Description in writing means you’re trying to show your readers how something is in a physical, tangible, or visceral way. While I write, I flip between describing too much and not describing enough. Some scenes will be filled with too much literary painting of a location, and others leave me wondering where on earth my characters talk, stand, and exist. I have a few tips for how I try to describe, since I know my weaknesses: I go overboard or I don’t go far enough at all. These tips are designed for fellow writers who can’t find a balance between the two!
As always, remember the voice and style you’re writing in. Some of these tips won’t be recommended depending on your style. If you’re writing, say, a clinical sci-fi story, then toning down on metaphor and simile will be more aligned to your story’s voice.
Anyway, here are my tips for writing description if you struggle to find a balance!
Consider senses (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste, size/scale/magnitude, balance, time)
Sensory details make a scene more visceral. The classic five senses are great for putting characters and the setting in reality. However, there are more senses to consider! I personally like to use senses in time and scale for my setting. I’ll describe how big things are in relation to each other, like the character, or how time feels when it’s passing or not passing. Using a sense of warmth and chill is one of my tactics for describing characters—though I tread carefully with that, since it may turn cliche very quickly.
Pick one physical trait as a first impression for readers and other characters.
One stand-out feature often packs a bigger punch than multiple features to describe a character’s appearance. If I focus on a detail while giving a broad picture image of a character, while I’m reading, I can somehow imagine the character more easily. Think of a stand-out feature of someone you know well or care about. It doesn’t necessarily define their image, but it’s memorable. You want to write memorable characters.
Try to “package” their appearance, instead of cataloguing all of their features.
Find descriptors that do multiple things at once instead of listing out an excessive amount of them. Lists are great, but too many descriptions at once will overwhelm a reader. This goes along with picking one stand-out trait. When you package a character using fewer words, you give the reader broad strokes and impressions of the character. A woman with a dark complexion on a slim build who has green eyes framed by thick, bushy eyebrows that nearly touched her temples—this kind of description packages a character’s appearance better than saying “She had dark brown skin, black hair, with slim limbs and a tall frame, while her emerald eyes sat under thick, bushy eyebrows.” This latter description is more of a catalogue. They both say the same thing (dark hair and skin, slim figure, green eyes, thick eyebrows), but proportionally, they focus on different aspects. I will emphasise one thing here, though: be aware of stereotypes, particularly bigoted ones. A flamboyant gay man is a stereotype. A sassy black woman is a stereotype. Be aware of them, particularly if you’re writing characters with identities and ethnicities different than yours.
Show one physical quirk that expresses one emotion.
This tip is very specific. I like to pick one quirk, habit, or behaviour that shows a character’s emotion. This is where people watching helps me make a mental database of quirks! Some people twirl their hair when they’re thinking. When I’m incredibly focused, I nibble on my dead cuticles. For the same emotion, my boyfriend chews at his fingernails. When I’m anxious, I rub my thumb against the side of one of my fingers, or I click my fingernails together (if they’re long). There are cliche body language gestures for certain emotions (such as chewing on your nails), but if you watch people mindfully, you’ll notice that they have unique gestures. It helps to people watch the same person often, or even yourself, to come up with these quirks.
Avoid “white room syndrome” by describing the setting near the beginning of a new scene/chapter.
“White room syndrome” is when your characters exist in a state of nothingness while they talk or act. They may be moving around or interacting with each other, but they lack an environment. I always picture a floor-less, wall-less room with the characters standing on nothing. Like the scene in The Matrix before Neo and Trinity gear up at the climax. Or, for more examples, the “White Void Room” shown often in film and television. I avoid this by writing a bit of setting description near the beginning of the scene, to set the stage.
Use your POV character to describe the location.
What would they notice? What interests them? What stands out or doesn’t stand out to them? Just like you and your friends, you’ll notice different details when looking at or experiencing something.
Aim for nuances and mood.
This tip is similar to the character packaging one. Instead of cataloguing all the surroundings and environment, try to create an atmospheric mood with a few details. A rainy day on a forested hill has a mood. A mix of conifer and broadleaf trees, illuminated by beams of sun above the character… that also has a mood. What doesn’t have a mood? “I walked into the forest, noting the pine and broadleaf trees swaying, and climbed the hill, travelling deeper.” There’s no quality of light, weather, or environment to overlay the entire image.
Avoid dumping information on the reader in order to show as much as possible of your world.
This tip goes for characters as well, but I emphasise it for setting. Since I write fantasy, it’s also my primary reading genre. Fantasy writers want to convey their created or altered world in as much detail as possible to their readers. Perhaps it’s an insecurity of ours, and we don’t think the place is “real” enough and we overdo the description. Or perhaps the world is our primary interest in the story and we’re just too dang excited about it to stop describing it. Regardless, too much at once will disconnect the reader from the story. We learn about the world naturally by learning slowly as we grow up, as we visit new places, as we research different countries. Small details add up over time and readers can more easily remember bite-size chunks to form the world in their mind as they read.
Hopefully you can take away something useful from this post! What are some of your weaknesses when it comes to description? What about your strengths?