Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Description Tip: Make “Sense” of Your Characters

y Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

You have five great tools for writing better descriptions, so why not use them all?

I’ll be honest—description is my least favorite thing to write. I always have to do a revision pass specifically to add more description, and I have critique partners who regularly whack me with the description stick when I slack off. 
So I created little games to make it more fun for me. One of them helps me focus and guides my brainstorming toward how my characters might see their world, and what ways they might describe their surroundings and experiences.

If you have a similar distaste of descriptions, or struggle with knowing what details to use, or you’re just looking for fun tips to help with description, try this:

1. Pick a sense. 

It's easy to go for the big ones, such as sight or hearing, but don't forget the lesser-used senses. Some of the most interesting details often come from unexpected sources. If you want to mix it up, use a random number generator and pick one the five: 
  • (1) Sight 
  • (2) Smell 
  • (3) Hearing 
  • (4) Touch 
  • (5) Taste
  • [If you use dice, try adding a “sixth” sense for intuition] 

2. Pick a scene in your novel. 

This might be a scene that you know is lacking on the description, or one you think is solid, but want to give it an extra oompf. Then ask: What’s the dominant emotion in that scene? 

This is the emotion you're going to punch up.

3. Now edit the scene for the chosen sense, based on the dominant emotion.

For example: If you picked smell, and the dominant scene emotion is joy, then think about all the smells that are associated with joy. Look at the scene and ask:
  • What in the scene smells joyful?
  • What smells would make the POV character feel happy or think about something joyous?
  • What smells would the POV character notice only because of this emotion?
  • What unpleasant smells would be judged favorably because of the emotion? Such as, a normally icky smell makes the POV character happy or smile only because they're in a super-great mood.
  • Why would smell be the thing the POV character notices most in this scene? (This could speak to something in the character’s backstory)
  • What joyous smells might affect the POV character in a negative way? Such as the joy of others makes her unhappy or angry. Don't forget to think about why, as well.

Looking at a scene with a particular sense + emotion combo in mind encourages us to think more creatively about what we describe. 

It’s not just the same basic “what’s there” details, but unique elements that bring the scene to life in a memorable way. It also helps us layer the senses, since most of the time sight is the number one sense used for description.

(Here’s more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

Optional Ways to Mix it Up

Choose the least obvious or least likely sense to work in that scene: If the scene takes place outside at night, sight would probably be the hardest sense to work with. But thinking about what someone would actually see in the dark, or how they’re trying to see, could craft an interesting scene if we pull out unusual details.

Choose the opposite emotion: If the dominant emotion for the scene is joy, what if the POV character saw the scene from a sad or miserable standpoint? Obviously this will probably only work on scenes where the contradiction fits the scene, but it's a fun exercise to do anyway, just to see what details might pop up.

Pick two emotions and/or senses: If the scene is emotionally charged, try doubling up on the senses. Maybe use smell and touch for a character trapped in the dark, or sound and taste for someone who just got dumped at a food festival. For an extra challenge, pick contradictory emotions or senses and play off the contrasts.

Have fun with your descriptions and look for ways to make them about more than what something looks like. Not only will it be more fun for you to write, but you just might add a unique and compelling aspect to a scene.

Readers are used to seeing a lot of the same descriptions in the novels they read. Our brains naturally go to the most common or obvious way to describe something. How often have you read a sunset described with "a riot of colors," "a painted sky," or "a kaleidoscope of hues?"  There's nothing wrong with these descriptions, but they don't bring anything new or memorable to the story. 

But someone describing the sunrise with "The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit" is one that sticks with you. From (Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld).

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and do this exercise with one of your scenes. Mix it up and try it with a scene you feel is well written, and then one you know needs work. Which one improved more? Did you push yourself more in the good scene or the weak one?

How do you feel about description? Do you write it first, last, or as needed? Who are your favorite descriptive authors or novels?

*Originally published April 2015. Last update November 2023.

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.
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  1. This is my biggest struggle as well. I'm sure that most of my characters are born without a nose or nerve endings. Which is funny because whenever I think of something from my childhood, smell is a dominant part of the memory. I like these tips, though. I'll give that a try as I edit.

    1. They say smell is the strongest memory trigger for us. And it's such an easy way to get our characters to remember an important detail--catch a whiff of something that leads them right where they need to go. I need a smell to help me remember that, lol.

  2. I'm with you on having to go back and add descriptions. Most of my first drafts take place in the dreaded Blank Room of Whiteness. :)

    1. I know that room well. I really ought to decorate it one of these days.

  3. Great tricks to bring out senses I may not have thought of including! (Since I virtually ignore three of the five senses on the first pass, I always have to go back and add more sensory detail as well.)

    1. It's a lot of fun. I first started doing it when I had my protagonist blindfolded and in trouble. It really made me think about how to use the other senses. Not that it helped me put them in on a first draft, but at least I knew I could on the second, lol.

  4. I love this. I have a hard time writing description too, so these techniques will be great.

    1. I've had a lot of success by picking one thing to work on in a scene. There's something about giving a single scene my total focus that brings out the brainstorming side of me. Hope it works just as well for you.

  5. I definitely do an edit pass where I'm just doing description. I prefer to get the guts of my story down before adding the sensory details.

    1. Janice Hardy11/09/2023 8:40 AM

      Me too! I need to see it unfold before I know what matters :)