Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Description Is More than Just “What it Looks Like”

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Choosing the right details to describe can be the difference between a scene that soars and one that falls flat.

I have a confession. I can’t stand description. I don’t like writing it, I don’t like reading it, it often just sits there on the page and does very little to enhance the story. Which for a science fiction and fantasy writer like me, is kinda a problem. I have entirely made-up worlds full of things that only exist in my imagination, and the only way I can bring those details to life for my readers is to, well, describe them.

It took me a long time, but I eventually learned that description wasn’t just a list of details and character features. And my stories got a lot better once I did.

Description is more than what something or someone looks like—it’s an opportunity to evoke emotion, characterize, or create a mood.

Everything in a novel is the author describing the story to readers, but descriptions that only do that suck the life out of good text and can make it feel told, even when it’s not. Flat descriptions are just a statement of what the author knows, not how a character sees the world around them.

For example:
The early summer sky was a ruddy brownish pink.
There’s nothing special about this line. It’s not bad, but it’s not a line that anyone is going to remember. But put it in the voice of a character and show that same sky through someone’s eyes and it becomes memorable:
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit (Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld).
One line tells us what color the sky is; the other shows us how the character feels about looking at that morning sunrise, and that shows readers a whole different sky. The point-of-view character’s mood and worldview change how she sees the sunrise and how she chooses to describe it. You learn more about the character in this than you do about the sky, because the sky isn’t important—the character’s mood is.

Because a character’s voice and emotions affect description. And we can use that to write better novels.

(Here’s more with One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions)

Let’s take a few random details and explore different ways to slip them into a scene:
  • rain
  • a clock
  • a restaurant
  • a window
  • pancakes
  • an envelope

Flat Scene:
Rain tapped rhythmically on the restaurant's windowpane, keeping time with a vintage clock hanging on the wall. The scent of freshly cooked pancakes wafted through the air. Amidst the soft hum of chatter, an envelope lay forgotten on a table.

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. Who is the narrator? Is there a character here? Do you care what might be in that envelope? Probably not.

Now, let’s turn those same backdrop details into a living world by putting a person behind the description:

Waitress in the Diner:
I dodged a toddler being ignored by his parents, nearly dropping the tray of pancakes for table six. They’d been here for hours now, staring out the window, and with the downpour outside, they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. I glanced at the clock. Neither was I. What a crappy day to pull a double. I dropped off the pancakes and headed back to the kitchen, but an envelope on the counter caught my eye. Did the last guy forget it? Was it—dare I say…a tip? Maybe it held the winning numbers for tonight’s Lotto. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Beat Cop:
Office Russo dashed across the rain-slicked street toward the diner as the clock tower's bells rang, louder than the thunder. He stepped into the warmth and the scent of freshly flipped pancakes and syrup slapped him in the face like an offended debutante. No wonder his CI picked this place. The man himself sat in the back away from the windows, his hands folded on the table and in plain sight. At least he remembered that rule. Russo headed over and dropped into the booth, but before he could speak, the CI shoved an envelope across the table and took off.

Same details, but notice how different these are from the original bland backdrop? In these examples, there’s a sense of who the point-of-view character is and tell you just as much about the characters and their problems as it does the diner they’re in. The world becomes their world, not a plain “anywhere” world.

(Here’s more with 4 Steps for Choosing What Details to Describe in a Scene)

Here are some options for writing compelling and story-driving descriptions:

1. Why is the point-of-view character looking at those details?

Motives matter, because they give the descriptions a reason for being there. Sometimes characters casually scan a room, sometimes they’re looking for something in particular, and sometimes they’re looking for a way to escape with their lives. How you’d describe each of those situations will be different, since the characters are different.

Why a character is focusing on a particular detail impacts how they feel about it, which in turn evokes emotions from the reader. Any time you can tap into a reader’s emotions, you draw them further into the story.

If your protagonist has no feelings at all about what’s around them, why are those details in the scene?

(Here’s more with Want Better Descriptions? Describe What Readers Won't Assume)

2. Which details are important to the point-of-view character?

People notice what’s important to them. A girl obsessed with fashion might notice what everyone is wearing, while a tired mom might not. A cop might notice details that would help them ID a suspect or a potential threat, while a con-man might notice details that suggest an easy mark.

Spending time on details that mean nothing to your protagonist, or seem weird for your protagonist to care about, can make the prose feel told and knock readers out of the story. They might start to skim to get to “the good parts” or “when something happens” and once they start skimming, they often lose their connection to the story, and then, their interest in it.

If what’s being described doesn’t matter to the character, then why are you forcing readers to read it?

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

3. Which details are 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 readers. 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 the reader needs to see a detail, brainstorm why your point-of-view character might notice it and how it can work with the scene, not just be in the scene. My favorite trick: have a character interact with the detail you need to sneak in there.

If a detail needs to be there for the story to work, how does that affect the character who sees it?

(Here’s more with How to Write Description Without Going Overboard)

4. What tone, theme, or mood do you want to achieve?

If you’re going for dark and creepy, describing bright and sunny could fight with your story, not help move it along (unless you’re going for the contrast on purpose). Using details to reinforce the tone or mood adds to the emotion of a scene, plus it makes those descriptions do double duty. They describe and create atmosphere.

The right details also give you opportunities for similes and metaphors that flow seamlessly and evoke feelings in your point-of-view character. They can help illustrate your theme in subtle ways. They can foreshadow and even raise the tension by suggesting something foreboding or mysterious is going on, or lurking in the shadows.

If the word choices in your descriptions never reflect the tone or mood of the scene, then how might you edit them to evoke the right emotion in your reader?

(Here’s more with How to Set Tone and Mood in Your Scenes)

The right detail can instantly pique a reader’s interest and make them want to know more.

Details mean different things to different people, so use your characters when describing. How you show those details to readers helps them better understand not only what’s in the scene, but the character in the scene as well.

Don’t just create backdrops. Make your descriptions count.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick a scene at random and highlight all the descriptive words or description passages. Do they show anything more than “what they are,” or are they details anyone could have described in any story? Tweak to put them in your character’s point of view and add a little life to them and see how the scene reads.

How much thought do you put into your descriptions?

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 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 comment:

  1. Hi. I have always considered the setting as a secondary character. The PoV when interacting with other characters describes action and sensibilities, rarely overt physical features. I do the same with the surroundings. never just a thing in the room, it is the reaction the PoV has with the thing.