It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gush of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies) rattling along the housetops and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
This has got to be one of the most famous openings of any story. Maybe not the very best piece of writing, but famous nonetheless. And goodness does it sets the scene.
For some reason, settings are frequently forgotten. This is a problem. Describing the character’s surroundings not only allows the reader to get their bearings, but it also goes a long way in setting the mood.
If your protagonist has stumbled upon an abandoned alleyway, your reader wants to know more. Is it dark? Does it smell bad? How does it make your character feel? The more you give, the more the reader takes away, and the more they enjoy what they’re reading.
Remember, humans possess five senses – hearing, taste, smell, sight and touch. All of these senses work together to tell us exactly what we need to know about our surroundings.
You need to be able to put yourself in your character’s shoes. Imagine you’re writing about pirates sailing the Caribbean. The reader probably already knows what to expect, but your description really immerses them in the world you have created for them.
The air was humid and sultry, and the captain could feel sweat trailing down the back of his neck. His lips were stained with the salt of the sea, and the rhythm of the waves against the hull was peaceful in the silence.
It is a simple description, but it provides enough information to create a vivid picture of the setting and what the character is experiencing.
Of course, you must be able to use these senses in moderation. You don’t want your character detailing all five senses every time they go somewhere new. Similarly, you don’t want your descriptions to feel like a list that the reader can tick off. Use the description as necessary. The building smelt like rose and sandalwood. Or, my mouth was dry with fear.
One point many authors struggle with is defining how much description to give.
There are plenty of novels where the author overdoes the description, overwhelming their reader and ultimately confusing them. Christopher Paolini is guilty of this in his Inheritance Cycle. Here we have Roran hanging out the washing and gazing down the hill:
He was in the middle of wringing out the last item, and his freshly poured tea was waiting for him next to Katrina, when someone shouted their names from across the busy way. It took Roran a moment to realize it was Baldor running toward them through the mud, weaving between men and horses. He wore a pitted leather apron and heavy, elbow-length gloves that were smeared with soot and were so worn that the fingers were as hard, smooth, and shiny as polished tortoise shells. A scrap of torn leather held back his dark, shaggy hair, and a frown creased his forehead. Baldor was smaller than his father, Horst, and his older brother, Albriech, but by any other comparison, he was large and well muscled, the result of having spent his childhood helping Horst in his forge. None of the three had fought that day—skilled smiths were normally too valuable to risk in battle—although Roran wished Nasuada had let them, for they were able warriors and Roran knew he could count on them even in the most dire circumstances.
Whaaaaat? There was washing, and someone mentioned tea, and now we’re talking about battles? This is way too much detail to say that Roran was just watching someone walk towards him! Despite this, the series was still a Number 1 Best Seller and got a movie deal. Go figure.
This brings me to my next point: brevity. When most people walk into a room they notice the salient features, such as ornaments, furniture and walls. They would not, necessarily, walk into a room and immediately be aware of thin dust trails or tiny nicks in the floor.
Similarly, the description has to suit the length of time your character has to observe their surroundings. If they have all day to explore the new house, then they probably would find all the little peculiarities. However, when entering someone’s home you aren’t given a great deal of time to gawk at your surroundings, so describe them as such – a basic overview to paint a picture of the setting. Mentioning the furniture and ornaments (or lack of) can give your reader enough information to know the wealth of their setting.
Make note of what you feel, hear, smell, touch and taste. Your senses are always active, and being aware of what you experience on a daily basis can only help you to relate what your characters experience in their adventures.