I admit, I’m not the most innately gifted person at including descriptions. In fact, I usually forget them all together in a first draft (but those are supposed to be terrible anyway, right?) and have to add them in at later drafts, layering them and revising them until I feel like they are evoking the mood I want them to do. Because descriptions don’t come naturally to me, I’ve spent some time studying them and trying to figure out how some authors make them work and how to avoid writing description that makes readers skim over paragraphs to get to the good stuff.
So here are 5 things I’ve seen work well:
1. Have a character new to a setting or situation describe it.
This is fairly straight forward, but it does work well when the reader can experience it with the character. I would caution, though, to choose only a few key details instead of giving an exhaustive description of the setting. Most readers don’t have the patience for that and their eyes will start to glaze over if the descriptions go on for too long.
2. Have a character describe things as they are involved in another fairly repetitive or boring task.
I pay a lot more attention to my surroundings when I’m out for a leisurely stroll than I do when I’m trying to bustle the kids off to school. I pay attention to the weather a lot more when I’m out weeding than I do when I’m running errands. I pay a lot more attention to the people around me when I’m stuck in a boring lecture. Those are all times when I’m not caught up in the hurry-hurry-hurry rush of daily life and I slow down and pay attention to the world around me. Those slower (and sometimes boring!) moments are a great time to add a couple lines of description. (This also can help to show the passing of time.)
On the flip sides, tense scenes—especially where the character is in physical danger—are not the best places to insert description unless it directly impacts the outcome. Most of the time, description in those kinds of situations actually slows down the action. So just be aware of that.
I have seen description added, and used well, in emotionally tense scenes when the reader knew that the situation was tense, but the narrator did not. The key was having the narrator unaware of the situation and then the description also served to increase the tension instead of slowing it down.
3. Give a brief description of each character when they show up for the first time.
I know, I know, we shouldn’t judge people by what they wear. But if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, either it’s a duck or it really wants to be one… So what do your characters’ appearances say about them? Even better, what does the POV character say and think about what the other characters are wearing? What does that say about the POV character?
But now you’re asking: what does characterization have to do with setting? Well, if I said to you, “I saw a woman wearing heels,” you would probably shrug and reply, “So what?”
If I say instead, “I saw a woman wearing heels at the top of Mt. Sinai,” (which is a true story), your reaction would probably be very different.
Someone wearing shorts in Arizona in January probably wouldn’t get a second glance. But someone wearing shorts in Winnipeg in January is a different story and tells us something about the character as they interact with their setting. This interaction between characters and setting is
one reason why, as Rosalyn said, “The setting for the novel should be so much a part of them that the story could not have taken place in any other setting.”
4. Reveal tidbits about the setting throughout the scene.
Readers don’t need to know everything about a setting at the very beginning. Reveal a little bit here and there throughout the scene as it becomes important. If they sit on a couch to watch TV together, it might not be so important what kind of couch it is. But if she sits in the armchair because he’s on the love seat, then it becomes much more significant.
5. Revealing information through dialogue.
I am not talking about the maid/butler dialogue where, at the beginning of a play, the maid and butler would come out and in a “conversation,” explain everything that was going on with the Master and his family. This kind of conversation should be avoided. In fact, Robert McKee said in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, “Never force words into a character’s mouth to tell the audience about world, history, or person.”
I’ve seen dialogue to introduce details about the setting work when the author uses it to move the story forward. A discussion of native flowers in the area can work if it is bringing the love interests closer together. A discussion of the weather can work to show someone trying to befriend their boss. It all comes down to using that dialogue about the setting for some other purpose besides telling the reader about the setting.
What about you? What are some ways you’ve seen description incorporated well into a novel? What suggestions do you have for things to avoid?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.