How to Write Descriptions in Fiction, Part 3: The Character Connection

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Creative Commons License
Dead Descriptions” is a derivative of “Typewriter” by rachaelvoorhees under CC BY-SA 2.0. “Dead Descriptions” is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 by Danielle Hanna

So, you know that including descriptions in your novel–writing with all five senses–is supposed to help bring your story world to life. You try. And somehow … your scene feels just as dead as it did before. Wordier! But still dead. What are you doing wrong?

On Wednesdays this October, we’re talking about how to write descriptions in your novel. For your convenience, here are the links to the first two posts in this series:

When it comes to deciding which details are important and should be immortalized in literature, the answer lies in a surprising place: Your characters.

Who’s Point of View Is It, Anyway?

Point of view refers to who is telling the story. The beauty of the novel is that you get to become  the character, walking through his world in his skin.

A book may stick with one character’s perspective from beginning to end, or trade off between characters from one scene to the next. The vogue nowadays is to write in “deep POV.” (Carrie, however, still likes omniscient POV–the “God” perspective). In deep POV, what goes on the page is strictly what your POV character is capable of experiencing. Nothing more. Even the narration is written in his unique voice–whether you’re writing in first person (I, me) or third (he, she).

I often times catch myself writing from my own  perspective as I move through the scene like a cameraman. When I read over my draft later, I find myself hugely dissatisfied. My characters feel detached and distant.

Then I remember: I am not a character in this story. Do I find the glow of sunlight on leaves overhead inspiring? It doesn’t matter, if my character is dwelling on yesterday’s rain puddles. I need to quit describing the scene the way I  saw it and felt about it … and capture the experience of my POV character instead. Once I straighten that out, I’m usually far happier with the overall feel of my scene.

What Your POV Character Is Able to Notice

So how do you go about writing your descriptive passages? First, only write those details that your POV character is capable  of experiencing.

Let’s say your POV character for a particular scene is a five-year-old girl. She walks into the kitchen, where her mother is working at the counter.

Most five-year-olds are pretty short. She may be able to hear the thump and squeak of the rolling pin. She may be able to smell sugar and spices. She may be able to see little clouds of flour puffing into the air.

But until she climbs up on a chair or a stool, she cannot see the dough as it stretches out–or whether the counter is littered with pie pans or cookie cutters.

On the other hand, she could probably give a pretty fair description of the underside of the counter–perhaps including the doodle in pink marker she hopes her mother never finds out about.

By using only those details your POV character is capable of observing, you can accomplish a lot.

  • You bring your POV character to life
  • You allow your reader to become  your POV character
  • You allow your reader to experience the story for themselves through the POV character

What Your POV Character Is Likely to Notice

So we’ve just covered the notion of sticking to what your POV character can  notice. Now we come to what your character is likely  to notice.

No two people view the same thing exactly the same way. They will all see something different, based on their own interests, areas of expertise, prejudices, and relation to the person or thing being described.

A police detective will view a room differently from an interior decorator, who will view it differently from the grandkids when they come to visit. The detective may notice what kinds of valuables are left in plain sight and the quality of the locks on the doors. The interior decorator may notice the Victorian décor and the use of natural light. The grandkids may notice the toys in the toy box and the cookie jar on the shelf.

The same principle applies when describing characters. The boss at the office might note different details about his junior partner than, say, the young man’s girlfriend would.

Conclusion

When faced with the dilemma of setting your scene or describing your cast members, it’s easy to write from your own POV–but doing so can make your characters (the stars of the show!) dead, flat, and distant. Learn instead how to slip into your character’s skin and write only what they can  observe and what they are likely  to observe. This one trick can move mountains in bringing your story to life.

Unless you’re Carrie, and you still enjoy writing in omniscient POV. I’m not saying that it can’t be done artfully, but that would be a different lesson, and frankly one I’m not qualified to teach. (Smiles.)

Next Wednesday, we’re going to talk more about the connection between how to write descriptions and how your characters can help you. Even thought you’re writing from your character’s POV, are you still not sure how to spin descriptive details into compelling, artful, inspired writing? Don’t worry. Your characters know how.

Meanwhile, Carrie is running a series on Saturdays this October on daily writing discipline. Authors, gird yourselves for NaNoWriMo!

To stay tuned, you’re welcome to subscribe to our blog. We’ve even got a thank-you lined up: a free copy of Carrie’s ebook Writing a Novel Is Like Walking a Cat. Feel tethered to an uncooperative story? Carrie (and her cat Thomas) know how you feel.

Now, here’s an icebreaker to get the conversation going: What are your personal tricks for writing good descriptions?

Other Posts in This Series

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