Writing scene description is something all writers struggle with. What should you include? What should you exclude? How do you get a character from Point A to Point B without it being boring and monotonous? How do you include everything that’s important without bogging your reader with too much at once?
We’re going to discuss:
- How to utilize the five senses
- How to know what’s relevant to describe
- How POV factors into your scene description
- How to spread your description
- How to write scene description that isn’t boring
1. Utilize the five senses.
When writing scene description, many writers will default to what is most accessible and obvious: sight and sound.
Sight and sound are both important and will usually be the most-utilized senses in scene description, but using all five senses can provide a much rounder, more tangible experience for your reader.
Instead of giving the reader a “picture” of the scene with one or two senses, using all five can give them an experience of the scene.
Put yourself in your character’s shoes and really think about everything they would be experiencing at that moment. Writing that experience will give you a strong setting. You can also work to create dynamic mixes of senses instead of isolating them to one specific sense.
Jennifer Giesbrecht uses strong, unique sensory descriptions in her book The Monster of Elendhaven. Let’s look at some examples.
“A thin line of blood appeared beneath the blade and snaked over the metal. Johann watched it trickle all the way to the point of the knife.”
“The Ambassador’s voice was wet, like the noise a drain makes when clogged with gristle.”
“The sailor grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his head into the wall–once, twice, three times–and then yanked the coin from his hand.”
“His lip split on the dock and his mouth filled with a foul mixture of grease, salt, and blood.”
“From a sailor who stank of rum and fish oil.”
“His hair was so light and fine that it required only a bit of mussing to fluff up like a dandelion.”
This is discussing how his hair looks, but it uses the sensory experience of touch.
“Florian’s eyes were the colour of light split through a glass of vodka. His wrists were so narrow that they could be snapped with one hand, the bones crushed in a strong palm as easily as the rib cage of a sparrow.”
This is discussing the physical appearance of a person through sight, but it makes the image so much richer by using the senses of sound and touch. Bones crushing and snapping is a visceral experience.
Utilizing multiple senses in your description will paint a richer scene.
2. Include what’s relevant.
It’s easy to bog down your writing with a lot of scenery and description just for the heck of it, but you often don’t need that much. If you include too many details, your reader will get bored and may start skimming.
Stick to what’s important, interesting, and relevant, then make what you’ve included as pretty and precise as you can.
If your description isn’t relevant to the character, plot, or setting, examine if you really need to include it.
Let’s look at a scene that uses too many unnecessary details, then a revised version without those details.
Johan’s stomach groaned like some kind of dying animal. He went down the unoccupied halls of the mall where rain knocked heavily on the ceiling glass. The building had no power and the venues were all pitch black inside. The only light came from the sunlight buried behind the gunmetal clouds overhead. His olive-colored coat was heavily drenched from being outside and the jeans he wore that had once fitted nicely were overgrown and baggy.
He stopped at a directory in the center of the hall and eyed the various locations listed before finding the words Food Court, and continuing in the direction of its guiding arrow.
Near a set of still escalators along the way, he noticed a department store with a shattered window at its façade. Someone must have stolen from there long ago, he thought. Aside the broken glass on the floor was an empty shoebox. When he walked beside it, he realized from the picture imprinted on its side that it belonged to a pair of small, bright red Velcro strap boots for children.
Johan’s stomach groaned like a dying animal. He walked the ghost mall, rain knocking heavily on the glass ceiling. The building had no power, and the venues were pitch black inside. The only light seeped from behind gunmetal clouds. His olive coat was heavily drenched, and his jeans that once fit nicely sagged, cinched with a rope around his waist.
He kicked past broken glass in front of a shattered boutique window, knocking shards against an empty shoebox. The picture on its side showed a child’s pair of red Velcro boots.
We trimmed that scene from 179 words to 91 words. The revised version gave us crisper imagery and made the scene easier to follow. Find the full scene and edit here.
When it comes to writing effective scene descriptions, less is often more.
3. Remember the point of view.
When you’re in a POV character, you’re noticing what your character is noticing, and people notice things for a reason.
If you’re in a POV character, you should be writing what they would naturally observe.
For example, one tired trope a lot of new writers fall into is the “waking up and looking at yourself in the mirror” trope:
A character wakes in their bed, like they do every day. They walk to their mirror, like they do every day. And they describe, in detail, everything about their physical appearance. They describe their room. They walk downstairs and describe the family members they see every day.
There’s no reason for someone to be thinking that intently about their mundane daily experience. It isn’t something they’re going to take the time to notice and have an inner monologue about. These kinds of sequences make it really obvious that the writer is giving exposition for the reader to understand what’s going on–it’s a bit easy, which is why it’s a favorite of less experienced writers.
Realistically, that same character might be thinking of the homework assignments they have due that day. Maybe they’re picking out an outfit. They’re not noticing that they have auburn hair or thinking about why they painted their walls green seven years ago.
When you’re looking through a POV character, you’re limited to what they’d observe or care to think about, so you can’t believably include things like really detailed descriptions of a regular part of their day.
That’s the limitation of POV. But a strength of POV is how you can utilize descriptions to characterize.
You can show the reader things about your character through what they choose to observe and the way they’re observing it.
For example, if your character enters a room full of people, they’re not going to notice and describe every single person to the same extent. It could probably go something like this:
- An observation of how many people are in the room.
- Maybe a description or two that applies to the entire crowd (e.g., if they’re all high-school aged, if they’re all women, if they’re all dancing, if they’re all impossibly still and quiet).
- Zoom into people the character knows–maybe a group of friends has gathered in one area. The character joins them.
- A general description of each friend.
- A much more detailed description of one friend that we later learn the character is in love with.
If we got a full description of every person in the room, each made equal, we wouldn’t be able to notice the relationship of each to our character without being told. Choosing what to describe and when allows you to show things about your character.
4. Spread out your description.
Don’t front-load your scenes by describing EVERYTHING at once. If you drop all of your descriptions at the beginning of a scene, it’s not as interesting, your reader may skim, and they might forget crucial details when they become important.
Instead of describing everything right away, try walking through the scene with your character.
For example, say your character is entering an enchanted valley to find a place to hide because they’re being chased by some rabid antelope. They wouldn’t logically take the time to look around the enchanted valley and notice everything because they would be busy, worrying about the rabid antelope.
So they run through some vines and enter the valley–you can give a quick description of the vines, the size of the valley, and maybe the air quality or lighting if they’re different than outside. Then IMMEDIATELY focus in on the next target–a tree they’re going to climb to hide from the antelope. While they’re running to the tree, they realize the grass they’re on is blue. When they’re climbing the tree, we learn what kind of tree it is–it’s a magic tree! The bark is furry, and it makes it hard to climb.
Once they’re in the tree, they look around the valley. They see a river, some rainbow mushrooms, some unicorns. The unicorns are eating the rainbow mushrooms and tripping out. One unicorn is laying on a couch while Bojack Horseman plays on his Roku TV, staring at his hooves, he’s giggling, but he looks scared.
If your character had broken through the vines, and we immediately got all of that description, it would seem like the character had been standing there for ten minutes, which doesn’t make any sense when there are rabid antelope in pursuit.
Spread your description by walking through the scene with your character. We don’t need to see it ALL at the beginning.
5. Don’t be boring.
We all sometimes get carried away with writing scene descriptions. It’s easy to get caught up in our own worldbuilding, or maybe we get excited because we can so clearly SEE a scene that we want to get every detail down. That’s fine for a first draft, but you should always go back and trim down to what is necessary.
To be blunt: the reader doesn’t care.
If it isn’t something relevant to your story or your characters, you should nearly always cut it out.
Scene description is a lot like worldbuilding–it’s something the writer often puts a lot of thought into and ends up caring about way more than a reader ever could. That work you do in the background, developing your story, doesn’t always need to end up in the final product. It can just be a shadow that makes the story richer.
Keep what is relevant and necessary, then make those details as sharp and compelling as you can.
For spicy scene description, utilize the five senses, include what’s relevant, remember POV, spread it out, and don’t be boring!