How to work on descriptions
For longer than I care to admit I have been struggling with descriptions. Before I decided to write a book, I’d mostly written fanfiction. Writing about a set world with familiar characters makes it easy to get away with skimping on descriptions. So when it came down to creating my own world, I had to work on descriptions so hard, I went through two keyboards. (Mostly because I spilled tea over them in short succession, but don’t tell anyone.)
This blog will tell you how I practiced my descriptions. I’ll start off talking about what to do when your writing has virtually no descriptions at all, move on to intermediate steps to improve on the description you already have, and close off with tips on how to prevent over-describing a scene.
How to start on descriptions
When I started writing, I didn’t have much description in my prose. It got to the point where I reread my own words and didn’t know what was going on other than the extensive dialogue. (Floating head syndrome is a real thing, and I used to struggle with it constantly.) Action tags helped me over the first hurdle. Describing what my characters did as they spoke was a great first step into working on descriptions. Every character interacts with their environment at one point or another, no matter if they eat a fragrant snack or get dressed in a scratchy homespun dress or throw their arch nemesis against the cold, basalt floor.
Every writer has their own process, of course. And if you have difficulty getting descriptions on paper, any of these tricks might work for you.
Read blogs and watch videos about descriptions and make notes
Sometimes, reading and hearing the same thing from different people can make the message stick. Everyone who talks about how to write descriptions has a different view on it and talks about it from their own experiences. By examining different opinions, you can get a feel of what works best for you. If you are a writer that likes to understand things and relies a lot on logic, this is a perfect starting point.
If you like to draw or paint, you can make a sketch of the surroundings you want to describe. Or you can make a 3D rendition on your computer or bust out the craft supplies. The trick here is to create the environment through a new medium. For example, when you draw a cozy coffee shop you will have to pay attention to much more details to make it come across as cozy. Drawing a few mismatched sofas and coffee tables won’t be enough to get the vibe across. If creative styles other than writing aren’t your thing, you can always try out one of the other options.
Practice with your surroundings
At one point I sat down on my writing chair and slowly described all there was to my room. From the ceiling and colors of the walls down to the floor, the position of my furniture, what was in my cabinets, the junk piled onto my desk, the view from the window, everything. The reason this helped me is that I just wasn’t used to writing about it — at all. By getting used to writing about such details I trained myself to take them into account while I write. The first draft I wrote right after contained much more detail and made the whole chapter come to life.
Starting off with something you can look at helps you see the opportunities of describing that of your character. On the downside, describing the room you are in might not be that useful of a practice tool to your hero’s journey trek through the rainforest.
Practice with other things
If your own room doesn’t work out, or if you want to practice with something other than indoor material, a picture might do the trick. You can describe a spaceship, or a city map, a herd of animals, anything you can think of. And if pictures are too boring and static, maybe a fond memory will help. Another option is to pick a scene and describe the surroundings of your character, but that requires a clear visual image. If you have trouble seeing the setting in your mind, that might not be the best option to start practicing with.
A copy of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night hangs on my wall for inspiration. How would you describe this image in words? How would your character? If you want to practice right away, try and put 100 words to paper to describe this painting.
One of the more surprising things that helped me up my description game was poetry. I didn’t necessarily focus on rhyming, but I did learn how to distill the descriptives of some memories into bite-sized details that make the world of my book come alive. Though there are many forms of poetry, some writers might fare better studying song lyrics or reading books.
How to improve on descriptions
Once a writer gets the hang of actually writing details down, the focus shifts to improving them. There are no doubt a thousand ways to achieve that, but I will zoom in on two and explain them into detail.
Describing the senses
The most common advice to improve on descriptions is to include all the bodily senses. Most stories rely heavily on sight, which makes sense. Humans as a species depend mostly on sight, and describing a view is easier than describing a sound. But don’t forget to consider the relative position of your character. Time passing by and their distance towards objects and other characters can help, too. A character that reaches out a hand feels further off than one that puts their arm around a shoulder.
What makes a story come to life is describing the smells and tastes and touches, too. In theory, every scene should have an opportunity to use all five senses — or describe a distinct lack thereof, for example when your character is shuffling forward in a pitch-dark cave. Even in such a situation, you can theoretically still work in taste as a sense. They can still have food or water on them, or they could comment on the stale air’s weird taste.
Another setting that might occur is your character sitting behind their desk. Perhaps they smell their coworker eating a peanut butter sandwich, or they could work on a sticky keyboard. When describing the five senses, be creative. Try and think of new ways to introduce sound, touch, smell, and taste, since those are harder to work into prose than sight.
By forcing myself to think of what is possible, I trained myself to think more creatively about descriptions in general. If you have a scene that needs more diverse descriptions, using different senses to convey the world is a solid first step to take.
Describing a variety of descriptions
The English language loves to play tricks on people who learn it as a second language. One of the most mind-blowing is the one highlighted by Matthew, below:
Clever grammar folk will know a trick or two that circumvent this rule, but I’m bringing this adjective order up to show another way I used to up the ante on my descriptions. I dove into my writing and scanned the prose for which adjectives I used the most: size, shape, and material. Old men, tall women, round wooden shields and moss-covered wooden houses, it was a never ending stream of similar descriptions.
Once I started varying those types of descriptions, my prose read as much more engaging. Of course, I won’t go around describing how all the furniture came from Denmark, but I do use more opinion-based adjectives as they add a whole new layer of conveying personalities.
For example, describing a character as small and thin doesn’t carry the same weight as calling them scrappy. Instead of size and height, there is an opinion-based adjective involved that says a lot about how the character is perceived. Likewise, instead of calling all the vikings in my story bulky and muscular, one in particular stands out as massive. When he reemerges a few chapters in, he’s closer to a giant than a man.
If you have a scene that’s not coming across as vividly to readers as it does to you, this technique may provide a clue as to why that is.
Some writers struggle with too many descriptions. Though Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is still widely read and renowned, a book that would go into the same elaborate details about the environment would not be likely to get traditionally published. Large swaths of telling descriptives will be considered infodumping. It’s best to stick to a few details here and there instead of starting a chapter off with three pages of detailed outlays of a city. Though this does happen, especially in adult fantasies, it is not recommended for every genre, nor for every age group. The trick is to know your audience and adjust accordingly.
The first thing to cross out in your writing is repetitive descriptions. Generally speaking, you want to ensure that the more you mention something, the more important it is for the book as a whole. So when it comes to small details that don’t impact the plot or the characters, stick to a few reminders.
If you’re having difficulty pinning down what is repetitive or not, take a scene and read it sentence for sentence — but backwards. That way you won’t get caught in the flow of your own writing and it’s easier to focus on the exact words you use for descriptions.
When your writing received feedback on over-descriptions to the point it causes difficulties with your pacing, try combining descriptions. Instead of mentioning how your character walks through a room with a hardwood floor and then trips on it, write how your character trips and scrapes their knee on the hardwood floor.
Having your characters interact with the environment brings the world building and characters living in that world together. Coincidentally, this is also a great technique to get rid of the talking heads syndrome for writers who face the opposite challenge and write too little. Just like how a writer should weave narration, description, and dialogue together, so should the characters, world, and plot be weaved into each other.
If you are stuck and feel like every detail you mention is important, getting a second pair of eyes can do wonders. The trick here is to use beta readers (or alpha readers if you want to tackle one scene instead of your whole manuscript at once) who can point out where you’re overdoing the descriptions. When you tell them to mark out the passages where you go on for too long, you’ll end up with a clipped version that may not sit well at first, but can help you realize what part of the descriptions your readers need, and what you want to put in there as the writer. Likewise, if you don’t know where you’re lacking, beta-readers are great for telling you where they need more imagery.
Working on descriptions is a balancing act. Some readers love thick tomes filled with descriptives, while others are fine with a bare minimum. You’ll never please everyone. But from my experience, if you tend to overwrite, what feels like bare minimum is a good starting point to explore descriptions further. And if you tend to underutilize descriptions: go all out, don’t hold back, and go from there.
In my opinion, good writers are aware of when they use what description and what its effect is on their readers. If you are stuck, have someone help you point out the problem areas and don’t be afraid to try something different.
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