When writers show readers the world around their characters, this is when a story can come alive. It’s the difference between dialogue existing on a black movie screen and an exchange that stirs your readers’ imaginations.
Sometimes, you might realize description would enhance a scene, but you aren’t quite sure how to turn a sentence from simple into masterful. There are three common weaknesses I stumble upon again and again in my editing work, so I wanted to pass on some possible solutions that may help.
Difficulty #1: Delayed description
Rather than putting an unnecessary intro into your sentence, just get to the description. What do I mean by this?
For example, “He looked around and saw that there were footprints in the snow. He realized they were the size of a child’s. When he examined them more closely, his son’s boot tread could be detected in the crushed slush.”
This is all fine, sure, but look what happens when you take away the unnecessary pieces:
“There were footprints in the snow, the size of a child’s. His son’s boot tread could be detected in the crushed slush.”
It’s suddenly tighter, faster paced, and more vivid. All of the early language “He looked…he saw… he realized…he examined…” can often be cut for a stronger effect. This is true with all sensory introductions (he saw/he smelled/he heard/he felt/he tasted). Sometimes, they are absolutely fine, but I recommend deleting them 99% of the time to really bring readers into a moment without any hesitation.
Difficulty #2: Vague description
It’s all in the details, folks. As writers we know this. We want to make scenes real for our readers, but we have to be specific and often unique in how we do this. It’s hard to visualize “outside,” but if you introduce your readers to the splintered garden fence, the singing chickadee with its black hooded head, the wind with a hint of springtime’s warmth, and the smell of the compost pile for the next season’s carrot planting, a more complete picture is presented.
Specifics are important. And unique details stand out too. Don’t describe a cliché scene everyone has seen so many times before. Create a place that is distinctive somehow. These are the places that are remembered.
Difficulty #3: Forgetting your other senses
Yes, we often think about the visual when we think of description, but writers shouldn’t be limited just to what they can see. Sounds and smells can add rich depth to a scene, as can the way something feels. Taste is a bit less common, but it can be powerful in the right context.
Contrary to popular belief, writing is not something that people are born being great at. Writing is a craft. We get better by practicing.
Write on, writers!