by Christine Hennebury
Readers come to fiction to immerse themselves in the world of the characters. If you want your readers to really connect with your writing, with your characters, you need to master vivid descriptions.
When you put in the work to make your book’s world as real as possible, you reward both your readers and yourself.
Creating a detailed world doesn’t mean that you need to overload your text with adjectives. Instead, it means that you need to be precise in your language and selective in the details you share. It means that you connect your readers with your characters through their senses.
Vivid description lets you fully inhabit your world, your characters, and your setting, and that makes your work more fun.
Sidenote: When I’m telling stories aloud, I know exactly what each room I describe contains but I don’t share all of those details. Instead, I pick specific items to describe that will connect with my audience. That practice can be useful for your readers, as well. Even if you know every last detail in a room, you can just share the most vital ones.
Creating precise descriptions is probably not something that will happen in a first draft. You may need to go back and layer in some extra details in your scenes to make them richer. If you want to ensure that your writing is rich in detail but not a blast of sensory information, perhaps you could consider the following approaches:
Choose a Perspective
Last year, I took a workshop with a local writer who is well known for her engaging descriptions. She had lots of great advice to share but my most important take-away was that every description is from someone’s perspective.
It’s obvious, really, but I hadn’t thought about it before.
Every scene in your book is through someone’s eyes – even if that person is you! So, you have to emphasize details that would be important to them. You have to show their knowledge or their ignorance. And, you will want to add emotional content to details so your readers know what your character thinks about their surroundings.
Descriptions from their point of view can be part of ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling.’ There is a big difference between the person who describes the moon as looking like the bald head of a baby and the person who describes it as looking like a dinner plate.
Find a Similar Place
Go to a place similar to the setting in your story and pay close attention. (If your story is set in a fantasy realm, you will have to wing it a bit.) Look around – we tend to think of visual descriptions first so that’s a good place to start. What can you see? Do those items have specific meaning in that context? Which items say the MOST about the location?
Next, close your eyes and listen. What noises can you hear? Can you describe them without referring to what’s making them? This is a good chance to use some onomatopoeia!
How about smells? Textures? Tastes? What kinds of other sensory details are available in your chosen setting?
Take some notes so when you get back to your writing you can infuse your events with specific and relevant detail.
The relevant part is key. After all, there may not much point in mentioning the crimson curtains if no one goes near the window!
However, as I warned above, you don’t want to overload your readers. So, it may be useful to consider which details from the environment stand out. Or, which ones contain the most powerful information. You can convey a very dirty room with a quick description of a rat on a counter eating a piece of what must have once been bread, you don’t need to describe every single dirty thing.
Sidenote: If you cannot go to a similar place, you may want to put the power of Facebook or Twitter to use for your writing. Trade scenes with another writer who can find a similar location and you can do one for them – both of your scenes will be richer for it!
Feel It More Than You See It
Standard writing advice tells you to write what you know. However, when you delve too far into specific language, you can end up with a highly technical, jargon-filled description. Or in an effort to make your scene clear, you can write one that is too heavily slanted to a single sense. That’s when you should consider how your character is feeling.
For example, it would be easy for me to get mired in details when I’m writing about Taekwondo. I could spend paragraph after paragraph describing certain strikes and blocks and call them by name, telling the reader specific angles and details. It would be technically correct but it wouldn’t draw the reader in.
It would be much better for me to describe how each blow feels. Then, by layering that with details like being out of breath, having sweat running into my eyes, being able to hear my own heart, and being afraid of an opponent’s power, I can immerse my reader in the battle.
You can do the same in the fact-based sections of your writing – help them to *feel* what’s happening instead of baffling them with details.
Bring Them With You
Your reader is accepting an invitation into your imagination so you want their experience to be a rich one. You want them to be right THERE with your characters.
Layering details of sensory information within your characters’ actions and observations will make your world REAL for your readers, it lets you bring them with you on your characters’ adventure. And, making them FEEL what’s going on will keep them coming back to your stories. Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for?
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her at christinehennebury.com or visit her on Facebook .