So, a friend of mine asked me, “How do you write compelling descriptions? I keep running into problems with describing scenes. They always seem to say the very basic necessities and lack ambiance.”
Well, after giving it some thought, this is what I wrote him.
I think description can be broken down into three categories depending on the purpose of the description. Description can also be used for worldbuilding and character development, and any sentence that pulls double duty is typically what you want to aim for.
I’ll give examples of those too. Here is my attempt to explain:
Physical Description: meant literally to physically place the reader in the location.
This is probably the most common, because the reader needs to know where/what is happening. Here, less is best. Saying “She walked into a bedroom” conveys enough information for the reader to picture the basics. Writing “She walked into a 6 by 10 room with a white linen bed, 6 drawer dresser, and a closet filled with clothing ranging from sizes 4 to 6” is too much superfluous information that no one cares about and will immediately skip. I think it’s best with this description to always state what it is to avoid ambiguity, but I have seen authors go super crazy because it’s their style.
For worldbuilding: Sometimes the location can be described in a way to knock out two birds with one stone (again, if your sentences pull double duty, that’s the sweet spot). The sentence “She walked into her bedroom, the standard box and twin bed all orphan girls were given after their parents died in the war” established where she is, while telling us more about the standards of the world. Maybe the description wasn’t elaborated, but it fills in the world for the reader.
For Character Development: Sometimes adding the character’s voice to the description gives insight to both the character and setting. The sentence “She walked into her tiny bedroom, but she might as well have walked into a dumpster fire” shows the sarcastic and dismissive attitude of the character, while stating she walked into a room.
Emotion Description: meant to convey the feelings of the characters.
This is one of the most important, and hardest to describe. Just saying “She is sad” is a pretty weak sentence, but saying “her eyebrows knit, her face contorted, water spilled from her eyes, and her chin wrinkled in on itself until it resembled porous stone” is also a terrible way to describe someone’s emotions. You don’t want to outright state it, and you don’t want to go overboard with the physical description. The best would be something in the middle: “Her lip quavered as she spoke” etc.
For worldbuilding: Sometimes you could describe someone’s emotions in a way that, again, paints more about the world. “She wiped away tears at the corner of her eyes as warriors of the Hulla Tribe were forbidden from appearing weak in front of outsiders”.
For Character Development: Again, best to pull double duty and get a lot about a character from a simple emotion. “She wiped away the tears at her eyes, her teeth gritted from the sheer frustration of breaking down in front of another”. We get more from this than just crying–the character hates that it’s happening.
Emphasis Description: meant to make the detail stick–this is important to the scene or character–or it must be remembered.
This description is the “poetic” type of description. It’s taking something plain (and old) and saying it with a new twist. This description shouldn’t be used with every sentence, but it should be used occasionally to add to the importance of whatever is being described. You want this stand out to the reader, to really drive home a point. Example:
“After turning down the hall, I was breathing hard.”
The reader may, or may not, think much of this sentence. It describes the character, and her state of well-being, along with the location, but now imagine this:
“After turning down the hall, all I could hear was my own hissed breaths from my overtaxed lungs. They performed the perfect impression of a torn bellow as they stoked the cold fire of my chest.”
The reader has to take note of this detail, because it’s described in such a way to make the reader pause and think. I’m not just stating something, I’m comparing it to others similar things. The key to this type of description is to nail metaphors and patterns. A friend of mine had a great sentence in his work when he wrote:
“A murmur of affirmation spread through the group as though his declaration were a stone tossed in their midst, and their agreement was the ripples that spread out from it.”
He could’ve just said “Everyone agreed” and saved himself the words, but making this stand out, by making this comparison, he’s drawn extra emphasis, and made the moment stand out above the rest. As the author, you have to determine what’s the most important details in my story? Sure, all the details are necessary, but some are just more significant, and using the description to highlight them will make the scene stand out in a bright fresh way.