There are nearly as many ways to describe a scene or character as there are stars in the night sky. Sometimes a quick description with additional hints sprinkled through the following action and dialogue works well. Other times a more thorough description, with metaphor and simile, might work better. And for some things, a description is barely even necessary, it might be enough to simply hint through clever placement of objects in a scene. It’s the last option I’ll be talking about here, describing characters through environmental details.
Indirectly describing a scene, location, or character is a great way to give your reader a good idea of what’s what without needing to overtly tell them. In other words, this is a form of the old ‘show, don’t tell’ technique. First, let’s take a quick example from one of my own works, Starlight:
Meg moved across to the kitchenette and stared at the cooker. Then at the sink. A variety of pots and pans, plus several plates and a number of pieces of cutlery lounged there, awaiting her attention. She turned to the centre of the room where her sofa and TV stood. T-shirts, random pairs of pants, and various jeans and trousers lay strewn across her sofa.
This simple paragraph of description gives the reader some hints as to the sort of girl Meg is. Potentially a little lazy—not necessarily true but a reasonable assumption for now. Untidy and disorganised—plainly accurate based on observation, but could also indicate she simply hasn’t had time to tidy. Not hugely interested in cleaning when she has other things to be doing—it’s previously been shown that she’s an art student at a university, and artists are often portrayed as untidy, so this is again an okay assumption.
By showing that Meg attends university, the reader is given the general idea that she’s probably fairly busy a lot of the time. Then showing her flat in a disorganised state gives additional clues about her personality, without ever using the words ‘untidy’ or ‘disorganised’ in the actual prose.
Similarly, if you’re writing the morning after scene for a couple who just had intimate relations, the state of the room can tell its own story and inform the reader as to some of the specifics, without ever needing to show the erotic stuff itself. Clothes tidily placed on a chair? At least one of the participants is likely anal about tidiness, even in the throws of sexy action. Clothes strewn everywhere? This indicates heat and passion and a total lack of concern for trivialities.
Think about your characters and their personalities. How can you show their traits, their quirks, their interests without directly telling the reader ‘this is how they are’? For example, a sporty character might have muscle toners or particular brands of sporting shower gels, or a pair of running shoes, or magazines focusing on specific activities such as tennis.
Likewise, particular types of people might have distinguishing features such as finger calluses for a writer in a setting where the computer hasn’t been invented and people still write primarily with a pen, or even a quill. Equally, a guitar player would also have similar calluses, albeit in slightly different locations to the writer.
While this is a useful show-don’t-tell technique, it can also be overdone. Having a journalist with a tablet, notepad, several dozen pens, a baseball cap with ‘globetrotter’ written on it, a laptop, passport, various ID badges and documents from events and pressers, and similar things all strewn across a desk might be overdoing it a bit. Just pick out a few important signifiers and use those, readers will generally pick up the hints with minimal prompting.
As with all of your writing tools, use sparingly and only where appropriate. Sometimes it’s best to simply tell rather than show in order to keep the action going and avoid bogging the reader down with unnecessary details during a tense scene. On the other hand, a scene might be greatly improved with the addition of a few details, especially in the case of horror.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and something you can easily tweak during your edit passes. I normally write as much detail as possible for the first draft, more or less using a stream of consciousness style in order to get a firm idea of the shape of things myself. Then I’ll remove superfluous details, add missing ones, and tweak the rest during edits.
And finally, never forget the sense of smell! This one sense can paint a picture more vivid than a thousand words, by evoking memories and feelings the reader already understands. For example, the hot and humid green smell of a greenhouse, or the rancid odour of rotten meat.
Smell can be used similarly to the previous examples of item placement, simply by dropping in a brief hint of a scent the reader will most likely be familiar with. Combine both item placement and scents and you’ll soon be describing vivid scenes like a pro.