Wednesday, March 10, 2021

4 Steps for Choosing What Details to Describe in a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s not always clear which details need to go into a scene, which can lead to a muddy, forgetful scene.

I was revising the opening scene of my science fiction novel this week, based on my latest critiques. It’s a complex novel with a lot of world building, and some of the critical details were getting lost or weren’t triggering the right expectation from my readers. That’s pretty normal for early draft critiques, but clearly, I needed to establish a few more details.

It would have been easy to just dump them in, but infodumps on your first page rarely work to hook a reader. I had to find ways to convey the important information readers needed without infodumping, telling, or explaining.

It also would have been easy to list out what I knew was there and bombard readers with a slew of details to wade through. That’s not something I enjoy reading, so I avoid writing it as well. A list of random, often generic details does nothing to give readers a strong sense of the world and what’s going on in that world.

The details you add to a scene shape how readers envision that scene.

The right details paint a picture and trigger the right assumptions from readers, while the wrong details create assumptions and mental pictures that sometimes aren’t at all what you intended. And once readers get the wrong idea, it’s difficult to get them back on board with what’s really going on.

Here’s a four-step plan for picking the right details to describe in a scene:

Step One: List what details you want readers to know are there.

Every scene has critical details that need to be there for various reasons. Some are to describe the character, others the world, some foreshadow, others lay clues and the groundwork for later events. Odds are you know what you want this scene to accomplish, and there are probably details associated with that you want to convey to readers.

In my case, I needed to drop a few larger world building clues that made it clear the situation in the scene was caused by a natural disaster, and wasn’t a dystopian future. So I listed out details in my world that would be present at a natural disaster sight, and the people sent to deal with it.

I didn’t plan on using all of them of course, but listing out what I knew would be there gave me a nice assortment of details to choose from. It also pushed me to think beyond the obvious and find intriguing details unique to my world.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

Step Two: List what the point of view character would realistically notice.

Just because it’s in the room, doesn’t mean anyone is going to see it. Having a point of view character notice everything is not only unrealistic, but boring as well, since they’ll spend paragraphs describing things readers don’t care about.

The mental and emotional state of your character also plays a role in choosing what to describe. What’s going through their heads and hearts determines how much they notice and what they notice. Their goals and the problems they face in that scene influence what they see as well.

In my case, my protagonist is confused and uncertain about what’s going on around him, and he’s trying to make sense of where he is and how he got there. He’s looking for details to help him figure out his surroundings. In his mental state, he’s more likely to notice large details before tiny ones, working from the big picture down to the minutia.

(Here’s more with Three Things to Consider When Writing Descriptions)

Step Three: List what the point of view character won’t realistically notice, but absolutely needs to be there.

You’ll no doubt have details that need to be in the scene, but the character wouldn’t plausibly pick up on them. Some of those details will have backstory or infodump associated with them, such as a person the character doesn’t know who is vital for X reasons, or an item that represents the larger world building that you want to explain. Some will be things the character just flat out doesn’t know what they are. There might even be details that are plausible to notice, but not in the character’s current state of mind.

The goal here isn’t to find ways to fit those details in, but to identify what’s important to the scene that isn’t in there yet.

In my case, I needed to show that certain people had been sent to deal with this disaster, this was our world, just set in the future, and that this was a localized event, not the whole world in chaos.

(Here’s more with Write What You Don't Know: POV and Description)

Step Four: Brainstorm ways those details might realistically catch the point of view character’s attention.

This is where the fun starts. Look at the list of critical details and think about how they’d naturally exist in the scene. Some might be background details, others might be things said by other characters, or even how a character looks, dresses, or acts.

Can you combine any to existing “noticeable” details? Is there anything that would allow you to use several of them? Is there any way your point of view character could interact with them? Or interact with something that naturally leads to noticing them?

In my case, I could answer a lot of questions with one large detail. All I had to do was add a FEMA camp within sight, which my protagonist would naturally notice when the FEMA people come running over from that camp to help him. I could add trucks, people, TV reporters; all the things that said “natural disaster and we’re working to help people.” I can even add a little more in the dialogue to suggest the larger world and situation.

(Here’s more with Description: Getting to the Heart of the Matter)

Once you decide on the right details for the scene, add them where they make the most sense and flow smoothly with what’s going on in that scene. Pay attention to your stimulus/response triggers, and make sure that something causes your character to notice these details, and they aren’t simply listing what’s around them.

Think about the character’s goal and their emotional state and use that to guide what they look at and what they look for. For example, if they’re looking for a way to escape, they’ll notice details that serve that goal. If they’re unhappy, they’ll notice details that reinforce that emotion.

You can show more with one, well-thought out and specific detail than you can show with ten random and generic details.

Generic details appear in every book, movie, and TV show. Not only do they not create the unique world or setting of your novel, they conjure images from other stories—often the wrong images. Details unique to your world, your characters, which are noticed for reasons specific to that character, bring your story to life in the way you want readers to see it.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and work through these steps on a scene you’re having trouble describing. Or just on any scene and see if you come up with better ideas for it.

How do you decide which descriptive details to use? Do you choose them deliberately, do you use what comes to mind as you write, or is it a mix of both?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. Completely agree about POV discipline. I spend a lot of time helping my clients to realize that they can't just head-hop, and that decisions of 1P vs. 3P have consequences.

    1. I like that, "Consequences." Makes it sound more thrilling, hehe. But it does for sure.

  2. Too right. Description is the meat of storytelling, but it's too easy to assume we can "just picture it all." That's the *Moby Dick* approach that worked when no reader had ever seen a whaling ship (and the writer had lived on one). If we can't make conscious choices about what catches a character's eye, nothing comes to life.

    1. So true. Readers don't need to rely on authors to take them to exotic places anymore. They can do that with a click of a button. Or go on person!