Once upon a time, I thought descriptions were merely a way to give characters faces and emblazon a hazy setting. The challenge was to figure out how to balance descriptions with action so the story never stopped, while still providing a clear vision of the surroundings. Once that’s been accomplished, the writer’s work is done, right?

No, not in the least (as I learned from a few beta readers who previewed one of my recent novels). Action and description do need equilibrium, and portraying the setting through a character’s observations can be a great place to start. But descriptions can serve multiple purposes. To use them to the fullest potential, you need to convey more than just the setting.

1. Descriptions Can Set a Scene’s Mood

Words can be manipulated to imply whatever you want. In descriptions, they can help complement your character’s mood. Weather is one of my favorite examples of this tactic. Compare these two descriptions of a storm:

Cold drops lashed through his thin hood, streaming in rivulets from his cloak, drenching him. He shivered, pulling the material tighter against the ragged gusts of wind. Lightning glared from jagged crevices between the clouds and thunder grumbled across the heavens.

She flung her head up, shoving back her hair as she grinned. Cool droplets traced pale streaks across her grimy cheeks and caressed her outstretched hands. Spinning, she let the wind tease her damp hair, curling it over her eyes. Lightning glimmered between the pillowy clouds and thunder murmured below the whisper of the rain.

Any description can define a scene’s mood. A shadow can wrap comfortingly around a character like a cloak, or crouch, dark and menacing, along the eaves of a house. It can spin gracefully, flirting with the light, or contort and rise in jagged legions. A gate can gape open like a trap or spread welcoming arms. A character can sink into a bed’s embrace or be smothered by thick pillows and blankets.

The choice of words and metaphors is up to you, but making each description significant (instead of simply filling in details) will strengthen your story. This, however, is only the beginning.

2. Descriptions Can Showcase a Character’s Personality

Every character views the world through his own eyes. One character might flinch as thunder cracks like the lash of a whip. Another equates the rumbling of the heavens to the dissatisfaction of an angry mob. Yet another character will imagine it is the applause of thousands of people. Lightning can be seen as a spotlight, a blaze of fire, or an explosion. You can also mix the metaphors and verbs: Lightning snapped across the sky in a single, tearing lash of liquid fire.

No character will look at his surroundings the same way. For instance, one character might describe mist like this:

His breath hissed between his teeth as the great webs of mist hung from the predawn grayness in wraith-like shrouds.

But another character mentally describes mist in accordance with his own past:

Gray mist rose to meet the sinking twilight, mingling like smoke and wolf fur.

Each scene in your book will almost always be shown through one character’s perspective, or at least with one main character in mind. Although rain can either weep or dance depending on the scene’s mood, it is your character who pictures the street glistening like a dark mirror or raindrops glittering like diamonds in the fractured sunlight. This subtly reveals his personality.

3. Descriptions Can Deepen Your Story with Symbolism

I would need to write a whole article to cover all the various forms and uses of symbolism, so I’ll focus on the basic types that readers will unconsciously recognize. Dawn represents new hope, whereas midnight equals despair. Straight lines signal a clear direction, while twisting curves indicate confusion and chaos, or tradition and change. A number of symbols can have more than one interpretation: a fire that devours all versus water that brings life can be switched to a fire bearing warmth while water is cold and heartless.

In this description, I’ve contrasted the symbolism:

He stared vacantly across the room, his gaze tracing the outline of the closed door. Dark, straight angles—so clear and direct and orderly.

The dark, straight angles conflict with the confusion surrounding the characters to draw the symbolism out. The comparison is obvious here, but other times it might not be. A character staring at the shadows might concentrate on the hardness of the walls or the muddle of gloom beneath the trees, depending on mood and mindset. The sunset might be compared to the flames of a dragon or the embers of a hearth fire.

This leads to the kind of symbolism you make up. The flower you associate with the friendship of two characters. The spear that denotes destruction, or the rose that references a specific character.

Perhaps after the final confrontation of the two friends, or the sacrifice of one for the other, ashes will drift downward like petals. The stakes of a fence could transform into a regiment of spears in the eyes of a despairing soldier. A desperate friend mentioning that an item is the color of a dying rose would be a powerful connection to the character symbolized by the blossom.

Although trying to add symbolism to every description would be wearisome to both reader and writer, watch for places where you can include it. Symbolism will enhance even the smallest details of your story.

Don’t Squander Your Descriptions  

Every aspect of your story ought to move the plot along and increase depth. The characters, the settings, the dialogue. Description is no exception. Not only can you illuminate your setting, you can view it through your character’s eyes, giving the reader a glimpse of his thoughts and mindset, while also displaying the mood of the scene. The intensity these vivid descriptions will add to your story is worth the effort.