One of my weaknesses as a fiction writer is that I have a hard time fitting in descriptions of my setting, all those little sensory details that supposedly enrich my story world. My lazy writer’s mind tends to be skeptical of the need to fill in details. I find myself thinking, “Wait, you mean I really have to figure out what my story would look like? Who cares what it looks like? I just want to know what happens in it.” It doesn’t help that I’ve read plenty of books that I felt had too much description, long paragraphs of description that I usually skip over.
But in the back of my mind, I know that descriptive details can go a long way towards making fiction, especially the kind of fiction I write, feel real. Recently one of the blogs I follow brought this fact home to me. Author M. B. Weston seems to be good at sensory details, and she’s stressed their importance in a few of her posts since I’ve started following her. At first, I felt that she was giving these details a bit too much importance. They’re just details after all, I thought. Isn’t it so much more useful to talk about plot elements, like I do? Then two days ago she came out with a post that humbled me and showed me how important these details can be. She was discussing details and their role in helping readers suspend their disbelief over fantastic elements, and how she had used these details while writing her own stories. During the post, she quoted three sentences from her own book, A Prophecy Forgotten, as examples of sensory details.
I had never read any of her books before. I hadn’t thought about doing so. But reading those three sentences and their context piqued my interest in her story, much more so than if I’d just read the blurb on her site. I won’t actually quote her sentences here (you’ll have to read her original post for that) but the main impression I got from reading these sentences was, “Wow. These characters are angels, but they’re also people. They feel cold sometimes. They feel wet and uncomfortable. When they get scared, the feathers on their wings stand straight up. Ooh. I bet that’s not fun for them. Of course, they’re not really like me. They can fly. But they’re people.”
This reminded me of the difference between boring description and real description in fiction. Boring description is any random details you can throw into the story hoping to make your world feel more realistic, but real description helps you see what it’s actually like for the characters to live in the story would. The writing advice book Wired for Story explains this concept really well. If you say it’s sunny, then that sun should make your character happy, or beat down on him as he wanders around looking for shelter, or something. If it rains, somebody’s clothes should get wet.
The point is to create a lot of details for your setting that all tie in to what your character is experiencing at the moment. Readers want to know, not just that the little things of your story world exist, but that they affect your characters just as much as they would affect us. Then we get the feeling that these characters actually pass through their lives instead of just showing up to fulfill their roles at major plot points. It helps us feel that your characters are worth caring about, because you cared enough about them to create all of their story, not just the things they did to save the world, but how it felt for them to do it.
What are your favorite fiction writers who describe things well? How do you feel about Tolkien’s description? Who are the other good describers?
- Writing: Make Fiction Feel Believable With Sensory Details (mbweston.com)
- Know Your Character (thewearywriter.com)
- Pruning Your Work by Storm Constantine (ipmbblog.wordpress.com)
- Showing and Telling in Genre Fiction (1pageweekly.wordpress.com)
- The Art of Storytelling (spyglassviewer.wordpress.com)