10 Tips for Description in Your Novel

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10 Tips for Description in Your Novel

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 8 “Descriptions”

"Setting shouldn't just consist of describing nature or a landscape, or of saying where something takes place. It is the world of specific people. It's not enough for it to feel vivid or credible; it should feel necessary." -Kaui Hart Hemmings

Last time, I said that the next tutorial I worked on would be on the topic of editing, and I had every intention of doing that. So I worked this entire time on that tutorial (minus time spent writing and traveling, of course) and made a slightly disheartening discovery the day before I planned to publish this on Deviant Art. I discovered that I was not writing a tutorial about editing, but instead a tutorial on creating scene descriptions in a novel. So I've decided to go ahead and publish it and work on the editing tutorial for my next upload. But this does bring up an important, if irrelevant, point about the writing process. Sometimes we have a plan for our stories (like I had a plan for this tutorial). We outline, we research, we do everything we're supposed to, but the story comes to life and becomes something of its own. My advice is to embrace this, as there is obviously a story rooted in your subconscious trying to make its way out. And in that spirit, I present my unintentional tutorial on descriptions.

Tip 1: Check and optimize your point-of-view (POV).

When I first started on the process of editing, the single most common problem I had was related to point-of-view. And when I started to look at other people's drafts, I realized that I was not alone in this. As writers, we are the gods of our own personal universe. By that, I don't mean that we can do whatever we want (omnipotence) but that we see and know all things within it (omniscience). And with all the many details that we know are going on, it can be particularly difficult to limit ourselves to the perspective of our point-of-view characters. So we're going to start tutorial on descriptions by looking making sure that we are beginning from the correct standpoint to even give a good description, by checking our point-of-view. Note that most of the following problems only apply if you have a POV character, and may not be necessary if you are telling the story only through the eyes of an all-knowing narrator.

Tip 2. Make sure that your audience gets all of the same information as your POV character.

In my earliest drafts of my novel, I wanted to create an ambiance of mystery and surprise. After all, I thought, readers like those things and I liked writing them. So I would hide information, such as my POV character having a weapon, and only bring that up when it became essential (as in, when that character was about to die). The result was that my test readers felt like they were tricked. I had not created mystery, I had left out information that was essential to the situation and broken the level of trust that they had in the reliability of the narrator. I was partially correct that readers like surprises, but only when that surprise is created fairly. That means that, just like with an episode of Scooby Doo, you need to give your audience all of the same relevant information that your POV character has. Your mysteries and surprises will then come from the moments when your POV character encounters those same feelings. So look for all of the information you are purposefully hiding from your audience. Make sure that either the POV character doesn't know that information, either; or else have the POV character reveal them as (and perhaps even before) they become relevant.

Tip 3: Make sure that your audience has all of the same perspective limitations as your POV character.

The second complaint I received from my early drafts was directly the opposite of the first complaint. You see, a large portion of my story involved a dark and brooding figure leading a bunch of teenagers through some haunted woods. I told most of the story through the dark figure's eyes, and kept mentioning the locations and actions of all of the teenagers behind him. The problem was that my POV character never really turned around and looked at the teenagers, so how was he supposed to know where they were and what they were doing? This greatly confused my test readers and taught me the importance of realistically limiting how much descriptive information I gave to the reader. So go through your story and make sure that the limitations in perspective are shared between the POV character and the reader. If the POV character is looking someone in the eye, for example, make sure that he or she cannot see that the person they are looking at has their fingers crossed behind their back.

Tip 4: Make your descriptions parallel with what your POV character would really think and know.

One of the reasons that having a good POV character is so important is that when you tell the story from their perspective, you must limit your descriptions to details that they would actually notice. After that, you must then describe these observations in terms that your POV character would actually use. If you are telling a story from the perspective of a mechanic, for example, you might describe not only cars but people and situations in terms of their parts—and would need to have a basic understanding of machines in order to do that. However, your mechanic protagonist would not necessarily need or be able to notice and identify specific flora and fauna they saw if they were walking in a meadow (unless they just had a particular interest in gardening). So look out for descriptions, opinions, and observations that either do not line up with what your POV character is equipped to share, as well as observation opportunities that they would be able to explain in unique detail.

Tip 5: Adjust the focus of your story's “lens” by what your narrator describes.

Lets try a mental exercise. Imagine a bee with furry legs, flying over a yellow flower. Got it? Good. Now, imagine a meadow filled with those same yellow flowers. Now, if your mind works anything like what most human minds work, you first imagined a very close up view of a bee. In fact, when you imagined the bee and the flower, your imagination's camera lens was probably focused on an image the size of a flower so close to the mind's eyes that you could catch the details of the bee's legs. You might have even seen the internal details of the flower. When I mentioned the field, you could no longer see the detail of the bee's legs but perhaps a little dot buzzing around a distant yellow flower. When we read a story, our imaginations give form to the details as if with a camera lens. And the size of the things we describe dictates how zoomed in or out our reader's imagination camera is.

So why is this important? It's because every sentence of description requires a certain level of zoom for the reader to be able to really imagine it from the right perspective. If I tell you to imagine a purple planet filled with yellow flowers that have ants crawling on the stems, you will have quite a bit of difficulty imagining it all as one thing, because it is impossible to simultaneously see an entire planet as well as any detail on it so small as a flower. However, if I tell you to imagine a purple planet covered in green seas, you can do it pretty well. Then, I can tell you that in one of those seas, there is a small island only a couple square acres wide. And on that island, there is a small patch of grass. And in that grass, there are little pink beetles scurrying around. You have no problem with that transition because it was done in separate sentences, and because it moved in one direction—from a zoomed out view to a zoomed in view. If I had given all the same descriptions but had given them no sense of flow or order (from biggest to smallest) it would not have been as smooth, and would have had the reader's imagination camera being zoomed in and out chaotically.

So go through your novel and look at the descriptions, remembering the importance of flow and that the scale of what the reader is trying to imagine is determined by the size and detail of what you are describing. If you are describing something small and minuscule, like a person's eyes, make sure that it is in a separate sentence than your description of the building that person is in, preferably with a mid-sized description sentence between those two sentences (like a description of the person as a whole).

Tip 6: Take your time when painting a scene.

Generally, beginning writers suffer from the extremes in problematic descriptions. Either they have the compulsive desire to describe everything in their novel to such intricate detail that you get 300 pages into the novel and nothing has actually happened. Or they describe so little that the novel is basically a hollow outline of exposition and unfiltered plot. Yours truly actually struggles with both extremes—most of my novel originally having been dialogue except when I described weapons in ridiculous detail that was completely irrelevant and unhelpful to the story. While you don't want to spend pages or even many paragraphs on descriptions of any particular object or setting (at least not without some action or dialogue between them), you shouldn't rush your descriptions either.

When you encounter something you need to describe (an important person place, or thing), take a paragraph or two to fully engage as many senses as are relevant to what you are describing. If you enter a new room that is of interest to the POV character, for example, take a paragraph to describe what the room looks like, the colors, the textures, the decorations, the temperature, and any interesting smells. If your character is just passing through an ordinary kitchen of no particular relevance, you may just want to describe, in a sentence, what delicious or terrible smells are present.

There is no hard limit on how much or how little is recommended; it merely depends on the scene you are showing, the importance of what you are describing, and how interested your audience will be in it. The best way to figure out the balance is to bring this question to your writing partner or test-reader, and have them tell you when you have described too much or too little. As they will be unattached to the story (and particularly to the swords and space ships I think are so cool), they will have no trouble telling you when your descriptions are boring them or when they need more.

Tip 7: Paint pictures that indicate more than what they specifically describe.

I am sometimes asked about alternatives to blatant exposition in a story, that is how to show the audience important story details without directly saying what happened. One way of doing so, as well as a way to enrich descriptions, is to make sure that there is plot significance to descriptions. In other words, give details that have obvious and specific meanings implications about the plot. For example, instead of the POV character telling the audience about an old soldier who was purposefully blinded by the enemy during a war, give the audience a description of a man who wears a faded military uniform, who has scars that look like melted skin on his eyelids, who jumps a little whenever there is a loud noise, and who drinks his coffee with a trembling hand. Afterward, you may still need to find a way to give more information, but the concrete details that you described will make it so that your audience is already interested and willing to learn more. Like with any description, ask your test-reader whether your implication (the facts you are trying to show through description) are actually clear, as they may be too subtle.

Tip 8: Funnel all opinions through your characters.

Most writers know that the narrator should not preach sermons and give opinions to the readers, on behalf of the author (with rare exception, when the narrator is very present and active in the story). We don't, for example, have the narrator patronizingly tell the reader every time a villain is introduced to the story. Instead, we have those evil characters do something villainous and have their actions speak for themselves. If authors gave their opinions on everything in the story, it would violate the “show don't tell” rule, and we would have narrators telling the reader what to think about everything instead of letting the audience figure it out for themselves.

This point seems pretty obvious for big things, like the villain example. But a place where writers often forget this rule is during scene descriptions. For example, I once wrote in my novel that a certain building was kept “too cold” by the air conditioning. The mistake seems innocent enough, but what I was ultimately doing was interjecting my personal opinion that I don't like it when people run the air-conditioning too much (and I'm not even talking politically, I just don't like cold). At that point, I could have just cut the description of the temperature completely, except for that it was essential to the mood I was trying to create. The other option would have been to just give the exact temperature, but I did not want to give so much attention to it as to measure precisely through Fahrenheit or Celsius. I fixed this by having a character get goosebumps from the cold, and think grumpily about how much he did not like the air-conditioning, allowing for the same sensory information I had before, without just pointlessly throwing my opinion into the story.

So look for all of the seemingly small author opinions that you may have scattered throughout your descriptions and filter them through the characters.

Tip 9: Avoid “group-thought,” especially when you have many sub-protagonists.

Another common mistake that writers (including myself) make is group-thought. Like interjecting author opinions, this can often be extremely subtle, like telling your audience that a large group of people was afraid or angry. And if you are dealing with a violent mob of people, you may even argue that the really are all angry. So what's the problem? The problem is that by utilizing group-thought you are saying something about your POV character; you are saying that they are psychic and know this information without a shadow of a doubt. Additionally, you are telling emotions instead of showing them, and oversimplifying human emotion by balling it all into one mass. After all, in an angry fearful mob, you may have mostly scared people but also a confused one and maybe a sadist who is having fun. Either way, you create inaccuracy in your attempt to condense the feelings of the scene into a simple statement, and your readers will perceive this as just lazy writing.

So unless you are writing from the perspective of some strange alien species, avoid group thought. Look out for phrases like, “a room full of scared people,” or “a house full of happy children,” unless you are writing from the perspective of an omniscient narrator or a psychic POV character. Instead, note the specific characteristics of specific individuals. Tell us who has lines under their eyes, who has sweaty armpits, etc...

Tip 10: Find the descriptive paragraphs of untapped potential.

In my most recent drafting session, I was trying very hard to condense the descriptions that I had made so long and boring in previous drafts. I was so focused on it that I completely brushed over some of the most interesting and powerful descriptive paragraphs in my novel. When my POV character came across a dead body, I gave the basic facts about it and then moved on. When my characters used magic (a sort of magic that I put a lot of thought into so that it would be interesting and balanced) I just quickly ran through it as if it were nothing. The result? My test readers became frustrated that I spent a paragraph talking about my damn sword and two sentences on the scary body with a hole in its throat.

This is another aspect of description that is difficult to objectively judge, especially since we all have different ideas of what is interesting. The most reliable way to solve it is to specifically ask you test-reader to mark any paragraph that seem to have interesting topics but that you obviously gave minimal effort to. The second way is to think about the elements that make your novel unique and that you have put a lot of time into making original. As I, personally, hate magic and action/violence scenes in most books (for how they are done unimaginatively), I put a LOT of effort into making those two elements original. So when I reach paragraphs dealing with these two topics, I now describe in elaborate and concise detail—giving the most emphasis to the descriptions that my reader find most interesting.

Write-a-Novel Exercise 7.8

Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.

Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.

For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.

Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.

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A Personal Update: This month, I am on the Arkansas/Mississippi border. Ivysaur and Totodile are finally getting accustomed to traveling. I've always wanted to stop in Lake Village (as I've traveled through here before) but ended up staying here through complete coincidence. I've already picked up hiking maps from the visitor center in town, and can't wait to begin exploring. The lake and all of the trees growing in it are absolutely beautiful in that swamp/marshlands sort of way. Of course, I'm looking forward to possibly seeing some wildlife, and have seen a possum, a turtle, and a catfish so far. 

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Mertyville's avatar

I use body language and the voice of characters to describe how they feel. But sometimes it comes to a halt where I have a general image of what my character does, but can't write them into words.

The closest image to what I look for looks similar to this:

the difference is: My character attacked an opponent from behind with a kick at the back of the head and smashed him to the ground. So she smiles victoriously and rests one her foot on her victim's head.

(And I don't want to write that she "smiles victoriously" but let her action speak for itself. I think I know generally how I can handle that part.)

DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar

Describing unusual bodily poses and even abnormal body features is tremendously challenging, even for me. I have yet to figure out the formula for doing it correctly on my own. However, I do have a methodology which works. That is just simple workshopping. For difficult problems, like the one you are describing, I will send the same paragraph to a friend for feedback repeatedly, getting their opinion on what I am doing wrong, until I finally get the product that I want.

If I ever figure out the formula for creating great unusual action descriptions, I will share it. Until then, my recommendation is feedback, rewriting, and more rewriting.

annirus's avatar
Very nice information- i just finished my first draft...on to re-writes. 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Congrats :) It's a new ballgame but if you got through the first draft I think you'll handle it just fine. 
lyavanlou's avatar
I think I need to read through your whole tutorial series. :O 
Have only skimmed over this one 'cause I can't concentrate right now, but what I read was awesome. ♥

Thank you very much for providing these. :3
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well, some of the older stuff is a bit rough, but I'm working steadily on going back and making sure that the entire guide slowly becomes up to par with my later work.

But you're welcome, and thank you for the high praise :) I'm glad you enjoyed. 
ReishaTerrin's avatar
Oooh! This is finially here! YAY! Though, Examples for the Wrong  way vs Right way would help here. Well in my opinion it would.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Don't worry ... it may be a long way down the road, but I will definitely be adding something of that nature to the guide. 
ReishaTerrin's avatar
I wanted to ask you too, about Brainstorming. In one of my writing groups we begin with Brainstorming, because even though.. .I hate the idea have had it for years! (since middle/highschool om my gosh...i feel old at 26 XD) I still struggle to write it. So She has us begin with Brainstroming vomit (she calls it that) And i actually wanted to talk to you about that idea and method maybe show you too a bit of what i have or somthing and get your opinon on it. 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Sure. Just send it via note and I'll tell you what I think. 
AlchemyHearts17's avatar
This...THANK YOU! I've bookmarked this for later. But god I needed this. I always have trouble writing descriptive paragraphs and I think this might actually help me in the future! :D
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
You're welcome :) I wish you the best of luck in your writing. 
TheWarOfTheRing's avatar
Description is the part of a story that always drives me nuts. Whether it's a hyperdetailed place or a barely thought out backdrop (I range between the two extremes), I can just never find the right words to describe the atmosphere of a location or a scene. 

Anyway, thanks for the tutorial, it was very helpful :)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
It's  tremendously difficult skill to get right But little by little, it becomes easier. And when you have gone through about a dozen drafts trying to fix it, you will become better at it and not have nearly so much trouble on future works. 

No problem, I'm glad ou enjoyed :)
TheWarOfTheRing's avatar
So in other words, practice makes perfect :)
Thirrinaki's avatar
Very interesting and helpfull! It's definitely food for thought and something I will come back to when writing and editing my projects!
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Thank you :) I hope it helps you when you get there. Best of luck!
micahclark2003's avatar
Im writing a novel in a third person POV (not omniscient) and my first chapter and prologue are very descriptive and dont have a lot happening but I plan on the story still descriptive but a lot more is going on faster is that type of writing ok or should I cut some of the excessive description? and this was a really halpful piece 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar

To be honest, there are so many factors--from type of description, to genre, to target audience, to a lot of others things. That is the sort of question you really need a Writing Partner to help you out with. I wish I could give you a more definite answer but it's simply a very complex question. 
micahclark2003's avatar
ok thank you so much I understand the prologue is up on my page if you want to check it out
Leopold002's avatar
As always, food for thought!
Droemar's avatar
I feel it bears mentioning that describing someone with "wise eyes" or "noble features" or what have you bounces me right out of the story. I hate, hate, hate when description does the work characterization and action should be showing you. Don't tell me someone is wise; show me! Descriptions should allow people to draw their own conclusions about the character, not smack them in the face with what the author wants you to know.
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