We’ve all been warned about the dangers of using too much description. Readers don’t want to read three paragraphs about a sunset, we’re told. Description slows down a story; it’s boring and self-indulgent. You should keep your description as short and simple as possible. For those who take a more scientific approach to writing fiction, arbitrary rules abound: One sentence per paragraph. One paragraph per page. And, for god’s sake, “Never open a book with weather” (Elmore Leonard).
But what this conventional wedding wisdom fails to take into account is the difference between static and dynamic description. Static description is usually boring. It exists almost like a painted backdrop to a play. As the name suggests, it doesn’t move, doesn’t interact or get interacted with.
There were clouds in the sky.
Her hair was red with hints of orange.
The house had brown carpeting and yellow countertops.
In moderation, there’s nothing wrong with static description. Sometimes, facts are facts, and you need to communicate them to the reader in a straightforward manner.
But too much static description, and readers will start to skim forward. They don’t want to read about what the house looks like or the stormy weather or the hair color of each of your protagonist’s seventeen cousins.
Why? Because they can tell it’s not important. They can afford to skip all of your description because their understanding of the story will not be impacted.
That’s where dynamic description comes in.
Dynamic description is a living entity. It’s interactive, it’s relevant. It takes on the voices of your narrators and characters. In short, it gives us important information about the story, and it can’t be skimmed over.
So how do you make your description more dynamic so that it engages your readers and adds color and excitement to your story? Here are a few tips.
#1 Make sure your characters are actually engaging with the descriptive elements of your story.
Static description just sits there, like the backdrop of the play. It’s mentioned but never engaged with by the characters. In a scene of static description, you might write:
The grass was green. The house was painted blue. James walked up the sidewalk and knocked on the front door.
In this passage, your complaining reader would be right: it absolutely doesn’t matter that the grass was green. But in a dynamic description, characters notice their surroundings. Here’s the same passage, rewritten with a bit more engagement from the character:
James walked up the sidewalk. The grass outside of the house was so green he couldn’t believe it – it almost looked fake. After looking around to make sure no one was watching, he squatted down and ran his hands through it. It was real, all right. Who did these people think they were?
Ah ha. Not only is this a lot more interesting, but suddenly the green grass becomes important to the story. Why? Because it’s important to the character. I talked about this in my post Why Nobody Cares About Your Plot. You can’t very well ask your readers to care about something that the characters themselves don’t care about.
Tip: See if you can find places in your writing where your characters can interact more with the descriptive elements of your story.
#2 If you are writing in first person or a close third, make sure that you are filtering your description through your point of view character.
This means writing the description in their voice. Here’s a static description of a birthday party as told by a first-person narrator:
There were streamers hanging from the ceiling and a rainbow cake on the table. I ate a slice even though I hated it.
Now, in the narrator’s voice. Let’s make our narrator super cynical and bitter:
“They had one of those cakes you can buy from the bakery Albertson’s for $12.99. It was covered in rainbow frosting that was disgustingly sweet. I tried to choke down a slice, but it made me want to gag. Finally, when the host wasn’t looking, I fed it to the dog under the table.”
And a sweet, mid-western narrator:
“There was a rainbow cake on the table—rainbow! I used to love rainbows when I was that age. But once I got my nose closer to the frosting I realized something was horribly wrong. I took a nibble, even though my stomach was turning, because I didn’t want to be rude. But by the time I finished my slice, I had to excuse myself and run to the bathroom.”
Tip: If you are writing in first person or a close third, try rewriting your static description with the voice of your point of view character. You can also filter description through non-point of view characters by letting us hear them talk about their surroundings. If we can’t be inside the mind of the character, you can still use dialogue, action, and interaction with other characters to show us how they are interacting with their surroundings, making those descriptions more dynamic and relevant.
#3 Use your descriptions to show your character’s state of mind at different points in the story.
This relates closely to #1 and #2. Take the cynical narrator from the birthday party. How would that character describe the birthday party differently if, for example, her aunt had just died? Or she just got a job promotion? Or yesterday was her birthday, but nobody came to her birthday party? Would she describe the birthday party differently at the beginning of the story versus at the end? How might the events of your story cause your character to have a different perspective on the same surroundings that she experienced earlier in the story, or even earlier in her life?
Here’s a quick example:
The morning after Mary broke up with him, John woke up alone in their bed, pulled open the curtains, and immediately winced. The sun was too bright. The sky was too blue. Even the birds sounded awful – their chirping was agonizingly sharp. He had planned to get up on time and go for run, but instead he closed the curtains and crawled back into his bed. Sure, the soft floral quilt he slept under still smelled like her, but at least it was warm and dark, and he didn’t have to see the empty spot on the wall where her picture used to hang.
Tip: See if you can find any static descriptions that could be made more dynamic by considering your character’s past (whether recent or distant), their state of mind, their desires and fears, their attitudes, etc. The more you can make a connection between the descriptive elements in your story and the story itself, the more engaged your readers will be with the details you provide.
What do you all think? Any other ideas? I’m a huge setting and description nerd, so I could go on and on about this forever, but I just wanted to put together a few thoughts about how to transform static descriptions into more dynamic, engaging descriptions that readers won’t be likely to skim over.
Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.