Writing Descriptions that Transport Readers
Descriptions transport readers to another world or time. You may never have seen Camp Half-Blood or Ketterdam or Narnia (we’re pretending you haven’t watched the movies or TV shows), but reading the books gives you a clear picture in your head of these settings. You can feel as if you are walking on the same streets as your characters, wearing the same clothes, and smelling the same food. For better or worse, description lets the reader truly experience what the characters are experiencing.
Today’s post talks about writing descriptions that take your readers on a journey—the same mind-boggling, life-changing, eye-opening journey your characters go on. Because, at the end of the day, a published story is about the reader and the reader’s experience.
Things to Consider
Use all five senses. Humans have five senses, yet it’s really easy to focus on only one in writing. However, to truly let your readers understand the scene you want to describe, you need to engage all the senses that your characters are experiencing.
Ration information. You do not need to—and should not—give into the temptation to tell your readers every detail about the setting before the scene begins. This can frustrate readers who want to know what’s going to happen. Instead, you need to find the balance between giving your readers enough information to understand what’s going on and holding back enough details to let your readers figure some things out. A good way to do this is to add details as your characters discover them. Your characters probably don’t notice every corner of a room they enter instantly, so your readers shouldn’t learn everything either. As long as your readers don’t have to wait too long to learn important information about the scene, you should take it slow with description.
Characterization. Rationing information can also help you develop your characters—especially your narrator. Think about your narrator’s personality and bringing-up. A homeless character may initially notice the grandeur of a simple family home, while a prince may point out the lack of decor in the same setting. A hungry child might focus on the smell of a food court, but a claustrophobic narrator might be more concerned with the overwhelming crowd. Remember that your narrator is telling the story—not you. Focus on the details they would be likely to notice, and use word choice that matches their opinions.
Pacing. Description can also help pace your story. If you want to add suspense and slow down a scene, you can add more description. This can show your characters taking in their surroundings while they wait for something to happen. Your readers are forced to wait to discover whether the villain is hiding in the secret lair until your protagonist checks all the rooms, taking in the embroidery on the curtains as they do so. On the other hand, if you want to speed up your scene, you can eliminate all descriptions. Your character might be rushing to get somewhere, unable to notice anything happening around them. A mother chasing her young child down a busy street is unlikely to notice the stores she passes and the corners she turns. Only when she catches up to him will she realize she is lost. Basically, description is a way to show your readers how slowly or quickly time is passing for your characters.
Developing Your Descriptions
No matter how strongly you understand the importance of description in writing, it can be hard to actually apply it. Coming up with the right way to describe a place might seem easy, but it can be impossible to even realize what parts of the setting need describing.
Experience. The best way to describe how a setting affects your character’s senses is to experience those senses yourself. It’s hard to imagine a place, even if you close your eyes and take deep breaths (but if that works for you, go for it!). However, you might require something more tangible. The truth is, more experiences make you a better writer. If you want to describe a forest, find a local park or forested area. Once there, take in one sense at a time. What can you see? Make sure to look in all directions. What can you hear? Think about what is producing those sounds and what words can be used to describe those noises. What can you feel? Touch the things around you and take note of their textures. Can you smell or taste anything distinct? This may be hard to pick up on, but some places will have unique smells and tastes.
Show, don’t tell. Yes, the classic piece of advice. If you want to extract emotion from your audience, don’t give a single adjective describing a setting. Instead, describe small parts of the location. The castle was grand can mean many things. Four stone pillars taller than any building I had seen before stood at the corners of a lawn green enough to seem fake. This sentence, on the other hand, begins to give your reader a clear picture of the castle in question. Of course, this isn't always necessary. Maybe your character is visiting the castle for a rest break on their way to a more important mission. If you just want to write a few sentences about this rest break, there is no need to spend a paragraph describing the castle. However, if your character has been invited to live at the castle for an extended period of time, they might take more notice of the details of the castle, giving you good reason to describe it to your readers.
Ask questions. Is the sun really bright in your next scene? So what? Does it temporarily blind your characters in the middle of a major battle? Perhaps your protagonist with sensitive skin gets sunburn. Maybe the shadows play an important role in your story. If the town in your story is crowded one day, ask yourself why? If it is market day, there are probably vendors and visitors everywhere, messing with your character’s plans. Or maybe there’s a public execution. What does your character do then? Asking the right questions about the details you bring up can help you remember other details that make your overall story connect together.
In the end, writing descriptions well is a matter of practice. It may take a while to get it right, but it will be worth it. Your descriptions will bring to life the worlds explored in your stories. They will take not only your readers, but also you to places you could only dream of.