How to Write Descriptions in Fiction: Bringing Your Novel to Life

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You’ve probably heard it said: good writing incorporates all five senses. But how do you do that without generating a plot-stalling list of minutia? How do you describe anything without boring yourself and your reader? Since descriptions are so hard … can we just skip them altogether?

This October, we’re running a five-part series on how to write descriptions in fiction–and by the end of it, I expect you’ll find the art of describing your settings and characters anything but boring!

School is definitely in session here at Indie Plot Twist. On Saturdays this month, Carrie is running a separate series on daily discipline for writers. Very timely, with NaNoWriMo just around the corner!

But let’s jump in and start talking about descriptions in your novel.

What Do We Mean by “Description?”

Google will give you everything from how to write a descriptive essay for school (and how it’s different from a narrative essay), to how to describe your novel in a summary.

But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how to describe your characters, the settings they move around in, and the props they use in their story world. Description is a part of the narration of your story–narration being everything on the page that isn’t dialogue.

In a nutshell, we’re talking about how to write using the five senses:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste

A common pitfall is to rely almost completely on describing the visuals of your story world–what your character sees. But you can give your reader a far fuller experience by using all five senses throughout your story.

Why Is Description Important?

Yes, yes, yes, you’ve been told to work with all five senses. But let’s face it. It’s hard. Instead of bringing your world to life, you feel like you’ve just written a grocery list. You feel like your reader has to stop and think. “Wait. The end table was on which side of the sofa?”

But once you learn the knack (and that’s what this series is all about), descriptions in your novel can accomplish a lot.

Draw your reader into the story world. The only means we humans have of perceiving reality is through our five senses. We “believe what we see.” (And hear and smell and touch and taste.) By bringing out the details in your story, the reader isn’t simply hearing about some events that happened someplace far away; thanks to your descriptions, they are in the story, experiencing it for themselves.

Lend authenticity to the story. Some things require insider knowledge to be described accurately. For example, you know that patrol cars are equipped with radar units–but did you know the radar emits a squeal when it targets a vehicle? A high, clear tone indicates a clean reading. Any law enforcement officer reading your book would be glad to see you got that right, and any civilian would be duly impressed by your insider knowledge. Getting your details right builds trust between you and the reader, freeing the reader to fully believe in your story. When you make the facts believable, you make the fiction believable.

Evoke mood. Every scene in your story should convey a particular mood. A battle scene will be intense, chaotic, and stressful. A romantic scene will be intimate, quiet, and warm. A grieving scene will be deep, heavy, and anguished. But how, exactly, do you convey those moods? One way is through describing the details surrounding the character. In the real world, our moods are strongly influenced by the world around us–a world we perceive through our five senses. We smell sweet, spicy cologne, and we feel intimate. We hear soft piano music, and we feel quiet. We see the glow of the candles, and we feel warm. Can we say, “Show, don’t tell”?

The Best Details Come from Personal Experience

We’ll talk extensively later about how, exactly, to work descriptive detail into your writing–where to use it, when, how much, how to find the right words to use–but this week, we’re going to end our discussion with a final note on the raw materials you’re working with.

The best descriptive details are not made up. Readers are savvy and can smell a fake from miles away. Particularly if you’re trying to describe something with which that reader is already familiar. That’s why the best descriptive details come out of your own, first-hand experiences.

Last summer, I embarked on an 800-mile research trip to the town where I was setting my novel, Mailboat.

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I took this trip, first and foremost, for the sake of gathering details. I’d been getting to know the lakeside community of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, from a distance for the past five years. But I knew that to really  nail it, I had to go see the place for myself. Glad I did! I never would have known how clear the lake water was, how pure the air smelled, how easily a sixty-ton tour boat could be influenced by the wind and the waves … or that there was a painting of the original 1916 Mailboat on the wall at the Piggly Wiggly.

Write what you know–and if you don’t already know it, go find out.

You can take personal experiences one step further and have the object you’re trying to describe sitting right in font of you while you’re writing. I’ll never forget the time my college English professor brought several unlabeled bags of spice to class. She told us to write a descriptive sentence of the smell of our spice, and afterwards she would tell us what it was.

Here’s what my group wrote:

It was hearty and savory, yet mild. It smelled outdoorsy, like trees or wild grass, yet it had a citrus-like undertone.

It turned out to be sage. I was impressed. If our teacher had told us to describe the smell of sage–without any sage on hand to go by–I’m pretty sure the best we would have come up with was “hearty,” “warm,” or “earthy.” But with the actual sample in front of us, we were able to pen two whole sentences on the smell of sage, including details we’d never consciously been aware of.

Conclusion

So now you know what descriptive details are, and what they can do for you. But actually incorporating them into your story is an art in itself. Essentially, that’s what we’ll be talking about every Wednesday for the rest of October. Next week, we cover the dangers of “info dumping” (and how you can get away with it), the art of weaving your details into the narrative tactfully, and how to use what I call “signature details”–a detail so deeply associated with a character or a setting, that to do away with it could get you a mailbox full of angry letters.

All that next Wednesday. Meanwhile, Carrie’s series on daily discipline for writers starts this Saturday! If you want to be sure not to miss out on the fun, we welcome you to subscribe! Just to show our thanks, we’ll give you a free copy of Carrie’s insightful ebook, Writing a Novel Is Like Walking a Cat. If your writing life is feeling non-directional, this is the book for you.

Now here’s a conversation-starter for the comments section: Do you love writing descriptions, or hate it? Why?

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