Fiction writers – one of the fastest ways to bring your story world and characters to life is to portray the setting through the senses, feelings, reactions, and attitude of your protagonist.
Enhancing your fiction by filtering the description of the settings through your viewpoint character’s senses is a concept I instinctively embraced when I first started editing fiction years ago. I was editing a contemporary middle-school novel, whose two main characters, a boy and a girl, were both eleven years old (I’ve changed the details slightly). The author had them describing rooms they entered as if they were interior decorators, complete with words like “exquisite,” “stylish,” “coordinated,” “ornate,” and “delightful.” Then, when they were in the park or the woods playing and exploring with friends, each tree, shrub and flower was accurately named and described in details that were way beyond the average preteen’s knowledge base or interests.
Besides the obvious problem of too much description for this age group (or for any popular novel these days), this omniscient, literary, “grownup” way of describing their environment would not only turn off young readers due to the complex terms and sophisticated language, but also create a distance between any reader and these two modern-day kids. As a reader and editor, I didn’t feel like I was getting to know these kids at all, as I wasn’t seeing their world through their eyes, but directly from the author, who obviously knew her interior design terms and flora and fauna! By separating us from the main characters through this unchildlike, out-of-character description of their environment, the author inadvertently puts a kind of semi-transparent wall between us and the two kids. If we don’t get into their heads and hearts, seeing their world as they see it, how will we get to know them, and why will we care what happens to them?
I advise my author clients to not only show us directly what the characters are seeing around them, in the character's words and thoughts, colored by their attitude toward their surroundings, but to bring the characters and story to life on the page by evoking all the senses. Tell us what they’re hearing and smelling, too. And touching/feeling – the textures of things, and whether they’re feeling warm or cold, wet or dry. Even the odd taste. And don’t forget mood—how does that setting make them feel? Emotionally uplifted? Fearful? Warm and cozy? Include telling details specific to that place, and have the characters react to their environment, whether it’s shivering from the cold, in awe of a gorgeous sunset, or afraid of the dark. Bring that scene to life through your characters’ reactions!
As Donald Maass says, in Writing the Breakout Novel, “Place presented from an objective or omniscient point of view runs the risk of feeling like boring descriptive. It can be a lump, an impediment to the flow of the narrative.”
He continues, “Do you have plain vanilla description in your current manuscript? Try evoking the description the way it is experienced by a character. Feel a difference? So will your readers.”
James Scott Bell also advises us to “marble” the description of the environment in during the action. “The way to do this is to put the description in the character’s point of view and use the details to add to the mood.”
Jack M. Bickham gets more specific on this: “When you start a scene in which Bob walks into a large room, for example, you do not imagine how the room looks from some god-like authorial stance high above the room, or as a television camera might see it; you see it only as Bob sees it, coming in….” And include what he’s feeling, hearing, and smelling, too. Filter the scene through his perceptions and feelings. “This leads to reader identification with Bob, which is vital if the reader is to have a sense of focus.”
Readers – do you skip past descriptions of the setting and weather? If so, why?
Writers – what’s your preference? Describe the settings of your story from the author’s (omniscient) point of view, or filtered through the POV character’s perceptions and reactions? Why?
Copyright © Jodie Renner
James Scott Bell, Revision & Self-Editing
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
– And Jodie’s experience reading and editing fiction
P.S. Click HERE for some basic tips on creating sentences that flow, on Jodie's own blog.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. Jodie publishes her craft-of-fiction articles here and on several other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services and her books, please visit her website.
Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.