At some point, you’re going to have to tell your reader the image you see in your mind. You’ll need to try and capture that image, to the best you can, in your words so that when your reader reads those words, they come up with the same image.
At least that is what you would think, right?
In his writing book, On Writing, Stephen King goes into this concept a bit more. He describes a scene, in particular the colour of a table cloth, and then goes to explain that the reader would bring their own experience to that description. If you call the cloth red, for example, everyone will have their own version of red.
This point is key to understanding what description does in your story. It is a vehicle by which you trigger points of your reader’s imagination to allow them to create their own picture. Every reader will have a slightly different picture in their minds – if you describe a character as tall, a person who is already tall might imagine a different height to someone who is shorter.
Understanding what description achieves for your story allows you to identify the key parts of your scene you want to convey to your reader. The rest, you can let them colour with their imagination.
How you convey the idea in your mind is going to be unique to you. It’ll depend on your tone, your story, even which POV you’re using.
Description is one of those areas of your story that will continue to develop through every draft. At the first draft, you’re telling yourself the story. At a future draft, maybe you want to consider what your character is describing to the reader as part of a narrative device – do you want to draw attention to something to give your readers a clue?
How you use description will also depend upon what stage of the story you are at. At the start of your story you might want to take the time to describe a town or a city to the reader. Really go into the details, use all five senses, to really give your reader lots of clues to build up their own mental picture. Then, in later parts of the story, you might be able to just describe a new town as like the other one you’ve already introduced. No need to repeat the description unless something is particularly different, as the reader already has the image in their mind.
Top Tips for Description and Exposition
Here are my top tips for description and exposition:
- Imagine yourself in the scene, and use all the five senses to describe it. Don’t worry, you can always trim down your description later!
- Focus on the key bits of a visual that you want to describe. Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
- You can always re-draft. This is important to remember when writing large chunks of description to explain the story to yourself.
- Out of all the types of writing you will do, description is the most “recyclable”. Keep all of your words – you never know they might come in handy in a later scene or setting.
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