Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or on her author website.
Welcome to Part Two of my four-part series on description. Today we are going to talk about describing places. But first, let's ponder why we should even bother writing out descriptions. Wouldn't it be better to leave all this up to the reader's imagination?
Why Bother Describing Things?
Editors and writing instructors vary on their insistence that setting and characters be fully described. Some say to leave it out so that the reader can imagine everything. Others say you need to paint the scene for the reader because if you describe nothing, you have what's commonly referred to as "talking heads." The reader sees faces floating in space, uttering strings of dialogue. On the other hand, if you describe too much you can pull the reader right out of the story.
I think somewhere in the middle is best. Give your reader enough details so that they know where the characters are and who is in the scene, then let them fill in the other details however their imagination sees fit to do so.
List the Facts
Consider creating a checklist for each scene you need to describe. This will help you remember things when it's time to go back to that location. You don't need to create such a list for every location in your story. But I find it helpful to know this for places that my characters spend a lot of time.
The LOCATION is: Use simple words: alley, classroom, gym, bedroom or a specific place if that is important like the great hall at Hampton Court.
TIME of day: Morning, afternoon, night---especially if the scene takes place outdoors.
WEATHER/TEMPERATURE: You really only need to share this if it is abnormal or important to the scene. People will assume that the temperature is average and the weather is nice unless you tell them differently.
WHO is present? Early on in the scene, list the important characters who are present, especially any who will have dialogue so that they don't seem to appear from nowhere.
The FIVE SENSES: Be aware of all the things your character might experience with his or her senses in each location. You don't have to type them out every time you are in the scene, and you don't always have to use all five, but keep them in mind and try to work them in here and there. It will give your reader more unique things to remember.
-What can the POV character SEE?
-What can the POV character SMELL?
-What can the POV character HEAR?
-What can the POV character TASTE?
-What can the POV character FEEL?
Any important objects or features to PLANT for later? Do you plan to have one character throw a pillow at another? If so, it's important to mention pillows in your initial description of the room. That way they won't become what Jeff Gerke calls "magically appearing" pillows.
Now that you have your list, here are some tips as to how to use it.
-First time: Describe important places early on in depth. You don't have to go on and on for paragraphs, but make sure that your description is thorough.
-Start big and zoom in: It helps readers if you start the description with big information, then get smaller. For example: The Dayville Middle School "gymnasium" was a half-court slab of pavement out back of the cafeteria. One basketball hoop stood at an eighty-five degree angle on one end. What remained of the net looked more like two shoelaces tied together. (We start with the gymnasium, which is biggest, mention that its outside, mention the hoop, then the net, which is smallest.)
-Repeat important details throughout story. Next time the characters travel to that "gymnasium," you can repeat important details like the fact that it's outside and only has a half court. The net isn't really important to repeat. And you could always add a different detail, like a three-row set of wooden bleachers or that the concrete got puddles when it rained.
-In each new scene, give location, time of day, and characters present. When you move between scenes, the reader needs to know that. Tell them that Mark drove home from school. Don't have him magically appearing at home without having traveled there. Now, if you're starting with a scene break, you can skip telling us how he got home. But you still need to tell us where he is. So you'd say that Mark entered his house or that he was in his living room after school. Give us the time if it has changed drastically. And always be sure to tell us what important characters are present. If it's just Mark and his dad in the living room, make sure we know it. But if Mark was in a class at school, you don't need to name every kid in the class. The reader will assume there are other kids in the class. Just make sure to describe those who speak. (We'll talk about ways to describe people next week.)
-Plant important objects or features. As mentioned above, be sure to plant any important objects or features in advance of them being useful. If you write that your character is freezing from the cold, but you didn't mention the cold until three pages into the chapter, that's confusing to the reader. Make sure the reader knows it's cold early on.
Editor Jeff Gerke taught me to imagine my scene taking place on a stage and to think about what necessary set design, props, and actors need to be out on the stage before the scene begins. This always helped me avoid "magically appearing" things when setting up my scenes.
-Use specific words. Always use the most specific word. Specific words in description really help paint a picture in the reader's mind. You want them to see things in as few of words as possible, so make every word count! For example: oily asphalt, rocky cape, rusty iron bars, freshly mowed grass, a cluttered desk, colossal pillars, etc. All these phrases paint pictures in your mind.
-Avoid too many “ly” adverbs. If you need an -ly word in your description, use it. Just be careful not to rely too heavily on them because it's cheating. Work hard to find specific words to show your reader the scene.
-Use metaphors and similes. Use these whenever possible. They provide your reader with an instant visual. For example: An impressive stone building loomed over ten stories high. The top tapered into a point, tier upon tier like a square wedding cake. A large staircase marked the entrance. (Can you picture the top of the building?)
-Always bring in the POV character's voice. The description should sound like your point of view character. That means using the types of words he or she would use.
Here are a few different examples of descriptions:
"You're just not imagining it right," Joel said, walking up and resting one hand on his friend's shoulder. He held his other hand in front of him, panning it as if to wipe away their surroundings---the green lawns of Armedius Academy---and replace them with the dueling arena.In this example, "green lawns of Armedius Academy" say all we need to know. We've all seen school campuses. We can imagine green lawns and sidewalks and buildings and lampposts. And when we need to know more, the author will give us that information.
--The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
"No, the Seahawk was a ship like countless others I had seen before or for that matter have seen since. Oh, perhaps she was smaller and older than I had anticipated, but nothing else. Moored to the dock, she rode the swell easily. Her standard rigging, tarred black for protection against the salt sea, rose above me, dark ladders to an increasingly dark sky, and indeed, her royal yard seemed lost in the lowering night. Her sails, tied up, that is, reefed, looked like sleeves of new-fallen snow on lofty trees." --The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by AviHere we get a nice description of the ship in the voice of our POV character, Charlotte, who clearly knows some things about boats. We also get a nice metaphor at the end.
And finally I have a longer description from Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson that really makes you feel like you're there. And it's deliberate that the authors took longer on on this scene since many things will take place there later. They need the reader to see this place well.
Not far from where Peter lay unconscious, a lagoon connected to the sea. It was, in good weather, a beautiful place—a near-perfect semicircle of flawless white sand, perhaps a mile across, bordered by a curtain of tall, graceful palms. In the center of the curved beach lay two dozen or so massive, sea-smoothed boulders, some of them the size of a sailing ship, forming a hulking jumble of rock that stretched from the trees into the blue-green water. Behind the beach the island rose steeply to a ridge several hundred feet high, jungle-thick with vegetation, forming a curved green wall that cut the lagoon off from the rest of the island.
The lagoon teemed with life—turtles, jellyfish, crabs, and vast schools of lavishly multihued fish. Normally these creatures were sheltered from the surge of the sea by a coral reef; it ran across the mouth of the lagoon from one side to the other, with only a small break in the center, through which the tide flowed in and out.
But the low reef was no match for the waves churned up by this storm. Every few seconds, a towering wall of wind-driven water rose high over the reef and broke upon it with a thunderous crash, sending a surge of churning, foaming water rushing high onto the beach, then back toward the sea, leaving the surf-scrubbed beach empty for a few seconds, awaiting the next incoming surge.
How are your descriptions of places? What do you do well and what do you need to work on? Share in the comments below.