Writing descriptions within a story can be a lot like painting a picture. You labor over the process, but the end result never quite matches the scene you envisioned. In my view, the ability to speak a world into existence comes as a gift from the Author of Creation, who did it first and best.
Words have limitations, but I cherish them. They fill my paintbox, every one a color made up of tones and hues. I pore over them with the joy of a child at play. When writing descriptions, I am grateful for the reading habit that helps me glean these most valuable of commodities. I have forgiven (and now wish to thank) that high school vocabulary teacher who loaded me with homework. When my own word choices run out, a few keystrokes on the Internet produces an array of synonyms, all lined up like brushes awaiting the artist’s hand.
Writing Descriptions with Evocative Imagery
Every author has strengths. I am told by readers who review my books that writing descriptions is one of mine. You would think that would make this topic one of my favorites to write about. Not exactly. You see, it’s difficult to articulate something you internalized while reading good books. It’s taken both self-analysis and editors’ feedback for me to understand why my descriptions transport readers into the storyworlds I create.
Less is More
When you are good at something, you usually want to keep doing it, right? Ah, but too much description bogs down a manuscript. Going through edits for my books has taught me to balance use of description within a scene. That I’ve succeeded shines through in a Goodreads review of my western historical romance, Hills of Nevermore: “This story is well written, with just the right amount of poetic language.” Whew! That praise was hard-earned.
Avoiding too much description was one of the most painful lessons I’ve learned (and continue to learn) as a writer. Remember though, that while less description is more, none at all isn’t a good idea. Setting the scene with description anchors the reader in time and place. Striking a balance between all the elements of your story is an art worth mastering.
Note: I’ll make my points, then include an example from Hills of Nevermore at the end of the article to clarify them.
Work the Setting into the Story, Not Vice Versa
The writing advice to treat the setting like a separate character created problems for me. This rule of thumb might guide a writer bent on skimming through a story without spending much time on description. In my case, it gave me permission to overindulge in scene setting. Worse, it set me up to view the setting as a separate entity from the story itself. This led me to slow scenes that should have been fast-paced by inserting description. Even in a slower scene, however, interrupting the story with description is an intrusion.
The solution is to include the setting in your story without letting it intrude.
Remain Within Your Character’s Point of View
I can’t emphasize enough that remaining in your viewpoint character’s mindset when writing descriptions will save you from making gaffes. Doing anything else is a departure from the story and a mistake.
Use the Senses to Show the Action
We experience the world through our senses, so it makes sense that we would enter a storyworld in the same manner. Don’t miss the joy of using the senses in your writing or cheat your reader of the imagery they evoke.
To orient you, America is the heroine and Liberty is her baby. Addie is another widow in the wagon train, and Travis is Addie’s teenage son. This scene takes place in the middle of the night, with America sleeping in her wagon with her baby in a small cradle.
A rifle clicked in the darkness.
America’s feet hit the wagon box floor. Her hand closed on the stock of her rifle.
Liberty stirred in her rocking cradle.
America inched forward and parted the flaps that closed off the front of the wagon. A gibbous moon hung bright in the sky and reached fingers of light to touch the silver sagebrush. A long barrel gleamed, betraying the figure crouched where the front wheel of America’s wagon was chained to Addie’s rear wheel. That shock of curly hair could only belong to Addie’s son, Travis.
Beyond the circled wagons, shadows slipped through the dimness, too slight to be buffalo. One leaped into a shaft of moonlight, revealing nothing more sinister than a herd of antelope foraging near the wagons.
This scene contains only enough of the setting to orient the reader without slowing the fast pace. You will notice that there remains enough room for touches of lyricism. This is happy news for me.
The description remains within America’s point of view at all times. There’s a progression to what she sees. In her alarmed state when she first looks out from the wagon, she probably wouldn’t notice anything beyond an impression of the moonlight silvering the sagebrush. She then picks out the gleam of a rifle barrel, something she’s on high alert to see. Travis’s hair in the moonlight claims her attention next, since he is holding the rifle. After she realizes that Travis is no threat, she peers beyond the wagon circle into the moving shadows that resolve into antelope.
Engaging the senses brings the story to life. Rather than saying that ‘the sound of a rifle’ came from the darkness, the weapon clicks. I don’t tell the reader that America got up off her tick, but show her feet hitting the floor of the wagon. This recalls for the reader the sensation and sound of bare feet thumping on a wooden floor. In the same manner, I don’t say that she picked up her rifle but allow her fingers to curl around the stock. America’s sense of sight gives us important details, like the fact that there’s enough moonlight to see by, that Travis is outside with a rifle, and that something is moving. If I were to state those bald facts, the scene would lose its richness.
Final Thoughts From Janalyn
I’ve written another post with more tips to help in writing descriptions. To continue this lesson, read Breathe Life Into Your Fictional World with Fantastic Descriptions.