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Here is a Fun Exercise to Make Your Scene Descriptions Better

Alessandra Torre, NYTimes Bestselling author and Inkers Con co-founder

Recently I was asked about using description when writing scenes. Description is one of those ingredients that can be difficult (especially in the beginning) for authors to use. Some common questions I get are:

  • How much description should I use?
  • How should I use it?
  • Where should it go in the scene?
  • What makes a great description?

I have a fantastic (and fun) exercise that can help clear some of this up in your mind. It’ll take you about 15-20 minutes, but can be very helpful in improving your own descriptions and mental clarity.

Step 1: Find 3-4 books. Ideally, these will be paperbacks in the genre that you write in. If you don’t have paperbacks handy, you can use ebooks, but the exercise is a little harder. Pick paperbacks that you don’t mind marketing up (no rare special editions!).

Step 2: Grab a highlighter, colored pencil, or pen.

Step 3: Open the first book to the first chapter and read the first scene. Then write down, on a scale of 1-10, how much you could envision the scene you were reading. Then write down, on a scale of 1-10, how much you enjoyed the scene and wanted to read on. Don’t think too much or analyze it as you read. Just read it as you would normally, without thought.

Step 4: Flip to the middle of the book, find a chapter beginning, and repeat the exercise. Put a bookmark in (or write down the page number) so you can find the scene later.

Step 5: Repeat this process with the other 2-3 books, notating all of the books on a piece of paper as you go.

Step 6: Go back to the first book and highlight every bit of description in the first 2-3 pages. Description includes:

  • Character’s description
  • Setting/place description
  • Senses (temperature, taste, body reactions)
  • Sometimes action can also be descriptive, so if it feels like description, highlight it.
  • Don’t stress over the decision.

Step 7: Repeat this for every scene that you graded in steps 3-5.

Step 8: Analyze the results. Often, first chapters will contain more description than mid-book chapters. Often, early in a scene, there will be more description than later in the scene. And some authors will be heavier on descriptions where others will use little to no descriptions.

Look at both the frequency of description and also how they use it. Look at your enjoyment levels and visualization and how it might match (or not match) the amount of description. You might be surprised to find that one book was fairly light in description, yet you envisioned the scene as clearly (or more so) than a description-heavy book. This is often because the author did a better job of using vivid descriptions or using senses that stuck in your mind.

I hope this exercise helps you to gauge how much description you feel comfortable using, and gives you ideas of how to implement it in your scenes.



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