I had a friend ask me today, “How do [writers] come up with all the details? When I’m reading something and the author is describing every last little detail about something, I’m just in awe because I never would have thought of it.”
What a wonderful question! I think there are probably several good answers to this one because writers don’t all write the same way. Still, I am happy to offer two ideas here for you who are interested and I’ll challenge you to try a little exercise with me at the end.
1. The Movie Reel
So far, in my own writing, I find that scenes appear as a sort of vivid movie in my mind. I work as frantically as I can to describe what I’m seeing as the movie plays on, trying to capture it all while it’s fresh in my mind. This is both good and bad. It means that my scenes are vivid and often filled with natural movement or dialogue. The hardest things, then, are trying to translate the emotions I can feel coming from my characters and also trying not to rush through it. I often have to go back and do several revisions trying to fill in the blanks because I was hurrying the first draft as I attempted to capture it before the movie moved on without me.
There is a calmer way to do it, and if you aren’t lucky enough to see movies in your head, then it is how you will want to describe your scenes.
2. Twenty Questions
As a writing teacher, this is what I tell my students. When you are describing a scene, ask yourself a few questions.
- How does it feel there?
Weather can affect this, but so can other forces like housekeeping or strong emotions. Ask yourself, Is it windy, warm, mild, sweltering, stuffy, scary etc. Make a list of the words that come to mind as you imagine how it feels. Textures can be good in a description, too. For instance, the wall paper was smooth, the car’s paint was shiny, the cat’s fur against my cheek was soft, the carpet was thick and fluffy, etc.
- What does it smell like?
Most every where we go has a distinct smell or two, especially when you first arrive somewhere or when something special is happening. Does your character smell flowers, fresh bread baking, the sweat of a dog or a person, a cloud of perfume, fresh laundry, cookies in the oven, dead fish? Just this short list of phrases draws to mind a set of images! Imagine how describing the smell of your scene could help your reader to see your story better.
- What do you see?
If you were standing in your character’s shoes, what would you see? Take a look around. Describe what would stand out to that character. If they walk into a new house and are thinking about buying it, they will look at the details differently than if they are walking in just to deliver a package or watch some t.v. So, try to think from your character’s perspective and ask yourself What do I see?
- Do you hear that?
The tiny buzz of a gnat, the drip of a faucet, the whir of a fan trying to cool a room. These are sounds that could help the reader to understand your setting better. What does your character hear?
Try to focus on giving the reader just a few very strong visuals like these as you describe your setting. It shouldn’t be pages and pages of you describing in painful detail every single thing you would hear, see or smell in a setting. Just choose the ones that you think would best give the reader a real feel for the place.
Now, Try This:
Choose a setting and place a character there. If you have a story you have already worked on, then choose one scene and try this with your character. Close your eyes and enter the scene in your mind. Take a good look around. What does it feel like? What do you smell? What can you see? Did you hear that? What was it? Then, make a list of your observations. Choose three or four that you like best and put them together into a short paragraph, describing the scene from your character’s point of view.