After fifteen years of working with writers, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of the sorts of things they struggle with. Novelists, in particular, have to amass a complicated skillset and master a lot of writing conventions that may not be obvious to the average reader. Everything from dialogue to story structure has a whole litany of unwritten rules, and it can be easy to break a rule without even knowing the rule exists.
When a reader finds a book unsatisfying, there’s a good chance that one of these rules has been broken; the reader can’t put their finger on why they don’t like the book, but they definitely pick up on the subtle things a writer may have done wrong.
Indeed, writing a great novel is a bit like navigating one’s way through a minefield. And just like with the minefield, a huge number of people who start out on the journey don’t finish it.
So today I want to focus on one very specific region of the minefield, one that most writers trip over very early in their journeys: how to master scene description.
Oh vey. It’s such a loaded topic.
How many times have you been told, “You don’t have enough description”? Or how about, “You have too much description”? Certainly, it’s a balancing act.
I’ve encountered novels where there was nothing but dialogue, page after page of it, and almost no attention paid to the scenery at all—to the point where the reader could rarely tell where the action was taking place. In a person’s living room? Out in a park somewhere? On a boat floating in the middle of the ocean? Let’s just say, if the reader can’t tell, you haven’t included enough description.
On the other hand, I also frequently come across books that lavish incredible attention to the most mundane details. The phone rings. The main character answers the phone. The red phone. The red-lacquered phone. The red-lacquered phone with the black, pig-tailed cord sprouting out the back. The crimson-shaded lacquered phone, like his mother’s favourite lipstick, with the black, pig-tailed cord sprouting out the back. The crimson-shaded lacquered phone, like his mother’s favourite lipstick, with the obsidian, pig-tailed three-foot cord sprouting out the metallic back…
This sort of purple prose can go on for pages, hundreds of words spent on everything imaginable—the carpets, window frames, kitchen cabinets, walls, ceilings, appliances, countertops, the unwashed dishes in the sink, the dust in the corner that’s been building up for years, the varying luminosity of each individual bulb in the ceiling fixture… Maybe there’s three pages of build-up to a scene in which a character walks in, picks up the phone, listens to a recorded message, and then leaves a minute later. If you aren’t careful, you can overcook it.
But sometimes a phone is just a phone. And sometimes painting such an intense word picture means the reader loses focus and gets taken right out of the story.
So, you know, aim for something between these two extremes!
That said, it’s relatively straightforward to trim down an overly descriptive passage, whereas it can be deeply complicated to add description where there previously was none.
If you’re weak in the area of descriptive writing, what tips can you follow to help up your game? It all comes to one very simple principle: use all of your senses.
When you hear the word “description,” you probably think of visual details. Almost everyone does. You’re walking down a path along the riverbank and the sky is a deep blue, little tufts of white cloud drift past, birds flit right to left across your field of vision, there are a handful of boats out on the water, the wind is pushing up some whitecaps, the sidewalk is pockmarked with craters of chipped concrete, verdant weeds are snaking up through the cracks…
All of these details are visual. They are good details, of course, and feel free to mention them—as long as they contribute in some meaningful way to the story being told—but you should aim to dig a little bit deeper.
What about the sounds of traffic floating down from the busy bridge behind you? What about the subtle scent of gasoline from the service station just up the hill? What about the coarse fabric of the handbag you’re carrying? What about the lingering taste of chicken salad at the back of your throat, a holdover from your late lunch?
Expand your imagination beyond the visual, and get all the invigorating sounds, smells, textures, and tastes into the mix. This is how to work your reader deeper into the story.
But beware going too far, of course. If you’re including details that have no bearing at all on what’s going on in your scene, remember that it’s always safe to trim back to a baseline level. Just make sure you’re at least at baseline. After all, your reader won’t know what the riverside path is like unless you tell them.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.