I personally love writing descriptions, but I know for some they can be a struggle. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to get the image in your head into your readers head since no one’s invented telepathy, at least not yet.
So until that exists, here are my tips to writing engaging descriptions that have your readers immersed into the scenes with your characters, as if they’re experiencing it with them.
Place yourself in the scene
I actually think movies is one of the best tools for this. And I know they’re very visual, but think about it. In those beginning scenes of a movie, they don’t always go straight for the main character. They sometimes take some time to pan the camera around the room. And the set up of the environment gives you an idea of what’s going on already.
For instance, the scene could start off with a teenage girl on the phone with her sister, who’s studying abroad.
You can imagine the camera panning over her messy room, you see the cloths, lip sticks, and shoes sprawled over the floor. Typical teenager’s room. We can hear a girl speaking at this point, and it sounds like she’s not happy. Now we see her legs kicking in the air, and then the rest of her laying in bed, on her stomach, talking on the phone. Now we see she’s unhappy, she looks annoyed, and she’s messing with some tangled earphones and getting frustrated with it. From the conversation, we hear that her sister is staying in Italy longer than initially expected.
So that’s why she’s frustrated.
I love starting descriptions like this! Seeing it like a movie helps you be a bit cinematic about it. Put yourself there and then paint the picture for us. And the little details that really sell it! A teenage girl will make a mess in her room. Very relatable. A teenage girl will fidget with something when she’s upset. Hell, grown adults fidget with things when they’re upset. Don’t go overboard with the details, but give us enough that we really feel the scene.
How I might do that movie scene, but in a book:
Victoria fumbled with the tangled cord of her earphones as her sister talked in her ear on the phone. Looking over the room, she realized she’d have to clean up before Emily got home, or she’d never hear the end of it. Her clothes were everywhere, her shoes in scattered pairs all over the floor, make-up spilling over from her bag onto the ground.
But she’d get to it later.
Lazily, she continued toying with the cord, kicking her feet in the air as she laid on her stomach.
Until she caught something Emily said she didn’t like at all.
“I said,” Emily stressed. “I’m not coming home this Thanksgiving after all.”
See? Not a lot of detail, really, but at the same time, just enough. Also, did you notice how I used the character’s perspective of her own messy room to really put you in the scene? Let’s talk about that, actually:
Use the character’s perspective
The characters in the scene are a great tool to describing it. As the author, you know of everything that exists within their world, but what matters is what the character would actually bother to notice. Not only does that make the description actually help build the character, but it also lets us see the description from the character’s eyes, which helps us relate.
For instance, to the author, Victoria’s messy room is just another fact about the room, nothing special. But to Victoria, it reminds her that her sister is always nagging her about how messy she is, and that she should really clean it up before her sister comes home. I don’t know about you, but I can picture Victoria’s room better knowing that she knows she should clean it. Because I’ve been there. With the cups on the nightstand that are days old, and the clothes you told yourself you would pick up and never did, the stuffed animals that are usually on the bed, but have found their way to the floor. It instantly paints the picture in my head, even though none of this was in the description, because I get Victoria!
Making your descriptions relate to the character makes your readers read beyond the words and see the scene with their own “eyes”.
If you describe a spider as brown and crawling towards the character, okay, that’s fine. But if you describe a spider from the perspective of someone with arachnophobia, the spider is all of a sudden bigger, hairier, able to jump and possibly fly, from their perspective. And you know exactly where that character is coming from because even if you don’t have it, you know how you feel about creepy crawlies. The description is great, but you make the rest in your head now that you see from that character’s eyes. That spider is coming for them, and you can feel it.
Remember all five senses
Sight is only one aspect of describing a scene. That’s why I actually go back to the movie scenario. I know you can only see a movie, but not really. You also hear it. You hear the chatter on the phone before you see Victoria. And when you see the characters in a movie react to a smell or a touch, you feel it too. That’s actually their job, is to make you feel the story with them.
And guess what? That’s your job too.
If Victoria is walking down the stairs to the kitchen, sure we’re going to “see” her mom, but we’re also going to “smell” the kitchen, because it’s breakfast time and she’s making toast. And we’re going to “feel” the fact that Victoria didn’t bother put house shoes on, she was in such a rage, and now her bare feet are touching the icy floors.
We have five senses, and you should never forget to utilize all of them in your writing! For example:
Emily started giving a lot of reasons and excuses, but Victoria didn’t even hear her anymore. At some point she turned off the phone, stomping as she paced the floor with her arms crossed, too angry to know what to do with herself.
Mom. She would tell Mom.
She stormed out of her room, practically flying down the steps and then stepping into the kitchen, jolting as she realized she hadn’t even put on her house shoes — the floor was icy cold.
Mom frowned. “What is it, honey?”
Victoria crossed her arms again, not even the smell of toast and coffee wafting through the air able to soften her mood. “Emily’s not coming back for Thanksgiving, can you believe her?”
As you can see, not a lot of words is needed to get the point across. I also like to break up descriptions with actions, which makes the background more interactive and actually moving, rather than a painting in the background that doesn’t do anything.
Show don’t tell? Meh. Just make it real.
Okay, I know a lot of people may not agree with me on this one (some may, who knows?), but I prefer to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule loosely.
For those that don’t know, the “show, don’t tell” rule basically means that you should cut any sentences that straight-away “tell” you information instead of “showing” you and letting you come to that conclusion yourself.
The floor was cold.
Victoria shuddered as her bare feet touched the floor.
Victoria shuddered as her bare feet touched the floor. — the floor was icy cold.
The idea is that telling is informing the reader of something, usually a feeling or look like cold, hot, angry, etc, while showing allows the reader to see the result of what you’re describing, most times without naming the feeling itself. Like if you describe a person who is angry, (the idea is) it’s a cop-out to just say, “he was angry”.
As you can see, I’m a bit of a rebel. I tend to think that a mixture of the both is good. Some days I might use the showing example. Some days I might use the telling example. And some days I’ll use a combination of the two. But I don’t think one way is “wrong”. I think there should be balance in everything.
As a writer, you don’t want to go beyond certain word counts when you’re querying to agents. And always saying “she shuddered as her bare feet, yadda yadda yadda” takes up a lot of words when you could just say the floor was cold. Though on the other hand, the reader can potentially feel detached from the story if they don’t feel like they can feel along with the character.
To me, it’s up to you to decide that balance. Every sentence is a case-by-case scenario, and you should balance out how repetitive you’ve already been so far, whether that description is really necessary, or whether you could use a little more connection to the scene than you have. I think it’s up to each writer to decide.
Just don’t burn me at the stake, kay?
You can tell a story with descriptions
As I did above, you can tell a lot about the story with just the descriptions themselves. You could say that Victoria is a messy person, but there’s no need when you see her room is a catastrophe.
You could say her and her friends pigged out Friday night, but seeing empty pizza boxes, soda bottles, and Oreo containers on the table already tells that story all by itself.
This goes for the character’s mood too! A character will see their surroundings in a different light depending on how they’re feeling at the moment. So portraying those emotions a little through the description is a little like foreshadowing to the character’s state of mind through how they view their surroundings.
A neutral view:
His wore glasses in front of clear blue eyes, framing his somewhat hard features. He pushed them up and brushed back some of the blond hair came down to his shoulders with his hand. “Late again, miss Victoria?”
From Victoria’s perspective:
His judgmental blue eyes narrowed at her from behind his glasses. Pushing them up in that snooty way of his, he brushed back some of his blond hair that came down to his shoulders with his hand. Completely like some kind of surfer dude. “Late again, miss Victoria?”
Now, Victoria being a teenager, I took a little freedom with my manner of speaking in the description as well, and you can see that her perspective of her disapproving teacher is a lot more different than that of the neutral author. Use these things to your advantage and tell the story from your character’s perspective in every way. It really places us in their shoes, and therefore in the scene, the setting, the place. We see people through their eyes, so we relate to their feelings better too.
I didn’t even have to say that her teacher was very judgemental because his description said that for me. You could say it’s a miniature version of showing instead of telling, but like I said, I feel like the advice is relative, and it’s up to you how to use it. I would prefer to say I like the descriptions and setting to tell the story. Sometimes letting the story take over is better than directly telling the reader what to think or feel.
But it’s up to you.
I feel like a good description is one that allows us to see what you see, but also gives the readers the pieces to let the reader finish the image in their head, making it more real to them.
Writing descriptions is the hardest part of story telling for some, but I absolutely love it. I love seeing the world from the author’s perspective, and I think it’s a beautiful thing.
See ya next time!