What do you see?
by Tari Faris, @FarisTari
In my last post, we talked about description in dialogue. Today we are going to talk about snapshot descriptions.
Snapshot description is exactly what it sounds like—a quick snapshot of the scene to give the reader an instant picture of where they are. They are helpful when you introduce a new character or at the beginning of a scene, especially if the story is entering a new location where they haven’t been before.
But here is the key—it MUST BE a snapshot through the lens of the POV character.
I promise you that if I walked into a room and made a list of the first ten things I noticed in the room, it would not match up to my husband’s list of the same room. Don’t use generic descriptions that could be about any room from any person. That is the type of description that bogs the story down and makes readers start skimming.
Figure out what your POV would notice and why and let that drive the emotion.
Here is a snapshot of my heroine entering the hero’s bedroom to find his dog when he is not home. They are not romantically involved at this point and she feels unsettled about having to go in at all.
Hannah made her way to the second room. Where had that dog gone? This room had to be Luke's. The decorations were sparse, efficient. A Tee Ball trophy with a hat hanging on it rested on one shelf. The bed had been left unmade, but the rest of the room was clean. Except for the laundry that spilled out of a hamper in the corner. She shook her head. She needed to find the dog and get out. But where to begin. The closet stood open, but no dog. She glanced under the bed. A bundle of blond fur lay tucked about as far back as he could go. Great, now what?
This is fine. Very factual. But is there a way to give a better picture? I know- I know we aren’t looking for several paragraphs of detailed description of wall colors and furniture descriptions. Some authors can pull that off, but for us description minimalists that would be torture. But let’s really get into the head of our POV character and draw out a bit more by making the description less factual and more emotional.
She made her way to the second room. A sheet had been nailed over the lone window casting a soft blue light around the room. It had to be Luke's—the scent of his body wash lingered in the air. With her big toe, she poked the still damp towel puddled on the floor next to his open closet and resisted the urge to hang it up. She didn’t want him to think she’d been rummaging around his bedroom. A grey t-shirt had been tossed across the unmade bed. Other than the towel and his bed the room was tidy. They guy wasn’t much for clutter. His open Bible sat between his alarm clock and a handful of novels on his nightstand. She trailed her fingers across the navy stripes in his comforter as she moved to his desk. A loose photo of her and Luke leaned against a Little League trophies. It had been taken their senior year a week or so before Luke had kissed her. A week or so before everything had fallen apart. She lifted it and brushed away the dust. Why she’d spent two weeks’ allowance on that shirt was beyond her. It really wasn’t more than a t-shirt but slap a name on the front and it became a fifty-dollar t-shirt. Luckily her styles had simplified. But Luke hadn’t changed at all. He still wore grey t-shirts. Still had those same soulful eyes, that lock of hair that didn’t want to stay tamed, and that smile. If only— She shook her head. Going there wouldn’t do anyone any good. She needed to find the dog and get out. She poked her head further in the closet—no dog. She glanced under the bed. A bundle of blond fur lay tucked about as far back as he could go. Great, now what?
It still needs work, but do you see how we added not just more description but description that meant something to Hannah? Luke’s scent. The domestic feel of his towel on the floor. The simplicity of his taste. Luke’s open Bible, Luke hasn’t changed and wouldn’t change. Much more emotion with just a few paragraphs. And I think you would agree it didn’t bog the scene down and make you want to skim. It wasn’t generic and it told us more about the characters.
So – your turn. Take a scene and snapshot a location, a person. But don’t stick to generic descriptions— describe what is meaningful to the POV character. Really get into your character’s head and let us feel their emotion through what the notice.