Readers can’t relate to a story without narrative description. It happens in a vague world of shadows and smoke that readers have never visited—a world of floating voices and gunshots (splitting the silence, probably) but no real physical matter. It fails to engage the senses and ignite the imagination.
If you’re like me, most of your descriptions may read like this: “It was raining outside.” Not exactly imagination-evoking material. Story worlds must come to life for readers, or stories never can. Vivid description is life-or-death for your story, but there’s a secret to pulling it off. Don’t believe me? Try these three easy steps.
1. Choose Details
If you’re aiming for a minimal description philosophy, and you mention your characters are on the beach, readers will be able to fill in the rest of the details, right?
If you ration the amount of describing that you do (intentionally or not), make it count. Don’t generalize and say “the beach.” Instead, include physical details common to your setting, like sand for a beach. What textures or objects would readers associate with your setting? Forest: trees. Library: bookshelves. Downtown: concrete.
You want readers to know as well as feel they are on a beach. Highlighting specific details will generate a clear image in readers’ imaginations—a solid foundation for the next two steps.
2. Stay Active
Now you need to awaken your story world. Take the detail you chose in the last step and give it motion. Maybe it’s sand grinding between your hero’s toes, or wind whipping leaves as they fall from the forest top. A moving scene is much more interesting to readers.
You don’t have to limit yourself to animating only the setting (wind, crowds, birds, etc.). Using your character’s actions to energize the scene will help place your story in the world you’re creating, and hopefully it won’t interrupt the flow of your story’s events. Maybe your hero hangs his coat on a rack or sticks his knife into the pinewood table. Showing your character and setting interacting enlivens both.
3. Be Unexpected but Not Confusing
It’s time to add the final touch: a layer of the unexpected. So far you’ve used only unsurprising details—sand on a beach, trees in a forest. You need those details so readers understand the characters are on a beach, but now you need to pinpoint which beach. You don’t want readers to view the story in the context of general “beachness.” You want them to experience the story as if it is unfolding on an actual beach. To do that, you need unexpected details.
Before you get carried away, “unexpected” doesn’t mean you start landing UFOs on a beach with purple sand and black water. Your details must be within the realm of probability for your story. Perhaps a better word would be “distinct.” For a beach, maybe seagulls drag fragments of an empty potato chip bag through the sand. For a forest, maybe a black squirrel chirps and flicks his tail in an oak tree. Details like that will ground readers on that beach or in that forest, and not just “a beach” or “a forest.” That’s the key to enrapturing them in your story world.
Save It for the Next Draft
I write my best prose when I’m engrossed in my characters’ struggles and conflicts. Pages fly by of witty conversations, internal dialogue, and character actions. When I hit a rhythm in a story, sometimes scenes form so rapidly that I don’t have time to write any description, much less good description.
If you struggle to work description into your first draft, don’t. Let it wait; the draft won’t be any worse off for it. When you are ready, insert all the missing descriptions in draft number two. Take your original, poor description (“It was raining outside”) and expand it though this three-step process. Apply physical, real-world detail. Give it motion. Then make it unique. Like this: “Raindrops rolled down the needles of the red pine (specific detail) and splashed (active voice) onto the asphalt-patched sidewalk (unique/unexpected element).”
Better than “It was raining”?