Use description to engage the reader

Description is a necessary element of fiction, but people differ greatly on how much is enough and how much is too much. When you show your draft to critique partners and beta readers, you may get wildly different evaluations about how you’re doing on this point. I recently finished the first draft of the second book in the Prophet’s Chronicle series. Of one particular scene, I had one critique partner say the description ran too long and he started skimming. Another thought it was beautiful and poetic, and she loved it.

Nevertheless, there are a few things we can say about description that hold true across genres and writing styles.

Each scene includes a baseline descriptor to aid the reader.

Even if you’re a minimalist writer, give the reader enough to ground them in the scene. This can be as simple as the living room, the outer bailey, Space Station K-7. One line to let the reader know where they are. Some of these, by their nature, bring a load of connotations with them. If your solider enters the mess hall, most of us can conjure up an image of what that might look like. The degree to which you build on that will be determined by the conventions of your genre and your personal writing style.

Put your descriptor near the top of the scene, and build on it as the scene progresses.

Painting a picture description
Photo by Jesper Markward Olsen • freeimages.com

Descriptions are woven in organically and pull the reader into the story.

One way new writers get tripped up is by reading description as “telling.” Even smart critique partners can make this mistake. Although poorly written description probably is told, good description is shown. A poor example of description would be something like this:

She entered the room and caught her breath. Dust motes floated in the air. Rushes covered the floor, and on the other side of the room was a carved door. She walked across to the door.

It’s okay, as far as it goes, but there’s no character in it. A critique partner could easily flag that as telling — or maybe just dull. The key to keeping description interesting is to remain embedded in your viewpoint character’s mindset and describe things as she encounters them.

Here’s an excerpt from Dawnsinger by Janalyn Voigt:

The heavy door groaned shut and Shae pressed against it while she caught her breath. The great hall stood empty, which was just as well. She should still be abed, waiting to be roused by her maid. Catching her breath, she watched dust motes float in bars of light slanting through the tall windows, which overlooked the inner bailey’s herb garden.

Fresh rushes deadened her footfalls and sent up a warm scent overlaid with the pungent aromas of rosemary, mint, and lavender. Beneath a wide archway on one side of the chamber, Shae put her hand to the latch of a tall door carved with gryphons.

Voigt starts with a detail, “heavy door,” then gives us a moment with the heroine, who’s reacting to what happened earlier. Then we get the baseline descriptor “great hall,” upon which Voigt builds by tracing Shae’s movement through the room, conjuring sounds, scents, and sights.

This kind of sensory engagement through the viewpoint character allows description to be an integral part of the story.
Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. Dawnsinger is by a friend of mine and it’s awesome. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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1 Comment

  1. It does seem like description is going out of style these days. I know I went the “minimalist” route myself for a while until someone pointed out that it was difficult to see the world my characters were in. I started adding more description again. I missed it. I love the feeling I get while writing AND reading it. =)

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