You know when you start reading a book and suddenly the pages disappear and you find yourself completely immersed in the story? When you see what the characters see and build up the exact image of a house or a room in your head? That is when a book is described well. But how do you define ‘well described’? As writers, what do you have to do to cause this hallucinogenic effect in your readers? Don’t worry, by the end of this article you will know exactly how to write descriptions in your story.
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No big words
Unfortunately, many writers make this mistake. Thinking that the more adjectives they use, the more words the text contains, the more effective their description will be.
But it doesn’t work that way. Complicated sentences only distract the reader from their imagination because they are busy concentrating on what you are trying to explain.
There are simpler ways for both parties to describe what your protagonist is seeing.
Let’s see what they are.
Use the 5 senses
I too am guilty when it comes to using the sense of sight too much in descriptions.
In everyday life, what we see constitutes most of our reality.
We often almost forget the existence of the other 4 signs but this is a big mistake, especially in writing.
Of course, if your character is sighted he will also give a lot of importance to what he sees around him. But not only that. If you really want to give the reader a complete experience that captures and holds his or her attention, then you have to use everything at your disposal.
Taste of course can be used a few times in descriptions of buildings or places (you can’t always make your character lick the walls), but hearing and smell are great for bringing the space you are describing to life.
If you say that a house smells of overused shoes, all readers will know exactly what to imagine. And not only will they enter the story better, but you will be able to give character to every single place you talk about.
Maybe it is me who is biased because I find metaphors to be one of the most beautiful things ever invented in writing. In a nutshell, they are able to reconstruct a precise and unambiguous image in our heads and this is a power not to be underestimated while writing your book.
“A purple flowering vine had colonised the lighthouse wall and curled itself around the remains of the door on its left side.”
– Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
The commander’s wife’s garden is mentioned here. This description with metaphor not only immediately paints a clear picture in our minds but also gives character to the place described.
Use all the information you have
What feeling should the place you are describing evoke? What is its past/history? What happens in that place in the present?
Having these answers will help you considerably in your descriptions. You will write your text without even realising it and the speech will run smoothly.
Explain how that place makes your protagonist feel and whether it evokes memories.
Bringing all this information together will make your writing richer and your pages 100 times more interesting.
I would like to print this advice on my eyes, because I forget it myself. Remember that creative writing is a process and there is no other way to improve than to write badly. Never be afraid to make mistakes because without them, you will not grow.
Choose a detail to focus on
Focus on the details.
Normally when we enter a room we have never seen, we look around. But our attention is always caught by something specific. Whether it is the mussa on the sides of the walls, or a large sofa, or the strong light coming from the large window, there is always something to bring our attention to.
And this can help your descriptions so much.
The detail you focus on in your text should be something that, preferably, makes us realise what kind of feeling that room gives. Or it can let us find out more about the landlord.
If you want to describe a disgusting room, describe something that triggers the same feeling. If it is a scary place, describe it in a way that makes the reader anxious.
Give importance to your descriptions, they are not just for describing what is around the characters. But, if handled well, they can be used to show information without the need to say it.
Use your descriptions for the plot
If in the course of the story one of your characters attacks someone with a weapon, mention this object in the description.
For example, if someone comes through the window to kill your protagonist and he defeats him with a sword he had nearby, you must have mentioned that sword beforehand. Otherwise, readers will have no idea where it came from.
You can simply describe it at the beginning together with the room, describe the bed, the wardrobe and the big shiny sword hanging on the wall.
This is very important. Because when objects appear out of nowhere, readers get distracted from the story because they are trying to figure out where something like that came from. And whether they were the ones who missed a piece of the story. So always remember to describe the objects that are important to your plot.
Know when to shut up
The Lord of the Rings is a literary masterpiece due to its detailed worldbuilding. It is a special saga with many characters and a gripping plot.
Unfortunately, however, hardly anyone gets to read it. And that, you know, is because of the long, drawn-out descriptions.
Tolkien definitely loved describing every single detail of every single place his characters encountered on their journey. He assured you that if you do the same thing today with your book, it will not become The Lord of the Rings, but will simply be discarded by anyone.
I know it is difficult to accept, but like everything, reading has become faster in the 21st century. And readers demand something that flows instead of a book that creates reader’s block.
Describing a place in detail, especially if you have put a lot of effort into it, is not a crime. But doing this with every single description will kill your story.
Some places only take a paragraph to describe and that is fine. Sometimes fewer words have more effect than two pages that are likely to be skipped.
It is shocking how little we use colours in descriptions. Sight is the most used sense in any book but few times do writers remember that the reality they are presenting is not in black and white.
Of course, I am not telling you to abuse colours senselessly.
If you write:
“The grey sofa took up almost all the space in the small room.”
The fact that the sofa is that colour does not give us any information.
“The sofa had a red undertone, Susy wondered what colour it had been before it was left to age in the musty cellar”.
It gives you a clear picture of the sofa and the type of room it is in.
So what did we learn in this article?
How to write descriptions in your book:
- No big words
- Use the 5 senses
- Use metaphors
- Use all the information you have
- Choose a detail to focus on
- Use your descriptions for the plot
- Know when to shut up
- Use colours
But above all, remember:
All these tips will enable you to improve your writing and you will succeed in writing your book just as you imagined. But don’t let them stop you.
I advise you as always not to think about all these things while writing the first draft of your book. That only serves to tell the story to yourself.
Instead, use these tricks in the editing phase of your book and you will see that a stone can turn into a diamond. Happy writing and, since we are in the month of NaNoWriMo, remember to rest!
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