I have a confession to make. It took me three tries to finish Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
I stalled out the first two times in the same place—at the house of Tom Bombadil. I tried to slog through all the description, but my attention would slip, I’d set the book down, and something more interesting would steal its place. On the third try, I skipped that section and sailed through the rest of the series.
Most readers aren’t going to be so determined to read your book, and the biggest trap when it comes to over-describing is the sense of sight. And that’s logical. It’s the sense we use the most, and it’s the sense we need to include the most so the reader gets a solid grasp of our setting.
But how do we include enough sight details without creating the Tom Bombadil problem?
Allow Your Character to Put Their Own Twist on It
We hear this advice all the time. Everything needs to be said the way your point of view character would. What would your POV character notice? How would they describe it?
Take it bigger.
Is your character an optimist or do you want to show her in a good mood? Have her notice the one point of beauty in an otherwise ugly item.
Want to show the character arc? How does what they notice about a particular object change over the course of the story?
Use Carefully Chosen Items to Foreshadow
The problem with sight is every day we’re overwhelmed with thousands of meaningless, extra images. Consequently, when we write, we’re tempted to also fill our books with images that don’t serve a purpose. In fiction, everything needs to serve a purpose.
We can include sight details so people see the setting. We can include sight details to set the mood. We can also use sight details to foreshadow.
Foreshadowing is hinting at what’s to come in your story. You can foreshadow a major plot element, the character’s internal state or future transformation, or a secret (either not yet revealed or revealed to the reader but not to the POV character) all through little sight details.
Remember the key here is subtle. So subtle in fact that not every reader will catch it. But the ones who do will love you for it.
Put What Your Character Sees Into Motion
Unlike the other senses, sight often takes more than a single detail to give us a vivid picture, especially if the setting or character you’re describing is important. While adding action (or at least a feeling of motion) won’t fix a giant info dump, it can ensure longer descriptions still have forward momentum.
Suzanne Collins used this expertly when describing Rue, the youngest competitor in The Hunger Games.
She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird (pg. 98).
N.K. Jemisin did the same thing in her Hugo and Nebula-nominated novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
Face like the moon, pale and somehow wavering. I could get the gist of his features, but none of it stuck in my mind beyond an impression of astonishing beauty. His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak—or perhaps that was his hair too—shifted as if in an unfelt wind (pg. 30).
So How Can We Balance the Five Senses?
Here’s my tip for figuring out your weaknesses when it comes to the five senses in your fiction or memoir. Take your first chapter, last chapter, and five random chapters from the middle. (No cheating and picking your best.) Assign each sense a different color and circle or highlight every time you use a sense. Once you finish, spread the papers out around you. You’ll immediately be able to see which sense you use the most and where you’re weak.
How do you feel about sight descriptions in books? Do you like to be shown everything in detail or do you prefer the author leave much to your imagination?
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Photo Credit: Raphael Pinto on www.sxc.hu