My brain decided to flip-flop Monday and Tuesday this week, so… this is late. Because yesterday didn’t feel like Tuesday (and apparently I didn’t consult my calendar yesterday). But here we are with a new writing post.
Authors tend to fall into approximately four camps when it comes to description in early drafts. 1) Too little description; everything is dialogue or action. 2) Too much description; we’re overwhelmed by the detail of every blade of grass. 3) There’s the right amount of description… but it just sits there and looks pretty. 4) The magical people who can actually write fantastic description on pretty much the first try (believe it or not, I know people who fall into this category). I usually fall somewhere between too little description and flat description… which is really frustrating since I know the principles for description and when I’m editing description is one of my strong points. But what are those principles?
1. Make Your Description do Double Duty
Description ought to do more than simply describe the setting around your character (although that’s an important thing). Description can be a great way to show a character’s mood, or to show a little quirk of theirs, or to otherwise hint at something else or impact the scene you’re writing. For instance, a tea kettle could be a handy scene prop, but you don’t want to just say that there was a kettle on the stove. Maybe show it whistling, and show how your character’s mood impacts their reaction to the whistling. Is your character already agitated, and the whistling sets their teeth on edge? Or does tea remind them of long talks with their grandmother, so it makes them smile?
You can also help set a scene’s mood with the broader points of a setting. For instance, does a bright sunny day match or contrast with your character’s current mood? How does that impact the overall tone of the scene? Is there conflict between the character and the setting? Or does it emphasize their existing mood?
2. Describe What’s Relevant
You’ll generally want to make sure that the reader gets a clear picture of the setting where your scene takes place, but that doesn’t always mean such thorough description as we think. You’ll want to consider what’s really crucial to the reader’s understanding of this place and what can be filled in by the reader’s imagination. Is the paint color a key part of the room (it might be), or can you mostly focus on the desk or the bed or the table? In an outdoor setting, the characters could be surrounded by a forest, but the kind of trees the MC is surrounded by might be less important than the mud they’re squelching through.
3. Pay Attention to POV
What is or isn’t relevant should be informed, at least in part, by POV. What would the POV character notice? Maybe the wall color is important in one scene, because it’s bright yellow and it surprises the character, or it’s their happy place. (Or maybe they hate yellow and think it’s ugly, but they put on a brave face for the friend who owns the room.) Or maybe the character doesn’t notice the walls at all, but they notice the stuffed panda on the bed because pandas are their favorite. Or the typewriter on the desk, because they love the vintage look it gives the room.
4. Use Strong Imagery
It helps a lot–not only in description, but throughout writing–to use active verbs and evocative imagery. So instead of saying “The walls were yellow, the curtains were white, and there was a vintage typewriter on the desk,” you might write something along the lines of:
“Stepping into the room was like stepping into bright sunlight. White curtains rippled in a light breeze, nearly brushing across the vintage typewriter on the desk, and my eyes lit up. I rushed over to finger the keys, already imagining their clicking in my head.”
This description could maybe still use some work, but it’s already way better than just telling the reader what everything looked like. The “telling” version is too still and too blank. There’s no character involved, and no movement. So try to incorporate some movement and your POV character’s personality (per the previous point) into your descriptions as much as you can.
5. Setting Should be Interactive
Setting should be more than just a backdrop. While setting the scene for your characters, think about how they might interact with their environment. I touched on this a little bit in the first point with the weather, how there might be conflict as the character is frustrated with good weather during their good mood, or it might elevate their already great mood. Or the character in the bedroom with the typewriter, when she rushed over to finger the keys. Or, let’s go back to the tea kettle from the first point. If the character appreciates the teapot’s whistling, she might give it a minute and then go to serve tea. If the character is already irritated and the whistling is too shrill, they might march over and slam the kettle onto a cold burner to stop the noise.
Interactive settings not only reveal your setting organically, but also help to reveal character, expose backstory, etc., which… pretty much brings us full circle. ;)
Which description camp do you tend to fall into? Which of these tips was most helpful? Do any books stand out to you for their excellent description?