two person standing near assorted color paper lanterns

The Power of Visual Descriptions

One of the things I have been exploring lately is ramping up my descriptions. Especially when setting a scene.

While I am far from an expert in this regard, I would like to share what I have learned so far about this vital writing skill.

You do not need to cover all the details

I am sure most of us have one piece that is a massive info dump of purple prose and description. The kind of thing that goes way beyond anything a reader would be willing to slog through.

I have learned that picking a few key points of interest is enough to imply all the parts that are left out.

If I write about the thick carpet and elaborate four-poster bed hung with lace and silk, I can get away without talking about the rest of the bedroom because those two things serve to give a strong sense of the bedroom.

A few lines can bring a lot of life

Just a few lines of targetted and deliberate painting with words can breathe so much life into a story. I have writing which could easily take place in a white blank space. By taking the time to put some visual elements into my writing I can transform a bland setting into an iconic and interesting space.

I have often worried that stopping to smell the roses would slow down a story too much. What I have learned is just a few highlights can make a setting vivid. It does not take much. Just enough to ground the story in the environment.

What you describe speaks volumes

I have discovered that what you chose to describe can set very different tones for a story. Just picking out one or two things that typify the theme, mood, and purpose of a setting is often enough to radically change how a reader feels about the story.

Likewise, what you chose to gloss over or leave out can change the mood too. How different might a setting feel if I focus on the soft furnishings and bright sunlight or highlight the dust and age of the surroundings? One setting – two very different moods.

Characters should interact with the environment

Description, I have learned, does not need to stand separate from the action. The setting can become real just from the way the characters interact with it. These interactions can, with a well-chosen word, also describe the setting.

Settings, it seems, do not need to be mere backdrops. They can become a character in their own right.

What I fail to say, readers cannot imagine

Writing is a magic spell. We can use it to take an image created in our minds and – by the power of words – put the picture into the minds of others. Unless we fail to let them see the picture.

Readers can only imagine the setting based on the clues we, as writers, give them.

Over to you

How do you get on with description in writing? Are there any tricks or tips you can pass on? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Visual Descriptions

  1. Neil W says:

    Someone said out loud something I hadn’t realised before; when you enter a room you normally look for the people first. So a description flows more naturally if it begins with the people. Unless, of course, you have a good reason not to do that!

    1. That is a great tip. Get the characters on stage before looking at the set dressing (to use theatre as a metaphor).

  2. Sarah says:

    I like what you said about setting becoming a character in its own right. I think this works especially well in Gothic literature. I write historical fiction and so writing description goes hand in hand with this, but there is that worry about striking a good balance. I know that when I read something in a novel about a route a character might take then my eyes glaze over and I’ll skip chunks of paragraph. But as for tips about how to do this I’m at a bit of a loss. I think I may load the beginning of the chapter with description and kind of hope for the best thereafter. I guess there are going to be readers and writers who are either plot driven or character driven and this will dictate how much description people are prepared to read or write!

    1. The action to description ratio is an art form that I have yet to master. I try to aim for something like the same as published authors who have a similar readership. I’m not sure I have mastered that yet either.

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