Description is hard. At least, writing it well is hard. While I have come a long way from the boring, plot-stopping descriptive bombs I used to write, I am still improving my craft in that area.
1. Less is more. Trust your readers. Give the reader enough to interpret the space and place your character inhabits, but do not inundate with details. As author Patty Jansen reminds us in an excellent blog post, certain genres like historical or science fiction, where world-building is needed will of necessity have more scene-setting descriptions than those set in the present day, but be sparing in choosing your details—tell us what we need to know, and no more.
2. Description should be woven into the character’s experience, rather than an objective observation. Since most YA is written from a specific (often first-person) point of view, the Main Character (MC) will only notice details important to her at that time.
3. Any detail you mention should be important to the story. For instance, if you mention that your MC dropped a pot into the porcelain sink as a child and broke the sink, then that event must have some meaning to the core of the story. If you say that the MC loves the fact that the microwave is hidden in the breadbox, then that detail must be important later in the story. This is similar to the adage “If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you must fire it by the end of the play.”
4. Every detail has to multitask. Just as your MC will not notice details that do not directly concern him at that moment, he will also notice (and describe) them in a way that reflects his emotional state and life view at that moment. The way his perception of a place, object, or person changes will help build character and show emotion without “telling.” One of the best examples I found of this was in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Her descriptions of the passing seasons mirrored Melinda’s growth and healing.
5. Description can add foreshadowing and complication to a story. For example, if the reader first sees a kitchen through the MC’s eyes as warm and homey, but later sees that same kitchen as cold and menacing later in the story. The first instance builds the expectation in the reader that something bad will happen to destroy that happy, homey feeling (this is YA fiction, after all—something always happens to disrupt the happy status quo!).
6. Use description to build an image system throughout the story. Again returning to Speak, Halse Anderson’s use of Melinda’s art project (a tree) also showed her growth and return to life as Melinda wrestled with repeated mistakes but improved every time she tried to carve it.
7. Don’t info-dump. Beware of show-stopping blocks of description and layer in the information as the reader needs to know it. Have the reader ask the question and then answer it. This type of back-and-forth between the reader and the words on the page is what keeps the reader engaged and immersed in the world you have built.
I hope you found these tips as helpful as I did. I hope to apply them to my current manuscripts in the next round of edits!
Are there any other description tips you would like to share?