Every story exists somewhere between the writer's imagination and the reader's imagination. As the author, you create the story, but once it leaves your hands, it isn't yours anymore. It becomes whatever the reader makes of it.
To this end, finding the right balance of description—not too much, not too little—is critical. Good description sketches a clear picture but does not fill in every single detail. Good description builds and deepens the reality of the story in vibrant ways, but also leaves room for the reader to imagine some of the features and qualities of the world. This work—this imagining—invests the reader in the story. It allows the reader to claim and connect with the story, even to be a partner in creating it.
In short, good description is vital for bringing a story to life. Yet many newer writers are daunted by this aspect of their writing. They may worry that their imagery will slow down the plot or bore the reader. They may believe that setting and physicality aren't really necessary. They may be concerned that they don't have a knack for description. Here are some tips as you approach this in your own work:
- Know your setting well. Place is essential to any story. It defines the scope of your characters' actions—where they go, what they feel and see and hear and taste and touch, how large an effect they have on the world around them, how many people they interact with, how rich and full their lives are. Make intentional choices about your setting. Urban or rural? Beautiful or ugly? Familiar or unknown? Safe or perilous? Interesting or dull? Spacious or cramped? Bright or dark? Pleasant or off-putting? The setting defines the size and shape of the story.
- Once you've chosen a setting, be specific about its nature. Your setting should never seem vague or half-imagined. Some writers will draw landscape maps. Some will create a layout for the house in which their characters live. If your story takes place outdoors, be aware of the terrain, the season of the year, the foliage, the weather, the color and texture of the sky. If your story takes place indoors, be aware of the architecture, the kind of furniture, the feel of the room (stuffy, open, cozy, cluttered), the amount and quality of light, the smell of the air. This does not mean you must describe all these elements in detail, but the more aware you are of your setting, the more you will be able to capture it and integrate it into the story.
- Remember to use all five senses. Many writers have a "default sense" that they use reflexively when writing description. (For most of us, this is vision. A great many authors will describe what things look like and stop there.) Pay attention to what "default sense" you may use, and try to break out of the habit whenever possible. Smell, in particular, can be incredibly evocative when written well. Think about temperature, ambient sounds, the feel of the ground, the taste of the air.
- Description can echo and enhance the mood of a story. There's a reason so many love scenes take place in the wild crush of pouring rain. Your use of description can heighten, alter, or mirror what your characters are feeling. The same interaction will seem different if it happens in a labyrinthine mansion or a dark alley or a children's playground. If two characters are having a terrible fight, placing them in a tight, claustrophobic room will heighten the tension, while placing them in an open, breezy field will defuse it. A coming storm creates the sensation of foreboding. Heat slows the story down. A cold breeze chills the reader too. Think about how your descriptions can affect the emotion and action of the story.
- It is as important to describe your characters as it is to describe the setting. Physicality makes these people real to the reader. Some writers will sketch portraits of their characters. Others use traits from people they know. Some will write out a list of physical and mental attributes for each character. Make sure you know what your characters look like. Make sure that your descriptions are consistent.
- When describing people, stay away from hair and eye color, as well as height and weight. Many writers make the mistake of describing their characters like the people in a police blotter. Think, instead, about the way you might describe your friends. Do you know the height and weight of your friends? Do you ever think about their eye color? These features are not as interesting as other, more complex descriptors. Consider your characters' gestures, the shape of their facial features, their gait, their dimples, their scars, the way they laugh, the quality of their teeth, their stance, their fashion sense, their odor, their vocal tone, and so on.
- Think in terms of "telling details": details that let the reader see your characters while also revealing something about their minds. In this way, your descriptions can do double duty: giving the reader a physical picture while also showing an inner, mental trait. If a woman has unkempt, flyaway hair, that lets the reader see her, and it also reveals something about the character's sense of self and level of vanity. If a man has rimless, tinted glasses and a dry, taut mouth, that lets the reader see him, and it also reveals a lot about the character's personality.
- Vary the length of your sentences. If you favor long, winding, complex sentences, remember that too much of this style can overwhelm and exhaust the reader. Take a break and include shorter sentences every so often. If, on the other hand, you prefer brief, choppy, staccato sentences, remember that too much of this sort of prose can seem breathless and frantic. Take a break and include a long, dreamy sentence every now and then to calm the reader down.
- Description can be particularly useful when writing dialogue. If your characters are conversing for a long time, they can start to seem disembodied. The reader may lose track of who's talking or forget the physical space that holds the characters. It's important to include imagery and description at regular intervals to ground the characters' voices in reality. A paragraph of description can slow down a ping-pong interaction. It can quiet an intense and heated interaction. It can give the reader a beat to take in some new information. It can add nuance and nonverbal subtlety to the characters, shading and enhancing what they're saying.
- Each new scene in a story should have at least one paragraph of description to clarify where the characters are and who is present. This should happen fairly early in the scene. Whenever your readers are unsure about the physical logistics of the story, they will be unable to fully suspend their disbelief and dive in; they will be too busy trying to figure out what's going on. You never want your readers to be unsure about who, what, when, and where. Give us the situation right away. Tell us who is in the room. Locate your story in a distinct place and time.
- Too much description can bog down a story, but not enough can have the opposite effect, making the characters seem weightless and detached from reality. However, this is something to think about only during the process of revision. You should not worry about it while actively writing something new. When it comes to description, finding the right balance will take time, space, and the clarity of mind that comes from editing a finished piece, not creating a new one. While you're actively writing, don't worry about whether you're using too much or too little description. Feel free to try things and make mistakes. When in doubt, write more description than you think you'll need. You can always take things out afterward.
- All these rules—like every rule ever made about writing—should be broken when necessary.