How do you ensure your story doesn’t take place in a blank room? Or a blank forest or castle or city as the case may be?
Too much description and your reader’s eyes glaze over. Too little, and they don’t know what is happening. Except, the amount of description is rarely the problem.
Strong description isn’t about the length of the description. Rather, it’s about how you go about describing the particular item, setting, or person.
The goal of description is to not only create a setting your readers see and feel and smell. It’s to create a setting they care about.
And your readers care about what your characters care about. There are five ways to leverage this connection between readers and characters when it comes to writing descriptions.
Weave description into character action
Allow your characters to interact with important parts of their setting. If they’re running through a restaurant, let us hear the screech of a metal chair scraping against the tile as they crash into it with their hip. Allow a dirty hand to smudge the glass door or the crash of a table tipping on its side.
If it’s an alley, allow boots to slip on discarded wrappers and gazes to pick up snippets of broken bottles and discarded cigarette boxes as the hero bolt past.
Wherever your character is, they or others will generally be moving. Pick important details and allow the reader to interact with them.
Weave description into emotion
Allow readers to see a setting through the eyes of a character who is focused on a strong emotion rather than the setting.
A heroine who just lost her best friend might stare at a familiar room, numbly noting the wallpaper is still torn in one corner showing brown paint beneath, and the carpet is still fraying. The plastic chairs are still set squarely against the table. She wonders how it can remain so normal when her world has turned upside down.
An excited character, on the other hand, might bounce through a room noting and touching all the cool trinkets set in glass cases while not caring about any of them because she’s about to see her brother for the first time in years.
In both cases, the focus is the emotion and the character’s thoughts, but you can use the setting as a tool to reveal those emotions, knocking out two goals with one act of skill.
Weave description with personality
Each character will notice something different about the world around them and have different feelings about these items.
A spy will notice potential exits. A soldier will notice the weapons others carry. A stylist will notice what color someone is wearing.
As your character moves through the story, look for ways in which they think about and connect to the world around them and tie those into their current mood and thought process. This will allow you to include descriptions of your scene via tools that are also moving your stories forward, revealing more about your characters, and building up emotions.
Weave descriptions with theme
This tool can be powerful but should be used sparingly.
Combine a character’s thoughts and emotions to the theme through the setting. Allow them to consciously or subconsciously equate the dusty corners behind the couch with the bits of their own lives they don’t want to look at.
Let them watch a pounding waterfall split around a rock and wish they could stand that firm amid the conflicting opinions of others. Let them sit in the shadows of a tree and wonder what it would be like to finally stand in the light of truth.
Generally, you’ll only use this tool with the main theme or a relevant struggle. It’s great for the subtext of your main character, but don’t be too heavy-handed otherwise your descriptions will come off forced.
Weave description with foreshadowing and backstory
Again, this can’t be used in every setting, but it can be exciting to experiment with.
Allow a character to notice little odd details and wonder about them to foreshadow events later in your story.
A moment of amusement at seeing two left shoes on the mat next to the door instead of a regular pair. Or a sigh of frustration at having to close the blinds again.
Even more fun is revealing snippets of a character’s past, where thunder cracks like a whip or a character flinches at fireworks as if they were gunshots. Use your setting to pull your character back in time and reveal bits of their story.
Descriptions are powerful and good prose allows you to weave them into subtext, personality, theme, and emotions.
Plunge your reader into the world you are creating and sweep them away into a market hung with crimson cloths that rustle in a warm breeze, or an underground tunnel where red lights blink slowly against the oily grime covering steel tracks.
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