Description can bring a scene, place, or character to life, but too many or too few details, too much or too little specificity can break the fictive dream for readers.
A reader will do 90% of the work creating a mental image of a character, their setting and the fictional world, but if the writer is too sparing with description the reader can’t fill in the gaps. If the story is bogged down with unnecessary description, readers begin to skim (the fictive dream is broken) or they’ll just quit.
Description is one of the aspects of fiction writing that I struggle with. I’m a bare-bones writer and have to go back and edit for description. When I get twitchy about not having enough description, I stray too far in the other direction and add too much.
When Is Description Too Much Or Too Little?
See Every Scene Through Your Character’s Eyes
Each character you create brings their own history, past experiences, opinions, etc. with them to the story. What would THEY notice or comment on about their surroundings or the people they meet? Would it be worth commenting on that their host has a living room or that there’s furniture? What would stand out? If the host had painted a giant mural of a shark on one wall, that would be something your character would remark on. What makes this house different from what your character is used to or is expecting?
This not only helps the reader learn what “normal” is for this character, but pulls them into the story through your character’s eyes. Someone who’s grown up in a trailer park will notice different things than someone who’s grown up in a mansion. What one character finds calming or safe, another will find disorienting or boring depending on what’s familiar, on where they would rather be. They will place value or significance on different things.
Another example, would a knight from the middle ages be surprised by tapestries on the walls or rushes on the floor? What would stand out to him? A Catholic motif on a tapestry in an age where papists were outlaws? Such a dangerous thing to display publicly would be noticed. Next you share how the knight feels about that public display, how does that change what he thinks of his host?
Readers don’t need a visual play-by-play of every item the character sees. They will lean in and wonder WHY the character has noticed one aspect over others. What does it say about the character? About the environment they’re in?
Let Characters Describe Setting As They Interact With It
Avoid narrative dumps of description. There are certain details you need the reader to know, but avoid just dropping in those two or three sentences into the story like bird poop on a car window. Let description paint a word picture, not splatter art. Instead of cataloging the mess of discarded shoes and backpacks in the front hallway of a home, have your character step over or pick their way through the mess. Instead of telling the reader a bed dominates the room, have the character walk a wide arc around it.
Keep in mind that some details are noticed immediately and others take a bit more time to register. A character might not notice the chill in the air until the adrenaline rush wears off, for instance.
Incorporate All The Senses
We take in our surroundings through all five senses, and sometimes even that hard-to-define sixth sense as well. Different senses are associated strongly with specific things. Smell and taste are often directly correlated to memory. We make decisions and choose a course of action based on what we see, often, which is why this is the dominant sense in life and fiction.
Sound often evokes an emotional reaction. Think about the sound of fingers down a chalkboard, coyotes howling at night, or wooden shutters banging in the wind. My daughter injured her ankle (sprain or torn ligament – can’t remember) but I happened to catch the injury on video because she was practicing a stunt on the trampoline (she was a competitive cheerleader). We told the doctors and nurses what had happened and they were professional and nodded. When I showed them the video, and they heard the crack (we were sure she’d broken her ankle), they all visibly cringed. They checked the x-rays three times because they were as sure as we were that the ankle was broken. The sound caused an emotional response.
Touch elicits a sensory response whether its feet aching, the scratchy-softness of a cat tongue on your hand, or prickles on your scalp that skip down your spine.
To bring a scene or setting to life in the imagination of readers, add emotional appeal to your description. Ask how your character FEELS about what they see, touch, smell, etc. Let those feelings color your word choice.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss says her sister’s cat is the color of rotting squash. Now, there are many ways to describe an orange cat, but rotting squash gives us an idea of how Katniss feels about this cat, right! Your word choice will give the reader insight into how the character feels and how they see the world.
Hope this is helpful! Share a line from your own work where you think the description really shines!
Make sure you check out my book Method Acting for Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layering.