Friday, June 02, 2017

Three Things to Consider When Writing Descriptions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's funny how writing is all about describing what characters do, say, and think, yet description is something that can really hurt a story if handled poorly. Too much bogs down the story and kills any sense of momentum, while too little makes it hard to understand what’s going on or where the characters even are. But the right balance pulls readers into the story world and makes them feel as if they’re experiencing everything the protagonist does.

It also doesn’t help that different genres have different ideas of what “too much description” is. Writers of historical fiction or epic fantasy often use more to create the rich settings of their novels, while romance writers might focus more on the emotions, and thriller writers more on the action. There is no perfect amount of description—it varies from book to book, even within the same genre.

Here are three things to consider when writing description.

1. Who's doing the looking

Point of view (POV) is your best tool for figuring out how to write or even edit your descriptions. Think about who your POV character is in the scene—what’s her emotional state at that moment? Her personality? What are her goals? All of these play a role in what that character focuses on in a scene, which determines what you describe.

For example, someone waxing philosophical after a profound experience will probably see a garden courtyard a lot differently than someone running through it with zombies on their tail. One would notice the beauty, the poetry, the fragility of life, while the other would notice the potential weapons, exits, and ambush spots. People typically notice what matters to them at that time, and ignore most everything else.

Is your POV character describing details the same no matter what she’s feeling or doing, or is she seeing what matters to her at that point in time?

(Here’s more on using the right words to describe your setting)

2. What they're looking at

What gets noticed says just as much about the person noticing it as what they see. Someone who pauses in every doorway and scopes out the exits conveys a very different vibe than someone who races into a room and looks for the most attractive person there. The motives of those two people suggest different goals and backgrounds. Think about what your POV character would notice—what’s important to her in that scene? What is she looking for? What is she looking out for? What does she need to see?

For example, if every scene begins with the POV character giving the same general description—what the setting looks like, the weather, who is in the room, what they’re wearing, etc.—then odds are the descriptions only show what’s there from a distant, “just the facts” type perspective. Any character could give the exact same description because it’s not what that character sees, it’s what the author knows is there. That flat description is missing an opportunity to show character.

Is your POV character noticing the same general details all the time, or does she see what she feels is important to her in that scene?

(Here’s more on writing description that helps your story)

3. Why they're looking at it

People don't usually notice everything around them. The details that stand out are things that catch their eye for whatever reason. A child searching his parents’ bedroom for Christmas presents will read differently from a member of the bomb squad searching that same bedroom for explosives. Many times a character is looking for something specific, which makes it easier to know what details to describe.

For example, if the POV character is looking for a hidden trap, a burglar, or a secret door, she'd explore the setting differently than someone looking for a place to put a painting, or someone looking at what might be her first home. Those goals would put the focus on different details and you wouldn’t describe the scene in the same way. Even the emotional tone would change—a room half in shadow might be dark to someone who’s nervous, too dim for someone with a painting, or perfect for gamer who doesn’t want a lot of glare on her monitor.

Does your POV character have a reason to look around, or are they doing it just so you can tell readers what they see? 

(Here’s more on writing emotional descriptions)

Even when your characters are spotting the right details for the right reasons, you can still run into descriptive snags. One of the tougher aspects of description is slipping in a detail you need for the story, but it's something your POV character would never notice on her own (this is often connected to an important clue or bit of foreshadowing). Pointing out the detail would draw too much attention to it and possibly even telegraph what’s to come, but skipping it won’t provide the necessary foreshadowing.

The trick is to add a detail in a way that feels natural to the scene without drawing too much attention to it. Slip it into a casual glance, or make it part of something else the character is already noticing. Maybe even hide it in the middle of several other details. For example, I spotted a lovely detail in Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire where a simple glance at a watch meant a lot to me as the reader, but the POV character wasn't at the point yet to catch the significance.

(Here’s more on telegraphing your plot)

Descriptions are a lot easier to write when you consider who is noticing what and why. That provides reasons for every detail you add, and those reasons help flesh out your world, characters, and story.

How do you feel about descriptions? Love them? Hate them? A little of both?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I adore description because I'm a bit of an information junkie, but maybe I just like them because they're well written. I think sometimes authors get a little carried away with the description and in creating a setting or a person to the point that it becomes irrelevant: all that stuff the author should know, but the reader needn't.

    If lots of description is sort of necessary though, breaking it up with speech can make it flow better and break it up.

  2. I love description because I want to see and feel the setting. This is one thing I can say I do well (and believe me, I fall short on other facets), and probably do too well at times because I'm very visual. That sounds like bragging, but you know what I mean. I've got passages of description I love but have to cut because they're too much. But I think description is key to a successful book, and not just with the setting, but characters as well.

  3. I also LOVE description. It pulls me into a book and sets the mood for me. When I write I try and use description as a mirror to my characters feelings. I find in real life that what I notice is directly based on what my emotional state is.

  4. The whole 'show don't tell' is tricky. And I love details and description. So it's a hard balance. Finding reasons for the characters to look around is key, like you said.

  5. Description colors the world that our characters, dialogue and plot fit into. For me, it's both beautiful and essential.

    I really admire authors who utilize all the senses in their descriptions. The good ones make it seem effortless, without becoming a distraction or slowing the story's pace.

  6. I am a description freak… I hope it makes my stories instead of detract from them.
    Great point BTW…

  7. I usually keep your post because they help me so much. I like being descriptive, but I used to think I didn't do it enough. I usually describe what is important for the story, will come up later, or it details the feelings of the individual as it depicts his POV.

    By the way Janice, I did a remake of my query per your suggestions. Check it out and tell me what you think.

  8. I never liked writing about description because i would just write it how I would picture it, not how my characters would, so the description feels like its just been thrown in. Again some amazing tips thank you!

  9. Alex: I'm in the minority, but I've never been a fan of heavy description. Which is so crazy since I write fantasy, which is usually heavy on it. But that does make me really appreciate it when it's done well and doesn't intrude.

    Stacy: You description junkies you, hehe :) That's great that you're strong at it. I have a crit partner who's always adding "need description here" all over my WIPs. Thanks goodness!

    Angie: I'm totally with you there. I do that too, and try to make my details mean more than just what something looks like. Those are the types I like as well.

    Barbara: Show don't tell is one of of the toughest things to get. But when you do, the rest does get easier.

    Nicole: I agree with the senses. On my description pass during revisions, I make an effort to add non-vision details to help flesh out the world.

    Jeff: I'm so in the minority here, LOL. But that's good, because now I know that when I feel I've done too much, other probably won't feel that way.

    Orlando: POV is my go-to device for description. I've found as long as I stay tight, I get in what I need. I'll go take a peek at the new query :)

    Mahesh: I think that's why I never cared for it. I did the same thing when I was first starting out, and I always felt like I HAD to do it. I wonder if I'll start to like it now that I know I can do whatever I want?

  10. I don't need to be shown every blade of grass to see the beauty of the garden. Show a little that tells a lot. Good post and comments; inspires thoughts of line-of-sight transfer to POV.

  11. Tressa: "Show a little that tells a lot." I might just put that as a post it on my monitor. What a great line!

  12. Great post, especially that part about why they're looking at it.

    I have a love-hate relationship with descriptions. I often feel that the 'show, don't tell' advice is taken too far, and I find it jarring to read about every little crumb on a table while the character is meeting someone for coffee, unless those crumbs are going to advance the story, or the fact that the character is noticing them at all tells us something about his/her state of mind.

    On the other hand, description is such a powerful tool when used well. In fact, that was one of the things I enjoyed about The Shifter - all the description was so deftly done that I could feel the setting come alive without a pause in the story.

  13. Swati, thanks so much! That means a lot to me. Descriptions are often the last thing I do since I dislike heavy descriptions, too. Who cares about the crumbs? LOL The why is more interesting than the what :)

  14. Just to let you know these posts don't get used or read once and then forgotten. I am reading through all your posts on description and find all of them very helpful. Thank you.

    1. Aw thanks! Means a lot to me to hear that.

  15. Janice---This is an excellent article. Thanks. I think the reader's desire for and tolerance of description depends on the type of book, the genre, etc. In thrillers it's often more minimalist while in more mainstream--whatever that is now days--fiction it is more robust. I often have my students do a little project---visit 10 places you've never been before--write down the first 3 things that strike you--objects, sounds, odors are all fair game--then write down the next 4 or 5 things that jump out. Somewhere in this list will be the things you need to give a quick flavor of the place to the reader. Then trust the reader to fill in the blanks. Since I write thrillers, I find this works to get the feel of the place without stopping the story to give too much description. It's always tricky and in the end each writer has to do what feels best to them. The only rule is that their aren't any rules. Again, thanks for this excellent article.

    1. Absolutely, there's a wide range of "the right amount" of description. I love that project! Great way to look at POV as well.

  16. Very usefull, thanks very much