One of the search engine terms somebody used to find my blog was “Describe a Scene in an Interesting Way,” and I thought it would be a great subject for today’s post.
The trap even the most successful writers fall into when describing a scene is to simply list the objects in a room or landscape, and a few adjectives thrown about for color or texture do not make the description any more interesting. Writers often cheat by pretending to see the scene through the character’s eyes, but it still comes down to being nothing more than a list.
We are not children padding our flimsy essays with adjectives and adverbs. We are adults who know that the number of words in a story mean nothing; it’s only what the words mean that counts. And in description, those words must count twice: to give us a feel for the setting, and to give us a feel for the character.
Description by its very nature is static; we need to find ways to make it flow with the story. One way is to have the character interact with the setting: to sit in a mahogany armchair with a faded green cushion; to hear the deep notes of the grandfather clock in the corner; to feel the texture of the oriental carpet underfoot, to smell the old leather bindings of the books. Without ever stepping away from the character, we know what the room looks like, including the parts that were not described.
Another way to describe a scene is to pick one significant item and describe it. Perhaps the dusty lace curtains, or the stains on the ceiling where the roof leaked. Even better would be to show what the curtains or stains mean to the character.
We can also describe a scene by showing contrasts. Yellow is brighter when it is next to purple than when it is next to green. Green is brighter next to red than it is to blue. The color combination with the strongest visual impact is black on yellow. I’m not suggesting that we use color in such a way; these are merely examples of how one thing looks different when it is next to something else. Those dusty lace curtains may be in an otherwise spotless room. Or they might be scrupulously clean in a dusty room. Either way, it says more about the character than just describing the curtains or the room.
Describing scenes by sound rather than sight can give the scene movement. We do not perceive sound as being static. A train whistle in the distance is not always the same pitch, is not always the same volume. Even taste seems more dynamic than sight; for example, the taste of the smoky air on a winter day. And smell is the most evocative of all the senses; perhaps the smell of lilacs makes one think of grandmother’s house.
However we decide to describe our scenes, we need to keep our characters in mind. They and their problems are the story. The scenes need to reflect this, to be a part of it.
When we get to the point where we can suggest our character’s inner conflicts by the way we describe the scene, we will be on our way to mastering our craft.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.