When you think about it, everything in a book is description, because the author is describing an entire story to the reader. But when it gets down to the actual details of what’s in that story, it’s not uncommon for things to bog down into the minutia of what something looks like. Looks aren’t nearly as important as the reasons behind why that item is in the story in the first place.
The bulk of a novel's descriptions are likely to be in the setting. Describing the world, the locations the characters visit and move through, the things they touch and use. But if we just throw them in there, they can become as flat and lifeless as backdrops on a stage. Description does nothing to move a story forward on its own. It’s how it interacts with the characters that makes or breaks it. What we want, are details that breathe life into both the characters, and the setting.
Making Details Come Alive
Let’s take a few random details in a scene. Rain, a clock, a restaurant, a window, pancakes, and an envelope. You might have a passage like:
The rain poured down the window of the restaurant. Bob sat at the table, a stack of pancakes beside him. He stared at an envelope in his hands, while above him on the wall, a clocked ticked.It’s not bad, but it has no life to it. The details do nothing to tell us more than what this scene looks like. Is Bob happy? Sad? Do you care what might be in that envelope? Probably not.
Now, let’s turn those same backdrop details into living details by thinking about:
1. Who’s doing the looking?
A Navy SEAL will look at things a lot differently than a scared girl. Take the knowledge and attitude of your protagonist into account when you decide what they see. Think about how they would describe something, not how you would.
SEAL: The rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him. He gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him. New orders. Great.Same details, but notice how different these are from the backdrop one? There’s a sense of who the protagonist is, what problem they might be facing.
Girl: Rain covered the window, masking the tiny restaurant with its blurriness. Bobbi slouched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her. The envelope lay in her lap. She didn’t want to touch it, let alone open it. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Running out of time.
(Here's more on POV and description)
2. Why are they looking at it?
Sometimes you scan a room, sometimes you’re looking for something in particular, and sometimes you’re watching to escape with your life. Your reasons for looking impact what you see and how you feel about it. If your protagonist has no feelings at all about something, why is it in the scene? While not every detail has to matter at this level, using details to bring out an emotion or thought from your protagonist helps make the setting more memorable. It won’t just be details.
It was still raining. Why did it always rain when these things happened? Bob sat at the table, a stack of “have to order or get out” pancakes beside him. The envelope lay next to it with just as much obligation on the single neatly folded letter inside. He glanced out the window and sighed. Stuck in a stinking roadside restaurant today of all days. Figured.Can you tell Bob has to do something he doesn’t want to do? Does his pessimism and frustration come through? And all because of why he saw what was there and how he felt about it.
(Here's more on describing character emotions)
3. What is important to them?
People notice what’s important to them. What’s important to your protagonist? Both in general and in the scene. A girl obsessed with fashion might indeed notice what everyone is wearing, while a tired mom might not. Spending time on details that mean nothing to your protagonist (or seem weird for your protagonist to care about) risk pulling the reader out of the story.
Rain pattered against the restaurant window like tiny running feet. Bob sat at the table, smiling a dumb happy grin, the stack of pancakes beside him. He looked at the envelope again. How could one letter make everything so much better? The clock ticked and he hummed along with it. “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.”Any guesses as to what might be in that letter? The envelope and what’s in it are what matter to Bob, and the rest of the details are just there. But here, they don’t feel just there. Bob barely looking at them shows his preoccupation with the letter, and adds to hints as to what it said and his state of mind.
(Here's more on painting a scene vs. dramatizing it)
4. What is important to the scene or story?
Sometimes you need to put in a detail for plot reasons. Just tossing it in there might not be the best use of it though. Too obvious a description or too much focus is like shining a light on it for the reader. It practically screams “hey pay attention here.” Maybe you want this, maybe you don’t, or maybe you want the clue to hide in plain sight for a surprise later. If something needs to be there and be seen, take a minute to think about how your protagonist might see it and how it can work with the scene, not just be in the scene.
Bob slid into his usual booth by the window, watching the rain.A longer passage, but it’s obvious the envelope is going to be important. So is that postmark. Could it have something to do with Bob’s court date? And does Sally know what it all means? The details help move the story and create interest in what’s going on.
“What’s it gonna be today?” Sally asked.
“I think I’ll have the pancakes.”
“You got it, doll.” She tucked her pen behind her ear and turned. A pale blue envelope fluttered out of her order pad and floated to the floor.
“Hey, you dropped something.” Bob bent over and picked it up. Postmarked Columbia.
“What? Oh, that’s not mine.” Sally snatched the letter before he caught who it was addressed to. “But I’ll toss it into the lost and found for you.”
“Uh, okay.” He glanced at the clock. “Put a rush on those pancakes, would you? I’ve got court at one.”
(Here's more on describing what readers won't assume)
5. What tone/theme/mood are you trying to achieve?
If you’re going for dark and creepy, describing bright and sunny is going to fight with your story, not help move it along. Small details can really add to the emotion of a scene. They give you opportunities for similes and metaphors that flow seamlessly, because the detail evokes a feeling in your protagonist. They can help illustrate your theme in subtle (or not so subtle) ways. They can foreshadow and even raise the tension by evoking something foreboding or mysterious.
Bob learned against the wall, watching the rain wash away what was left of his life. A photographer walked over his body in the restaurant’s doorway, shutter snapping the broken clock, the pancakes he’d never finish, the shattered window. The police paid more attention to the envelope clutched in his cold hand. Idiots.I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake this for a comedy or a romance novel. The details are still the same, but they’ve adapted to suit the tone and gritty, sad feel of a guy seeing his own dead body.
(Here's more on creating tone and mood)
Details mean different things to different people. How you show those details to the reader helps the reader better understand not only what’s in the scene, but who’s in it as well. The right detail can instantly pique a reader’s interest and make them want to know more.
Don’t just create backdrops. Make your descriptions count.
How much time do you spend on description?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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