Descriptions and narrative can be a wonderful tool for a writer. It is often overlooked by beginning writers—or those still learning their craft—in favor of going for scene after scene after scene. We’re all influenced by both the fast pace of modern life and the fast pace of movies and TV, but stories in print have advantages that the screen lacks. What can great description do for your stories?
Set the World—Vivid, specific descriptions put the reader into the world you build. While you may be able to assume much if you’re writing in the modern world, you may still have unique places you want to bring to life. Don’t assume the reader knows what your fictional seaside small town looks like, or what the big city feels like—you may have readers who have never been and want to be transported. In a historical or fantasy setting, you have to build the world for the reader, and you don’t just want the reader to “see” the world, but to experience the sounds, the smells, to feel the weather, to have the touch of the wind on their skin and all of this takes vivid details. You want to layer in sensations for the characters, so they become the stand-in for the reader in that world.
Reveal Your Characters—What a character notices tells the reader a lot about that character. Is your main character a baker, and smells really matter? Does your character have an artistic bent and colors stand out right away? Is your character someone who pays a lot of attention to sounds, or to the clothes of others, or to cars, or to the status of others? Figure that out and weave that in. Maybe your main character is a little bit of a snob and the frayed cuff of a coat sleeve stands out. Or maybe your main character notices the laugh lines around a woman’s face before she sees the diamond and sapphire necklace around that woman’s neck. Again, vivid specific details matter the most. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader, but you want the right description to pull the reader into your character’s thoughts.
Control Pacing—A story can move too fast. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the action just becomes action without any emotional stake in the outcome. The reader also can use a breather between too much action—you can wear a reader out if it’s just one thing after another with no relief. Descriptions can help you slow the pace as much as you need by bringing in a change of scene where descriptions matter to put the reader into a time and place. It can help you slow the pace between scenes to give the main character time to regroup and make new plans. It can also help you weave in backstory.
Set the Mood—A great story has a theme and it has a tone or mood. Descriptions are a huge part of this, ranging from the storm battered coast with a leaden sky and a crumbling castle outlined in a brief flash of lightning to the rolling, endless prairie grass dancing in a breeze scented by a cascade of wildflowers that dot the landscape, to the crowded streets of a city with gleaming skyscrapers and the rush of buses and taxies and the blare of sirens in the background. The details you weave in can set an ominous mood or a romantic one, or can increase tension or layer in the details that make the reader want to cozy up on the couch with a tea and dive into your world. We are back again to needing vivid specific detail. If you don’t know your world you must invent or you must research so that you can bring this world to life. You need to know not just the sights, but the sounds, the aromas, the feel of the place.
Is a Vital Part of Voice—A writer’s voice is one of the most powerful tools to hook a reader into wanting more of your stories. You have to discover your voice and develop it—writing is a craft to learn, and then can become an art to practice. Is your voice best suited to sly comedy or to tense drama? Look at your bookshelf for what attracts you most. Do you have a voice better suited to the modern world or to a historical era? Is your voice best for the old west or for a pirate’s adventure on the high seas? Every writer has to figure this out, and then use description as part of that voice. This is how you phrase things, how you view the world, how your characters view the world. Do not be afraid if your voice works better with omniscient viewpoint instead of third person, or go for first person if that’s the voice where you feel comfortable. Beware following trends—if a voice isn’t right for you that story’s not going to work.
Description takes all your skill as a writer to make the writing disappear for the reader, to bring the reader into your fictional world and show the reader this world through your characters’ eyes and through the vivid details that you weave into your story. You have to choose the right descriptions for the place and time—not just the era, but the month, the week, the day, the hour. Vivid, specific description—not just yellow, but vibrant lemon—make the world come to life for the reader, and that’s one step closer to making your characters come to life.