Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.
Your character walks into a room, and you want your audience to be able to see every detail just like it is in your head. Readers want that, right? You often hear people talk about how they love so-and-so's writing because they feel like they're "right there."
The temptation is to have your character walk into a scene and notice all those details. The gold drapes. The rotary phone. The overflowing wastebasket. The shag carpet. The pink couch with a dead body on it.
But while description is great, big chunks of it will drag down your story. Even if you aren't writing a fast-paced thriller, pausing to describe every new setting will wear on your reader.
So how does a writer provide enough details for a reader that they feel like they're there ... without it feeling like they've pressed the pause button on the story?
1. Factor in the POV character.
Who is this person? Are they male or female? What are their interests?
Different people notice different details. If a group walked into my living room, one might first notice all the books on the shelves, another the loads of pictures of my kids, and still another might first notice the nice TV and speakers.
Another fun way to describe is to think through the POV character's insecurities. Let's go back to the pictures of my kids. A couple who has suffered from infertility might first notice the pictures of McKenna and Connor, the toys inevitably strewn about the room, and the row of kids movies in our DVD collection. Whereas another couple with kids of their own might not pay attention to that at all because their house looks similar.
2. Start with one or two unique details or an overall impression.
When you walk into a room, you don't absorb all the details at once. Instead several details will usually pop out at you. The color of the walls, a grand piano, or carpet so white you're afraid to step on it.
Finding Stefanie but I still remember a character walking through the house she grew up in and describing it as "accidentally retro." Just with those two words, my imagination conjures up an oven that's avocado green and mixing bowls with orange flowers on them. Which brings me to my next suggestion:
3. Don't be so bossy.
Give your reader some freedom to imagine things the way they want to. Perhaps when Susan May Warren wrote that scene and described the house decor as accidentally retro, she was imagining goldenrod shag carpet and dulled brass fixtures. But does she really need to get so particular? Does the image in her head have to match mine exactly? No.
If you want to describe a field of wildflowers, your varieties of flowers doesn't (necessarily) need to match the reader's. Readers appreciate a good description, but they also enjoy the freedom to use their imagination. (Quick side story: My grandmother is 88 and has always been a big reader. She once told me, "I don't like it when they put the men on the cover of books. They're always much better looking in my mind.")
4. Don't waste time with a lot of details that don't matter.
If this is the only time the reader is going to be in this location, don't bore them with all the details of what it looks like. Same with other characters. We don't need four lines about what the secretary looks like if we never see her again after this scene. Now, if later in the story she comes into play, then those descriptive lines are helpful.
When you go into a lot of detail about something, it says to the reader, "This is so important, I'm taking the time to describe it to you." So make sure to only give detailed descriptions when it matters.
5. Use description to plant the vase.
Jill taught me this one, actually. Say later in the scene one character is going to pick up a vase and throw it. Then that vase needs to be mentioned when you describe the room.
Or say later in the story your character will be thrown into a pit but will escape because she happens to have a length of rope in her purse. Then earlier that day, I suggest you have your character noticing how out of control her purse has gotten. Gum wrappers, matchbox cars, and even the rope she had used last week when the latch on her trunk had broken. Otherwise it feels too convenient and contrived to your reader.
6. Use the combination of action and specific nouns.
Don't just have your character just sit on a a couch. Instead have them sink into a leather armchair.
Don't let them just scale a fence. Have them hop over a white picket fence.
Or don't send them running through the neighbor's garden. Have them trample Mrs. Hemsworth's prize lilies.
When you pair your action with description, you're able to describe a unique detail of the storyworld without pausing to do so.
7. Use opinions to make clothing and hair/eye descriptions matter.
In my early manuscripts, I always paused to describe a character. My main character would be at school and it would look like this:
Amy spotted Jenna and crossed the room to her. Jenna was wearing a brown turtleneck sweater and jeans. She had on clunky shoes and big earrings. Her red hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her green eyes sparkled as she saw Amy approaching.
And then two lines later, Amy and Jenna would be joined by Max.
Max smiled in that crooked way of his and his blue eyes crinkled in the corners. He was wearing a hoodie and cargo pants, and his dark hair was still wet from his morning shower.
Yawn, right? And who can even remember any of it? Those are the kinds of details that readers forget always as soon as they read them. I guarantee that a paragraph later, the reader won't remember who has dark hair and whose is red.
Plus, these aren't the details that really matter, are they? Does it matter to the reader that Jenna has on a brown turtleneck?
If you want the detail to matter, attach an opinion to it. "As always, Jenna's outfit was woefully out of style - a brown turtleneck and too-blue jeans. If only her mother would let her buy new clothes, Max might finally notice her." The description now matters, doesn't it? We've learned something about Jenna.
8. If this is your first draft, don't obsess about getting the balance of description perfect.
Like we've talked about on here before, writers tend to be either putter-inners or taker-outers when it comes to edits. I write such bare bones first drafts that my edits involve adding a lot of description. Other writers tend to have long paragraphs of description that they need to trim and disperse. Description is something that's easiest to get right in the edits.
For you fantasy writers, you might find this article of Jill's helpful on integrating your storyworld.
Do you struggle with description or does it come easily to you?