vivid descriptions of the unexpected.

  2. This is a great example of the juxtaposition I discussed in another recent post. We heighten all elements involved when we combine them in unexpected ways.

  3. I agree. I LOVE doing this as well. It’s much easier to believe in. Not everything is beautiful in life, so it shouldn’t be in fiction.

  4. Getting down in the dirt and rust and grime of gritty settings can definitely enhance the realism of our scenes – and doing so often makes the important bits of beauty stand out that much more.

  5. Oh yes, I’ve utilized ugly settings. I’ve done two scenes in which I described the awfulness of a person’s home. Trash, dust, cockroaches, moldy food…

  6. The nasty settings are often the most fun to write. Describing a strange old man’s rundown home in my upcoming fantasy Dreamers was a complete blast.

  7. I love describing ugly settings. They’re often easier to write, and much more fun!

    K.M., I named you as a Versatile Blogger today!

  8. Not surprisingly perhaps, imperfection is generally more accessible to human beings. Thanks so much for the award!

  9. Ooo, I like this post. Ugly settings really CAN be beautiful! At least beautifully and appropriately written, anyway. I’ve used them, yup.

    Nice to meetcha; I trailed you “home” from Mari’s blog award post. Happy T-day!

  10. Nice to meet you too! I think authors sometimes fear that if they don’t present comfortable and beautiful characters, settings, and situations, readers won’t be able to empathize with the story. But, really, the truth is just the opposite. People resonate with imperfection, because we’re all imperfect beings.

  11. You’re so right – ugly settings can be used to such interesting effect. I had huge fun sending a character to a hick-town where she had to teach singing and everyone was out of tune and the whole place was shabby and greasy. I also had a great time when a character had to search a dustbin in a slum in Chennai.
    But as you say, there’s more you can do than just comedy. My frustrated character was worried her whole life was going to be tawdry because of something else that had happened, and her reaction to her horrid town was to some extent an over-reaction.
    And my kis who had to search through a bin was discovering the immense poverty in a place like that, as well as getting squelchy.

  12. Ugly settings are sometimes easier to make do “double duty” than beautiful settings. They really fulfill the credo of getting our hands dirty!

  13. Now I know why its so hard to describe beautiful settings.

  14. I think the difficulty is two-fold. On the one hand, beauty is much harder to evoke than squalor. On the other, beautiful settings tend to come across as cliched more often than ugly settings do.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.