1. Use setting details to set the mood.
Sometimes it helps to decide the general mood of the scene (like fear, sadness, joy, etc.) before writing it. Then we can pick a few setting details that will help highlight that particular feeling. For example, recently I was planning a scary scene in my current work-in-progress (WIP). I brainstormed a list of various setting details that would enhance the scare-factor: the scurry of a rat, the clatter of branches, the stench of vomit, etc. Then as I wrote the scene I referred back to my list and tried to weave in some of those details.
2. Make sure to “see” the setting through the eyes of the POV character.
We HAVE to know our characters inside and out in order to play their role authentically (see these posts for ideas on fleshing out characters: How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters & Creating Characters That Make Readers Cry ). Once we’re in the point-of-view (POV) of a character for a particular scene, then we can only describe things that particular character would notice. My hero won’t care about the style and texture of my heroine’s dress, but he would notice the specific type of rifle the antagonist is holding.
3. Attempt to use all five senses throughout each scene.
We have an easier time adding in visual descriptions. But we can’t forget to bring our scenes alive through the use of textures, sounds, smells, and tastes. Maybe we can’t get ALL five senses onto every page. But as I write each scene, I make a conscious effort to find places to include as many as possible. Thick, grainy coffee, the sizzle of frying pork, tangy tobacco smoke, the chill of floor boards against bare feet—all of these sensory details woven in a scene help the reader to sit in the room right next to our character.
4. Hone in on setting elements that are critical to the plot.
If possible, try to describe things that will somehow play a role in the plot. For example, in a recent scene I described a plate of slightly burnt molasses cookies on the dining room table. In the next chapter, the heroine uses the cookies in a daring plot move. When we’re judicious with what we describe, it helps build suspense. Unconsciously readers will begin to expect that the elements we describe may come into play later.
5. Sprinkle in similes and metaphors.
I love similes and metaphors. They can be a beautiful writing technique when done sparingly and appropriately. We can weave in setting details through a well-placed simile. For example, in a recent scene I say this: “Her pulse pattered with the same staccato as the icy-snow mixture that pelted the window.” (Through the simile, I’m cluing the reader into the weather—which is an important factor in the next scene.)
As a guy who loves writing and reading description, I can confirm 100%.