Write better story descriptionWhen writing description, a big mistake many new writers make is to focus exclusively on what things look like. While it’s obviously important to describe what a character can see – if you want to help your reader visualize a scene, you’ll need to include some visuals, after all – a description never really comes alive unless you make use of the other senses.
Let me give you an example. When I was writing Mr Mumbles, the first book in my Invisible Fiends horror series, I’d written what I thought was a pretty compelling description of how the eponymous villain looked. Somehow, though, it wasn’t quite clicking. Yes, I could ‘see’ him in my mind’s eye, with his bushy eyebrows, greying skin, and stitched-together lips, but the character description still felt flat.
It wasn’t until I wrote the line, “His smell, like days-old meat left rotting in the sun, caught in my throat,” that I felt the character jump off the page at me for the first time.
Why it Works
Many of the other senses – smell, in particular – have a direct line to our memory banks, and can trigger emotional responses much more effectively than sight can. Show me a picture of a tree, for example, and I’m unlikely to think much of it. Hit me with the smell of pine, though, and you’ll transport me back to childhood days spent exploring the woods near my home in the Highlands.
Describing scents – woodlands, smoke, hot dogs and candy floss – can make your readers’ imaginations do a lot of your work for you, and really help them picture the scene you’re setting out before them.
While you’re putting the sense of smell to use, let’s not forget hearing, touch – and even taste.
A dark castle hallway could be creepy, but a dark castle hallway with the distant groaning of creaky doors, or the slow, steady clacking of approaching footsteps is creepier still. Why describe how a bog looks, when you can describe the feeling of it squidging and squelching between your character’s toes? Telling your reader how something looks keeps them in the role of observer, but telling them how it feels puts them right there in the story. We can see things happening to other people, but we can only feel things which happen to us.
Taste can obviously be used when describing food, but in a house fire you can taste the smoke all the way to the back of your throat. You can feel the heat from the flames and smell the place burning around you, too, allowing you to to draw on multiple senses at the same time when writing your scene description. Using more than one of the five senses in your descriptive writing will not only make it more interesting, but will tap more effectively into your readers’ past experiences, allowing you to pull them deeper into the world you are creating in your story.
Go outside somewhere and shut your eyes. Concentrate on what you can hear, smell, feel and taste (don’t go licking the ground or anything, though!). Listen to the wind, traffic noise, children playing, dogs barking – whatever happens to be going on. Can you smell anything? Are you warm or cold, is the ground soft and muddy, rough concrete or something else?
Repeat this exercise whenever you go somewhere new, and you’ll start to build up a mental library of sounds, smells and sensations to use in your descriptions.