Description can bring readers into your world, but if used incorrectly, it can also slow the pace of your narrative or skew your characterization. We can all think of writers whose descriptive skill we envy, but how do you get there?
The first step, I believe, is to understand that everyone’s experience of the world around them is colored by their past experiences, their personal knowledge, their mood in that moment, and a million other little details that we, as writers, need to be able to imagine for our characters.
As writing exercises may have told you at some point, describing the where your character wakes from cryo-sleep is going to be different from describing the room where your character walks in to look for their sister who should be in cryo-sleep but has, through a strange accident, died. By the same token, a tree seen by a botanist on an alien world should sound a lot different when described by one of the people who grew up on that world.
So in order to write good description, keep in mind the following:
- Don’t use words that your characters wouldn’t use. Be aware of the vocabulary that your character has access to because of their world, their upbringing, their education, their job, and think about the kinds of language and metaphors they would be comfortable with. Is your character poetic, pragmatic, brutally straightforward? Do they have different associations than you do with certain colors? You can have a lot of fun with this, but the first step is to always be aware of it.
- Think about where your character is emotionally, and use that in your description. If they’re sad, even something pretty is probably going to make them feel sad and think sad thoughts, while if they’re walking on air even the dreariest setting is likely to seem pleasant to them.
- Every description — every time your character encounters a new object or person or location – is an opportunity to show who your POV character is and how they think. You don’t want to go too far in this — don’t waste time in the narrative describing things for the sake of describing them — but if you’re deft about it you can get a lot across merely by how a character sees the world around them.
- Consciously limit yourself to only the things that your character regards as important in that moment. You’ll never get lost in painting an overly-detailed word picture that derails your scene or slows down your action if do this. Nothing else gets written down, because the character didn’t think it was important enough to notice. If a character is racing to escape the evil sorcerer, they’re probably not going to take the time to think about how lovely the mosaic they’re running over is. Conversely, if they’re waiting for a contact who’s running late, they may spend a lot of time looking at that mosaic and analyzing every detail of it in whatever way suits them best.
Of course, that last item can require some tricky manipulation, and as you practice you’ll learn to manipulate this in order to make sure your character notices what’s important for the reader to see. If you need a character to notice something that isn’t the sort of detail that character would normally notice, then you need to be clever about drawing their attention (and therefore the audience’s attention) to that thing. For instance, if the character needs to notice the time but they’re an easy-going sort who doesn’t run their life on a schedule, then something needs to draw their eye to that clock.
Another theory I like comes from author James Alan Gardner. He recommends that writers think of every description as the story of the character’s encounter with a place or object. I can’t put the reasoning behind this better than he does:
Too often, writers describe things just by making lists of details. For example, when you want to describe a person, you may be tempted to list facial features, body type, clothing, and so on.
But that’s not how we actually experience other people. We don’t encounter people as static lists of characteristics, we encounter them in a temporal sequence of perceptions and resulting reactions: i.e. as a story.James Alan Gardner, The Skill List Project
When we meet a new person or arrive at a new place in real life, we don’t experience that encounter all at once — we take in the details of it in a particular order, and react to them as a little mini story within ourselves.