Have you ever read a scene full of featureless, naked people in an empty void? (Not a love scene mind you!) Okay, so theoretically the characters aren’t naked, and they most likely are in a place of some sort, but they might as well all be mannequins in an empty room for all the reader knows because the writer failed to describe, well, anything.
Unless we’re reading a comic book, it is up to the writer to use words to paint pictures in the reader’s mind. We don’t need to know everything (that would bog us down) but we need enough details that our imagination will fill in the gaps. As a general rule, it is often advised that reader needs three descriptive details to ground them in a scene/ establish what someone looks like (your mileage may vary). A good rule of thumb, but how and when do you implement it?
Let’s start with setting. Anytime your characters change location, you should clue the reader in on some details of the new scenery as quickly as possible. When you have a jump in time, even if the setting is one you’ve been to before (even in the previous scene), you’ll need to clue your reader in as to where the character is. Another important place is after scene and chapter breaks–this is often important even if there is a direct lead into the new scene from the previous without a jump in time because readers often close books at scene and chapter breaks and might need to be reoriented when they pick it back up. Of course, especially in the last instance, you don’t want these details to slow down the scene. While sometimes a laundry list of details can be used effectively, most of the time you want to paint the picture through the action of the scene. Here are examples of both:
Sally sat in a rickety chair and wrinkled her nose. The desk in front of her was a mess with papers strewn across the top intermixed with a dozen half-filled cups of coffee and several toppled containers of takeout. The man behind the desk wasn’t much better. A bright mustard stain trailed down the front of his wrinkled shirt and his greasy hair was several weeks overgrown.
Sally pushed out of her chair. It swayed on uneven legs before crashing to the ground with a loud bang. At the sound, the man behind the desk froze, his mouth ajar to reveal his last bite of masticated hotdog. Sally ignored that, as well as the mustard that dripped from the rest of the hotdog in his hand onto his wrinkled shirt to join the other stains. She leaned forward. She intended to stare him down, but she had to drop her gaze momentarily to make sure she didn’t topple one of the numerous coffee mugs or place her hand in a half-rotten carton of takeout as she placed her palms on his desk.
Both of these short examples sets the stage of a meeting between Sally and an apparent slob. While both of these paragraphs work, you can probably tell that the second is much more active. In the second paragraph, the scene is set as things occur whereas the first steps back and describes things before (presumably) moving forward with the action. Neither is wrong, but more often than not, you’ll want to work as much of the details of setting into the action rather than pausing to describe the character’s surrounding. (Note, if these were not quick examples and were actually part of a scene, I’d want a few more important details as from these few sentences this dirty desk could be in a cube farm or a private office–also, I’d want a few more sensory details, but that’s another discussion.)
Description of character is much the same as that of scene. There was some description of the man in the above examples but Sally is a blank slate–she could be a two-headed grasshopper for all we known. How would I go back and add in some details about her in the above examples? Well, let’s assume she contrasts our slob so maybe we’d have her think about leaning over the desk, but decide against it because something might brush against her suit. That would tell us something about what she’s wearing (and maybe a little about her personality) but it wouldn’t actually describe her.
While the above examples are in third person POV, it is a tightish third, following Sally, and the character whose viewpoint we’re seeing the world from is always the hardest to get a description of. This is especially true in First Person POV. People just don’t tend to describe themselves to themselves very often. The trite scene in which a character stands in front of a mirror and lavishly describes themselves “My luscious full lips and mousy brown hair” –yeah, no, ick. It is almost always a mark of amateurish writing. (Not to say characters never look in mirrors–I find them especially useful when describing bruises and such when things change. Writers just shouldn’t abuse mirrors and remember that, unless you are trying to depict a character as terribly vain, they aren’t going to gush on their own appearance.)
I started this post late and now it is getting rather late, so I’m not going to hold it up writing examples of more descriptions. When reading, we’ve all run across descriptions that worked (or didn’t) in scenes, so if you have a moment to spare, I’d love if you could post some of your favorite examples of descriptions that really set the scene or cemented a character for you. I hope you’ll share an example. Thanks!
Happy new year everyone. And good words to you all!