I’m sure that as an author, you already know that description is extremely important. You also know that most people say, “Show don’t tell.” And you know that there can be a fine line between too much description and not enough description. So where do you even start?
I’m going to share with you how I practice and develop my description writing skills, and you can do it too no matter what stage of your author journey you are in. My method doesn’t even require a WIP.
But first, let’s look at an example of description that falls flat and see how we can improve it.
Mara moved around the outskirts of the camp, avoiding as many people as she could. She had to talk to William’s parents immediately, and the seditionists would only slow her down.
This is an example from my own writing in my Kingdom Chronicles series. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo, so I didn’t agonize over creating the perfect descriptions in every scene. But now that I’m revising it, it’s time to see how I can improve it.
The most effective and vivid description appeals to our senses. It uses concrete nouns and verbs that we can relate to from our own experience. It gives us a glimpse into the character’s world even if that world doesn’t really exist.
My example consists of only two sentences, and there is nothing in it that gives you an idea of what Mara’s surroundings look like or what she hears, tastes, or feels. As authors, we have to show our reader what our characters experience.
Also, a lack of description can often lead us to tell the reader exactly what is happening or what the character plans to do. I see this a lot from new authors, and I am guilty of it myself.
Instead of letting what Mara is trying to do and who stands in her way unfold naturally, I flat out tell you. There is no excitement, suspense, or conflict in that statement, and that will certainly bore my readers. They don’t want to be told everything like I’m spoon feeding them. They want to uncover the plots, conflicts, worlds, and characters for themselves.
Below, you can read my revision of the first example. Notice the words I use that relate to our senses, and look for the ways that I reveal Mara’s objective and obstacles without stating it plainly.
Mara peered out from behind a tree, searching for the seditionists that were on guard outside the camp. She spotted two of them talking off to her right, and the taller one was facing her direction. He threw back his head and let out a boisterous laugh, and Mara furrowed her brow at him even though he couldn’t see her. He wouldn’t be laughing if he did his job long enough to know that there was a war brewing amongst kingdoms.
Mara kicked the dirt at her feet and forced up a small pebble. She bounced it in her hand to feel the dense weight of it before closing her fist around it. She stepped out enough to get her arm around the tree, threw the pebble into the woods away from her, and ducked back behind the tree.
She heard the two men stop talking mid sentence followed by the swoosh of swords being drawn. The leaves rustled on the forest floor as the men went to investigate the noise opposite of Mara.
Mara peaked around the tree again, and she saw the backs of the guards facing her. She crouched low to the ground and briskly headed into the camp, silently crunching the leaves under her slender frame. She reached the edge of the first row of tents and paused, listening for people milling about in the camp. Dozens of voices mingled in the air, but she was listening for only one.
By adding description, I am able to give you a better understanding of where Mara is, her objective and obstacles (without bluntly stating it), and her solution in a much more entertaining and descriptive way.
You probably noticed that I appealed mainly to your sense of sight and sound. I didn’t use all the senses because it wasn’t necessary for this scene. You may have scenes in your book that will require all your senses, but most of the time, you will just need one to three at a time.
Also, if you’re struggling to make your plot stretch out to novel length in word count, look and see if you can include more description somewhere in your book. My original example was 1 paragraph consisting of 2 sentences and 31 words, but my revision was 4 paragraphs consisting of 13 sentences and 244 words.
So, how do you get better at writing description?
It’s simple: you read great description, you write description, and you get feedback on your description.
When I’m struggling with creating engaging description, I pick up a book I like and read it, analyzing how that author used the senses, weaved in the character’s thoughts, and used dialogue to break it up. The best books to study are those in your genre, and if you’re not sure where to start, ask a friend who reads similar books.
However, you can read description all day every day and still not get any better at writing it. You must start practicing. You can practice by revising your own writing like I did with my books, but I suggest that you do not start there.
Start with a random writing prompt. You can find them all over the internet, especially on Pinterest, and they often come in the form of dialogue prompts. The best prompts for practicing description are pictures. It can be a picture of anything. The point is to take what you see and describe it using your senses. You can create a character to place in that scene, or you can use the person in the picture if it has one. Focus on what your character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels, but remember that you don’t have to use them all at once.
The benefit of using a prompt instead of your own story is that it frees you from the distractions of developing plot and characters. It’s easy to get caught up in moving your story forward, and that can quickly pull you away from focusing solely on practicing description.
If you’re not sure where to start, use this picture that I found on Pinterest.
Get Feedback on Description
Finally, get feedback on your description. I know this can be a scary thought for some people, but this last step will force you to push your skills to the next level. Ask someone to read what you wrote from the above picture without showing the picture to him or her. Ask specific questions related to description. For example, could they picture what the character’s surroundings look like?
Since this topic is so important and often difficult to get the hang of, I encourage you to share what you write about the above picture with the rest of us. Share your writing in the comments below, and your fellow authors, as well as myself, can then give you feedback. If you have specific questions or something you struggle with, be sure to mention that so we can help you with that topic.
And remember that as writers, we will always practice and search for ways to improve our own writing. That’s part of the joy of writing. So, don’t stress about getting it exactly right the first time. The point is to have fun and learn.