Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Enhancing Your Descriptions

By K.A. Stewart

JH: Today we have K.A. Stewart, author of the Jesse James Dawson series, giving up a few tips on ways to enhance your descriptions -- and your own senses. Her books include A Devil in the Details, and the on-sale today sequel, A Shot in the Dark. If you like urban fantasy (or were thinking about trying one) go check these out.

K.A. Stewart has a BA in English with an emphasis in Literature from William Jewell College. She lives in Missouri with her husband, daughter, one cat, and one small furry demon that thinks it's a cat.

Take it away K.A....

Anyone who writes is familiar with the concept of description. I mean, at the very heart of thing, that’s what a story is. It is the description of events, of places, of people.

Writers agonize over description. Is there too much? Not enough? Too florid? Too spare? Is it slowing the action down? Can readers truly picture the scene as I see it in my head?

I myself find that when I write my first drafts, I skimp on the description. Too often, the scene is so clear in my mind that I forget not everyone is there with me. If I don’t put the words down on paper, how can the reader see what I’m seeing? And not just seeing, but smelling, tasting, hearing?

It’s the other senses that I find I so often forget. I mean sure, I can describe what my hero is seeing. That’s the easy part. But so many other things go into setting a mood, creating a scene. The lonely cry of a gull can make turn a pleasant beach setting into something melancholy. The feel of humid air pressing down on you can take a lovely sunny day and make it oppressive and tense. And in my own series, the faint hint of sulfur on the air tells you that something nasty is coming, and the more out-of-place, the better.

So we’re gonna do a little exercise. Pick a time when you have ten or fifteen minutes. Half an hour if you’re feeling frisky. I want you to go out to your back yard. Don’t have a back yard? Try a park, or somewhere there are at least a few trees and some grass. Doesn’t have to be wilderness, and in fact it’s probably better if you’re surrounded by people and things.

Find a place that’s comfy and get settled. Then I want you to close your eyes. First, we’ll concentrate on what you can hear. That’s usually a human’s go-to sense once we take away sight.

Sitting on my own back deck, the first thing I hear is my own air conditioner, humming away under the deck. Next, the neighbor’s lawnmower about two houses over. Beyond that, I can hear the traffic on the highway, though it’s almost a mile away. Sometimes, I can hear the train whistles from the railroad tracks even further away than that. When the air is just right, they sound like they’re about to drive through my living room. It’s a haunting sound, especially at night.

Once the a/c kicks off and the neighbor finishes mowing, I hear other things. The squirrels playing tag in the sycamore tree in my back yard. The buzz of some insect I can’t see. The faint whine of a mosquito in my ear. Birdsong of birds I can’t even name. A couple of them are more insistent than the others. The abrupt caw of a crow, which silences all the others. Something is rustling in the brush pile at the edge of the yard. Another squirrel? Something else? Can’t tell.

After you identify everything you can hear, try concentrating on what you can feel. In my experience, trees and grass have a breath, a moisture and coolness they lend to the air no matter how hot and humid it is. Feel the grass all crinkly under your legs where you’re sitting, how it pokes and pinches. Notice which direction the wind is blowing from. Is it a cool breeze, or hot and dry? Maybe the air is still, and it feels like the world is holding its breath. Are you leaning against a tree? The bark is rough with jagged, diggy edges. Or maybe it’s smooth under your fingertips, feeling like a faintly rough painted wall. The sun shines through the branches above, creating a dappled effect, and there are a few spots on your arms that are warmer than the rest where the sun reaches you.

And finally, bring your attention to your nose. This one is tough. We operate on scent so much, but we very seldom concentrate on what those scents mean. None of us are gonna be tracking an escaped convict with just our noses, that’s for sure.

I can smell the fresh-cut grass, courtesy of my mowing neighbor. I think he must have hit a patch of wild onions, ‘cause I can smell that too. The trees and grass give everything a smell that is just associated with “green” in my head. Hazard of growing up in fifty acres of forest, I guess. Somebody’s grilling, ‘cause I get the whiff of the charcoal, and someone else is burning leaves and brush. The smoke smells distinctly different, depending on what’s burning. On wet days, I can get the scent of oil and exhaust from the highway, and the aroma of rich wet earth where they’ve been doing construction nearby. Did someone get a new pool this year? I smell chlorine.

Now, if you haven’t fallen asleep in a public park (and if you have, and they arrested you for vagrancy, I apologize), pick a scene of yours and really think about what things your hero might smell or hear.

Now don’t include everything. Most of those things aren’t important to the overall story. But think about what the sounds and scents mean. What things evoke the mood you’re trying to convey? What things might be a foreshadowing of something coming? What thing is so out of place that it only emphasizes the opposite reaction? (Think: Children laughing on a distant playground as the bad guy closes in)

If you’re going to describe the world, describe the whole world. We live in the whole thing, after all.

About A Shot in the Dark


Jesse James Dawson is a Champion, putting his life on the line for those foolish enough to bargain with demons and fighting to save their souls. But even a Champion needs some downtime, so Jesse takes his annual camping trip to Colorado for some male bonding over friendly games of paintball.

Unfortunately, the fun and war games are interrupted by a pack of creatures summoned up from the very depths of hell by an entity Jesse prayed he'd never see again. With the lives of his friends and a teenager's soul on the line, Jesse's only hope may lie with an even more dangerous enemy--his personal demon, Axel...

More from K.A. Stewart on Birth of a Character.


  1. Great method. I'm thinking that I should repeat this scene by scene, come next round of edits.


  2. Love this idea, K.A. Thanks! I do this often - in fact, I just got back from a hike in the Smoky Mountains where I tried to capture all those details for the setting of my current WIP.

    A Devil in the Details is in my bedroom at the top of my TBR pile - can't wait to dive in!

  3. I'm sparse on description in the first draft because I'm focused on getting the action, dialogue, and emotions set in place. But when I get to my second draft, I'll have to do the full senses treatment.

  4. This is a great idea!

    I normally picture the scene really well, and then try to pick out a few details that can enhance the scene. I also try to pick out things that might be unique to the setting. So if my fantasy world is a tundra, I focus on those details to really bring it out.

    Thanks for the guest post!

  5. great exercise and tips!

  6. Fantastic exercise! When I start to tackle rewrites, I'm definitely going to have to work on sensory details.

  7. Excellent advice and exercise KA. The devil is in the details. :-)

  8. Great advice. I liked the article very much.

    I would like to add the sense of touch.
    How does the bench feel like? :D That's not important. But, how does a breeze feel on our skin? Or we touch a tree or a flower? Or the wind blows our hair?

    Thank you K.A. Stewart for the interesting article and thanks Janice for hosting :)

  9. Incredible article! I think about this every time I'm sitting on my patio, the bird calls, the rustle of our resident chipmunk Bob, the buzz of an insect in my ear, the smell of the ferns that I swear are prehistoric by the way they grow. Every tiny detail can have massive results in our writing. Thanks for an excellent post K.A.

  10. Thanks K.A. for stopping by :)