Posted: March 20, 2013 by K D Blakely in Karen's Words

For me, part of what makes a book interesting is being able to feel as if I am right there in each scene.  What helps me most  is a well crafted description.  The environment is the easiest, biggest, most in-your-face part of a description.   I want to know if:

I can feel the sun beating down on my head.

My nose is turning red with the chill in the air.

It is sunny, rainy, snowing, foggy.

Those factors can help to quickly put you in the scene.

But there are far more subtle descriptions that, if done well, can make a scene really come alive for me.

Take footsteps.

What is it about the sound of footsteps that make them so recognizable?

1) Tennis shoes on a basketball court.

2) Hiking boots on gravel.

3) Cowboy boots on a wooden floor.

4)  Leather dress shoes on concrete.

5) Rubber soles on wet grass.

If someone were to play a soundtrack of each of those footsteps, most of us would immediately recognize which we were hearing.

As a writer, getting those details on paper so someone can recall a specific sound can be incredibly frustrating.  Too much description will have the reader rolling his/her eyes and skipping ahead.  Too little description, and the reader won’t be able to hear those footsteps in their head.

There are probably a dozen ways to describe each of those sounds.  Here’s some quick examples:

1)      The high-pitched squeak of tennis shoes on a basketball court.

2)      The crunch of gravel under hiking boots.

3)      The rhythmic thunk-tap of boots striking wood.

4)      The scrape of leather shoes on concrete.

5)      Rubber soles squelching across wet grass.

Do you like it when an author describes sounds?  If so, do you have a favorite description?

I think smells are even harder.   How would you describe a scent to someone who has never smelled it?  For example:

The scent of warm buttery crescent rolls fresh from the oven.

Hot apple pie, thickly layered with brown sugar and cinnamon.

But how do you describe the smell of gooey melted chocolate, roasted garlic or eucalyptus?  Fresh mown grass?  Or something not quite so pleasant, like liver and onions, or the scent of coffee overheated too long?

I grew up near the ocean in Southern California and spent a lot of time on the beach near the Santa Monica pier.  You could smell that briny ocean scent a couple blocks away.  More than twenty-three years later, that scent is still instantly recognizable to me.

But I had someone who’d never been to the beach read my ‘briny’ description and they were shocked.  They’d always assumed the beach smelled fresh and clean.

I think she was disappointed to know the truth.

And I wondered, do most readers like to have descriptions of sounds or scents?  Obviously a detailed description won’t add value to every scene.  And sometimes, just calling it fresh mown grass can provide enough description.  So how important is a more specific description?

I know what I like, but what do you think?

I guess the real question is – does a more detailed description of sounds and smells really help other readers get into a scene?   If so, then the incredibly frustrating process of describing the nearly indescribable seems well worth it.

  1. Angelo Rimpici says:

    So helpful fantastic

  2. Hi! That is awesome! Does it work with FTR too?

  3. Danielle says:

    I think that this helped me out quite a bit, though my problem is the setting. For my story, it’s snow. All snow. And when I think of snow I think of crunching for my footsteps. Therefore, various forms of the word crunch are EVERYWHERE in my writing. I need synonyms for crunch, but thesaurus websites seem to think I’m trying to describe a cataclysmic event or some adverse situation. I’m just frustrated at my current vocabulary (or lack there of).

    • Anonymous says:

      I think you don’t necessarily have to mention crunch or other sounds over and over. Once you introduce the sound maybe once and then halfway through once again, the readers will think of the sound whenever they read snow. Or when you mention how someone trudging, and your reader knows it’s because of the snow, they’ll hear the sound in their mind. Stepping through snow can also use onomatopoeia, like “ch.” Just use various tactics to remind the reader that there is snow and that there are boots sinking into it, such as descriptive verbs and metaphors and a similes. Boots can sift the snow if you like. The “s” in sift kinda sounds like stepping in snow.

  4. Ooh, how did I miss this post for so long? GREAT ideas about the importance of details in description. I especially like your description about the ocean–I lived in San Francisco, and it smells briny there too! I was drawing on that for a recent description, made all the more complicated because my character had never smelled the ocean before, so she was describing it without knowing what it was. We’ll call that a positive writing challenge experience…

    • Karen says:

      Yeah, describing something you know people will recognize is hard, but describing something people may not recognize can be impossibly difficult.

      I experienced how hard it is to describe a specific sound when I was a kid.  I believed we had a ghost.  I frequently heard the sound of footsteps from our attic.  We’re talking leather soled cowboy boots, on a wooden floor, pacing back and forth, with a slow heel toe rythym.  But our attic only had thin beams – no wooden floor.  My dad insisted it was a rat jumping around up there.  I kept trying to describe how I knew it was footsteps, but I never succeeded.  I couldn’t describe it clearly enough to prove it could not have been a rat…  

      That convinced me how important a good description can be.

      Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Note® II

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