Questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story. You don’t need to describe every element of a story to a minute level of detail, but you should consider what will make your descriptions better, and what can send you off course.

What would the characters notice?

Describing a place in detail can be very good, but only if the descriptions would matter to the reader or to the character. The view outside the window of a car doesn’t matter if the main character spends the trip reading a book, unless you are trying to show what the character is missing. If a carpenter and painter are both looking at a brand new house, they are going to notice different things, and both will probably have a different view than a policeman or a teenage runaway. A happy and comfortable person may experience a place differently than a depressed or angry person.

What senses make sense?

Most writers tend to focus on visual details, which can be very important, but the way something smells, sounds, tastes or feels can also improve on the experience. Food is an item that lends itself to all five senses. Try to give details that involve more than one sense. Crowded places can often be described more effectively using sound and touch. Smell can be a very useful way of demonstrating a radical change in environment, especially for the worse. Danger and despair almost always have a strong odor.

What does the story require?

If you are writing a story about the lives of two wealthy people, you are going to want to portray that wealth through your descriptions of your environment. If you are writing a story about a poverty-stricken area, you’ll want your descriptions to capture the desperation of the situation. You should use description to reflect the moods and attitudes of your story as well as the people in it.

What are the spatial relationships?

It doesn’t always matter where people are things are in relation to each other, but there are times when that minor detail can mean quite a bit. Are two people sitting next to each other or across from each other? If they are next to each other, are they touching or creating space? Are they comfortable next to each other or uncomfortable next to each other? If they are sitting across from each other, does their difference in perspective give them a radically different view? One person may be staring at a wall while the other one stares out a window.

Are items arranged with a specific order or are items placed haphazardly? These things don’t always matter, but you should be ready to describe them if they do. If the characters are of different heights (Such as a father and a young daughter) does the difference in their perspective change what they see significantly?

What is the reality?

When you write a description, each character may have a different perspective on where they are, but there is a certain reality to the place as well. There are things that will exist, and may matter, whether the character observes them or not. It is important to reflect the character’s views, but it may also be important to show how skewed that character’s perspective may be.

For the reader to know that a person is surrounded by beauty, but doesn’t see it, it must be clear that the place is objectively beautiful. Also, depending on your story, you may be dealing with real-world settings that your audience may be familiar with. Make sure that your descriptions match what is really there, or if they don’t, be able to show why they don’t. For example, the Eiffel Tower is, for the most part, brown and gray. If you describe it as green, you had better have a reason to do so.

Six quick ways to jump start a stalled novel

  • Introduce a new character
  • Solve a problem
  • Create a new problem
  • Jump forward or backward in the timeline
  • Let the larger world play a role (Natural disaster, political turmoil, conflict between strangers, etc.)
  • Have a character change their mind about something important

Six Quick Tips for Writing Descriptions

  • Close your eyes and try to recreate the image in your head.
  • Remember that people have five senses. Don’t just rely on visual description.
  • Adjectives should describe, not evaluate. Describing skin as smooth or tan is better than describing it as pretty or perfect.
  • Don’t over-describe things. A description should enhance the story, not drag it to a stop.
  • Don’t describe things that don’t matter. If you spend a paragraph discussing a minor character’s mustache-grooming ritual, it had better be important to your story.
  • Draw your descriptions from real-life memories.

Six Quick Tips For Starting Your Story

  • Start with the scene you’ve been visualizing the most.
  • Get to the action. Don’t worry about introducing your characters. You can always go back and do that later when you’ve been working with them for a while.
  • Accept the fact that you aren’t going to get everything right the first time. Keep moving forward.
  • If you can’t think of a first sentence, start by stating a character’s problem. Billy hated bats.
  • If you don’t like what you started with, try something new. Don’t erase what you have, just move on.
  • Relax.

There is no right way to write a novel

The first, best, and most important thing to learn about writing a novel is that there is no one way to do it. Novels have been written in a thousand different ways. One person’s style and approach can be radically different than another person’s and yet still produce a good novel. There are people who plot out every detail before they start writing. Some novelists start with an outline that can stretch for several pages. One writer might write down each possible scene on an index card. Another writer might spend all of his preparation time creating elaborate backgrounds for the characters. Another writer might just start writing, with no idea in advance of where the novel is going and how it will get there. None of these writers would be wrong. Each approach can result in an excellent novel.

Some writers fret over every single word of the first draft. Their choices are so careful and exact that second and third drafts look almost exactly the same as the first. Some writers just tear through their first draft as quickly as possible, unconcerned with the possible messes they have created and sure that they will fix every problem when they start editing. The end result of this process may look almost nothing like the original. Again, neither writer is correct or incorrect. Different styles work. Different approaches work for different people.

If you are looking at writing for Nanowrimo, however, there are some approaches that may be more advantageous. For example, because you must create your first draft in a single month, sweating over every single word of the first draft is probably not a good idea. That approach may work well when you have six months or longer to produce a draft, but it is virtually impossible to be that exacting and produce a 50,000 word or longer draft in a single month.

Writing off the top of your head also has its pitfalls. If you attempt this, at the hurried pace of Nanowrimo, and you could find yourself unable to generate sufficient action or creating character arcs or plots that go nowhere. It can lead to a lot of frustration down the line. While the rules of the process are that you need to write the draft during the month of November, there is no reason why you can’t prepare as thoroughly as possible before you reach the start date. You can create a detailed outline, an in-depth character study, research any subjects you plan to write about and create descriptions of the real or imagined places that will be the settings for the action.

You can prepare as thoroughly or as lightly for the process as you want, but I for one want to take advantage of the advance time so that I can be as ready to write come 12:01 November first as possible.