Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How to Describe a Place

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 FacebookTwitterPinterest, 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.

Describing Places
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.
          --The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
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.

"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 Avi
Here 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.


  1. I know I sometimes go overboard with describing things, so I need to try to aim for that "middle ground". And the list of facts for a scene will definitely help--thanks so much, Mrs. Williamson!

    1. Here are a couple of mine:

      I was expecting something a bit grander than what I behold: a descending staircase, dimly lit by torches. The passage’s walls are bumpy, dull gray stone, not slick like the Court’s shiny white marble.
      “So, what do you think?” Idina is smiling cheerfully.
      I take a deep breath. Stale air forces me to hold in a cough. The stairway looks like a bit of a squeeze, but I do want to see my father. “Down we go.”

      Here's another from later in the story:

      The strange white realm fades into a massive hall. The ceiling arches about fifty feet above my head, intricately decorated and carved. At either end of the rectangular arch are four marble pillars that support the ceiling. In front of me are seven more pillars that partially block my view to what appears to be a large courtyard. Voices rise loud and clear from over there.
      What catches my eye the most, however, is the twenty-foot tall coppery statue that stands in the very center of the hall. It’s a woman, blindfolded and holding a sword in one hand and a balance in the other. Lady Justice.

    2. I like these, Linea. They are great!

    3. Awesome descriptions, Linea!

    4. Thank you so much!

  2. Great post! Whatever other writing problems I may have, I think my descriptions are generally pretty good, but I tend to overdo it a bit, and I sometimes find myself using way too many similes to describe places. I had major adverb issues for a while, but I've gotten better at avoiding too many of them. Doing a list of facts sounds like it'd help a lot, too--I'll have to give that a try.

    1. Okay, here's a few of mine. This one needs work, but I like it for the most part.

      She gazes out over the darkening forest. It’s beautiful even in the fading twilight, high branches sweeping above a vibrant green canopy, the croaking of frogs filling the place with a soft hum punctuated by notes of birdsong, graceful storks the color of new-fallen snow soaring across the sky. A monkey, little more than a silhouette against the web of branches, leaps from a low-hanging limb and scurries off to vanish into the trees.

      This one doesn't fit with my new plot, but I'll probably end up fitting it in somewhere anyway.

      Tendrils of flame licked at the bottom of the stairs, twisting and curling, stretching ever higher. The acrid stench of burning plastic rose into the air as the carpet turned from an ugly orange-brown color to a bubbling black ooze that looked something like a marshmallow dropped into a campfire and smelled a thousand times more horrible. Fire raced up the sheer curtains, leaving fragile, blackened fabric as full of holes as the pages of the Ancients’ books.

      One I did last November for my old WIP.

      An eerie purple light gave a ghostly glow to the beach where we stood, turning the pale sand to an ashen gray. Dead trees loomed over us, a skeletal forest stretching along the beach as far as I could see in either direction. Fallen branches, bleached pure white, were scattered along the beach like the bones of some long-dead monster. Above, purple-black clouds of magic churned and swirled, blocking out the sunlit world beyond.

    2. Wow, awesome! I love the middle one best: but the others are fabulous too!

    3. Those are great, Ellie. Nice work!

    4. I agree with Jonathan--the middle one is my favorite. :)

  3. I love description! This post is just what I need.

    Here's one I'm particularly proud of, but one I feel could use some work: In the deep thickets of the Vostol Forest, there are many places one must never visit. In the heart of the woods, tucked in a small valley where the trees are the most ancient, and canopies are greater that the skies, lies a mysterious cottage. Secluded from the rest of the woods, it is here the sprites fawn, and the animals the most peaceful; the imps dare to raid the nests of the birds, giggle to the skies, and it is here magic lies so thick none may survive it except the gods themselves. Yet, to this day, nobody really knows what happens in this strange dell. Anyone who dares survive the Forest nearby and chance upon it is never seen again. Huge animals, bears and wildcats, even the mightiest of Elves, saunter up to it now and again, only to disappear entirely: any fowl that dare fly above it strangely vanish. So people decided to forget it, and it was well they did.

    And another: Through a thousand smells, pine, rosemary, oak, magic even, darkness and ice was the clearest, and the most impending. For the bright sun pierced the clear blue sky with its merry rays, shooing the darkness away as if it didn’t exist, and the shadows too, as if they were naught. Amid the woods that had stood through even the Dragon—Age and seen countless centuries of magic and light and darkness and monsters, the bright fairies twinkled and sung songs of the dragons and the gods with such sweet melodies they could tame the terrible giants themselves, and the small, cheerful imps, with their pointed ears and twinkling eyes raided the nests of the birds while giggling incessantly. A beautiful thicket, with puddles of magic lying around like will—o—the—wisps in the summer, ancient trees with canopies greater than the sky. And among the woods, embedded in a tree, a red door, with the insignia of the Council.

    Wow, sorry for the long comment. But great post :)

    1. Wow, great descriptions! I love your writing style!

    2. Nice, Jonathan! I can totally see both places in my mind. :-)

    3. These are great, Jonathan! I especially like "puddles of magic".

  4. This is so helpful! I've never really thought about having "appearing objects" in scenes before, but it makes a lot of sense that we would want to avoid that :) Great post! Description is my weak point, so this definitely will help!

    1. I'm glad, Grace! And, yes, I once had a real problem with magically appearing objects. ;-)

  5. Thanks for the post! I have a short attention span when it comes to description and prefer to have it mixed in with action and things happening.

    Another important thing is not to give a bigger description for something less important. I recently mixed up two character descriptions in a book I was reading because the old housemaid had a paragraph while the love interest had a sentence.

    1. Yes, excellent advice! Use your good judgement when sharing need-to-know information and cut the stuff the reader doesn't really need to know.

  6. I know that descriptions are not my strong point in writing, but I try to add as much detail as I think is necessary at the time for my first draft. Revisions are where I add more description. Thanks for this post, Jill ... I will definitely be using some of your tips next time I'm drafting or revising.

  7. I tend to over describe things in the story that are important (a castle, a new character, etc.). Then I remember that, when I read, I like there to be room for me to imagine things the way I think they should look. So I'm trying to stop adding so many details in bits of my story :). There has to be room for some imagination, and finding a balance can be pretty hard. ~Savannah

  8. I always have to go back and add description. I'm editing my novel right now and I've actually been thinking about this. Thanks!