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Write active, sensory description to make your story believable

In a post I read a few years ago by Marg McAlister, “Verisimilitude: Description that Puts the Reader in the Scene,” I copied and saved one of the excerpts she used because I thought it was a good example of how sensory description can work well in a scene.

I was reminded of this last night as I lay in bed reading an urban fantasy novel (to remain nameless except to say it is a popular series by a well-known author in the genre) and my pet-peeve radar was activated.

But let me ask first–why do we read? I read for many reasons: to learn about the world, to learn about the craft of writing, to activate my imagination, to take a break from work. But the main reason I read fiction is to enter other worlds, to lose myself in another place and time, to feel what the characters feel, to experience something different.

So, my biggest pet peeve when reading is when an author pulls me from that world.

And pulling me from that world with an info dump of inactive setting or character description is the worst offender. Pure, unadulterated, torturous Hell. Or, what I imagine Hell might be like for a writer or avid reader.

In the urban fantasy novel I’m reading, every time a new character enters the scene or the main character goes to a new setting, the author pauses the story and launches into a paragraph or two or three of description. It’s almost enough to make a girl throw her Kindle across the room.

A better way to handle the introduction of a new character or new setting is to make the description active. Think motion and movement. After all, as we go about our daily lives, we don’t suddenly stop when we encounter a new setting or person and list everything we see, do we? No! We are always active in our settings.

Writing active description will make your story believable.

Read the setting description below and notice how Stephen Booth makes the setting active (the bold is mine).

Excerpt from The Devil’s Edge by Stephen Booth.

The marquees and stands had been set up in the lower field, separated from the river by a line of trees. At the far end, the gymkhana arena lay in a natural hollow. As Cooper walked down the slope from the parking area, a brass band was playing a medley of James Bond themes. Goldfinger, From Russia with Love. The grass in the parking area had been mowed, but not removed, so the cuttings lay everywhere in deep swathes. They wrapped themselves around the tyres of the car, and covered everyone’s shoes. He found himself wading through heaps of wet grass all the way down to the show ring.

He stopped for a moment to watch a children’s entertainer in a sparkly blue jacket, who was talking to a dummy Afghan hound. The dog didn’t answer, except by whispering in his ear. What did you call a ventriloquism act where the dummy didn’t speak? He had no idea.

Cooper turned away. There were already too many people whispering to each other in this case. Why didn’t everyone say out loud what they thought? It would make life so much easier. His life, anyway.

Notice how the author makes the rich setting active by having the character immersed and moving in the setting. The author even uses active verbs for how the grass wraps itself around the tyres of the car. In the urban fantasy novel I’m reading, we see the description through the eyes of the main character, but she’s just standing there like a zombie listing details–which, even if it was a zombie novel, would not be okay.

Now take a moment to reread the excerpt above and notice the different sensory descriptions. The author doesn’t just stick to one sense, he uses sight and sound. If it were me, I might even sneak in how the wet grass smells.

Layering in sense description is another way to lend believability to your story. By immersing your character and setting in real, active, sense-laden description you will, by default, immerse your reader in your story and keep them there.

For ideas on how to generate sensory description, please read Carly’s post, Create a journal to increase sensory awareness.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I recently read a bestseller that did this. So many characters were introduced throughout the book, and each time, the author paused to give the reader backstory. As you point out, there are better ways to do this. Great post.

    February 1, 2016

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