Craft,  Creativity,  Inspiration

Top 10 Ways To Describe An Object In Your Novel And Why It Matters

It’s pity that I don’t hold murder weapons on my desk. If I did, I could describe them and stick them in my work-in-progress.

This is what I do have:

I have a cobalt glass heart that I use as a paperweight. My husband’s cousin, Robin gave it to me. It’s been over 15 years since she’s given it to me and I can’t not think of her when I see it. This glass heart could be a weapon if I needed to be. It has little value other than who gave it to me. I also have a lamp, a cardboard coaster from a beer garden in Germany, four pewter cylinders that hold pens and paper clips, and a blue glass vase that holds red silk flowers. I also have a red ceramic tea bag holder that I use sometimes when I bring tea to my desk. I also have this little ceramic jewel box that is in the shape of a woman in a red bikini sitting in a beach chair. I like this because it’s funny and my mother in law gave it to me. Because it is a small case, I could put small valuables, like rare jewels, in it.

A well-described object has meaning and weight.

If you have a prop that plays a key role in the story, then mention it early. Symbols need subtle, yet repeated mentions too. Your reader will up on hidden meanings if you take care in an object’s description.

Top 10 Ways To Describe An Object In Your Novel And Why It Matters

In the drafting process, ask yourself these questions when describing an object. (But remember, this is in the drafting stage, good editing may require you to cut much of this.)

1. Describe its appearance.  Describe the items shape, texture, color, material, height and width. A good writer is a keen observer. Take your time and look for subtleties.

2. Describe how your senses react. How heavy is it in your hand? What is the temperature of its surface? Does it have a smell? A taste? Does it make a noise, when you squeeze it, when you bang it on something? What kind of force would destroy it? Would you call it delicate or sturdy? Practical or ornamental?

3. Describe its value.  This could mean sentimental value or retail value. My little cheap jewelbox, probably a Christmas Tree Shop purchase, opens up. The space that it hides inside is tiny enough for a few beads and a coin or two. It could, in one story or another, be a container for something that needs to stay hidden. A smart card from a camera or something of that nature. This would certainly increase its value. Want to read more about Chekhov’s gun? Click here!

4. Describe its ownership. In The Lord of the Rings, the ownership of the ring was important. The way that Smeagol treated it was different from the way that Bilbo treated it and that was different from the way that Frodo treated it. Each character had a different agenda in the ownership of it. So how does the owner of your item treat this item?

5. Describe its purpose.  Items can be a lot like people — full of secrets and stories. Is this item a hiding space? Has it been used maliciously? Is it the item that the family has to sell just to buy groceries? The purpose and the value will often dictate how it’s treated by the owner. Unexpected purposes for your props can make your story more interesting.

6. Describe who wants it.  Perhaps this plays a critical point in your story. One of your characters wants this item and can’t get it. Spend time developing that character, ask yourself why his desire for this item is so strong.

7. Describe its future.  Ah, this is where the story gets interesting. What will happen if it is destroyed or lost or put in the wrong hands? The items owner loses the item to someone else, what happens now? Is another secret revealed? Is someone killed over this item?


8. Describe what it symbolizes.  Now write down everything that comes to mind but don’t keep the obvious answers. Instead try to stretch your imagination and think in a way no one has thought of. The symbolism of this specific item could be something abstract like freedom or bravery or respect or fear. But it could also represent a relationship or a bigger quest or a memory. Review all the previous questions and think about how your answers could tie into a bigger idea. Is the cigar really just a cigar?

9. Describe other objects that are attached to it. For example, the car keys are more than just keys, they are entryways into the car, the house and the office. The key chain is personalized for the owner. All of these separate items come together to create the keys. But ask yourself if you can break this item down into separate parts.

10. Describe what isn’t expected. It is a set of car keys, but it’s also how she defended herself in the parking garage, the item that set off the metal detector at the airport or the murder weapon that got lost in the bottom of her purse. Ask yourself, does the item travel? Does the item wear down? Collect germs? Change composition, like a melting chocolate bar? These factors could make the item more interesting to your story and to your reader. My favorite Chekhov’s gun scene was the John Deere tractor in Mad Men. 

Objects can be powerful props in your novel writing.

Objects may have a use like a murder weapon or they may contain a memory of a happier time. They could also be a clue that solves a murder, identifies a culprit or even starts a war. In your story, your characters have things around them that they carry, move, acquire, protect, cherish, or investigate. You will need to describe them. The richer your description, the more value you put to the item, the more the reader will pick up on its importance.

So, what’s on your desk? How can you describe it? How can you incorporate that into your work-in-progress?

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.