Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way

One of the search engine terms somebody used to find my blog was “Describe a Scene in an Interesting Way,” and I thought it would be a great subject for today’s post.

The trap even the most successful writers fall into when describing a scene is to simply list the objects in a room or landscape, and a few adjectives thrown about for color or texture do not make the description any more interesting. Writers often cheat by pretending to see the scene through the character’s eyes, but it still comes down to being nothing more than a list.

We are not children padding our flimsy essays with adjectives and adverbs. We are adults who know that the number of words seattlein a story mean nothing; it’s only what the words mean that counts. And in description, those words must count twice: to give us a feel for the setting, and to give us a feel for the character.

Description by its very nature is static; we need to find ways to make it flow with the story. One way is to have the character interact with the setting: to sit in a mahogany armchair with a faded green cushion; to hear the deep notes of the grandfather clock in the corner; to feel the texture of the oriental carpet underfoot, to smell the old leather bindings of the books. Without ever stepping away from the character, we know what the room looks like, including the parts that were not described.

Another way to describe a scene is to pick one significant item and describe it. Perhaps the dusty lace curtains, or the stains on the ceiling where the roof leaked. Even better would be to show what the curtains or stains mean to the character.

We can also describe a scene by showing contrasts. Yellow is brighter when it is next to purple than when it is next to green. Green is brighter next to red than it is to blue. The color combination with the strongest visual impact is black on yellow. I’m not suggesting that we use color in such a way; these are merely examples of how one thing looks different when it is next to something else. Those dusty lace curtains may be in an otherwise spotless room. Or they might be scrupulously clean in a dusty room. Either way, it says more about the character than just describing the curtains or the room.

Describing scenes by sound rather than sight can give the scene movement. We do not perceive sound as being static. A train whistle in the distance is not always the same pitch, is not always the same volume. Even taste seems more dynamic than sight; for example, the taste of the smoky air on a winter day. And smell is the most evocative of all the senses; perhaps the smell of lilacs makes one think of grandmother’s house.

However we decide to describe our scenes, we need to keep our characters in mind. They and their problems are the story. The scenes need to reflect this, to be a part of it.

When we get to the point where we can suggest our character’s inner conflicts by the way we describe the scene, we will be on our way to mastering our craft.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

20 Responses to “Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way”

  1. Tabby Says:

    Oh wow!
    This is great. Finally, I found a site describing English composition essays for my O Levels.
    Thank you.

  2. Clif Says:

    well done 🙂

  3. insiyah kirloskar Says:

    hi, Pat,
    i am a speech and drama teacher in Pune, India. This summer i am conducting a summer workshop called, “Becoming Wordsmiths”. Through this workshop ,we aim to help children from age groups of 8-14, develop and enhance their language skills. i am looking for some resources and may be you could help me. I was looking for some simple paragraphs which coiuld then be spruced up by the children. also, some descriptive passges for them to read. a resource list of how to say things in a better fashion, for eg. how can one express the element of anger,or surprise using effective descriptions. we are also going to include many interesting world games..
    if you have any suggestion pls get in touch..your input would be much apreciated..

  4. J. Keller Ford Says:

    Pat, I think you said this beautifully. But let’s not forget that description can be overdone, which is something that new, aspiring authors do quite frequently. (I, myself, have been quite guilty of it). We want our readers to see the room or the surroundings the way we do that sometimes we end up with a string of adverbs and adjectives that overshadow the theme, the characters, the feeling. With that said, if I had to add anything to your post it would be – touch on all the senses but don’t overshadow your story with them. Leave the reader some room to use his/her imagination.

    Great post, Pat.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re right about not overusing adverbs and adjectives. I read a book once where every single noun had three adjectives, and every single verb had three adverbs. I have no idea how that guy got published. Dreadful writing! And the story wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

  5. jimrosswriting Says:

    Thanks for this post, you’ve given me some food for thought on the points contrast and tying description to the characters. I’m going to have a problem with doing that for smell though – my sense of smell is appalling. I suppose I’ll just have to use my imagination. 🙂

  6. skittlebug17 Says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you 🙂

  7. tapeworm symptoms in cats Says:

    Hi there, just wanted to tell you, I loved this post. It was helpful.

    Keep on posting!

  8. Nicolas Says:

    This writing is very beautiful I love it!!

  9. Amy Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Could you give me some tips on describing a scene of book launch ceremony? I want to depict the excitement and happiness of the author after years of effort that was put for writing the book.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      There is no such thing as a book launch ceremony. Some authors have a party or a book signing, but generally, there is no ceremony. As for how an author feels about getting published after years of work, it depends on the author. Some are ecstatic. Some are ambivalent, knowing the hard part of promotion is still ahead. Some feel let down — if your dream comes true, then you no longer have that dream.

  10. precious afems Says:

    Thanks. Very halpful for young writers like me

  11. Feeling Like a Celebrity | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way […]

  12. Yana Says:

    Hello, Pat.
    As I was searching for tips on how to describe a scene, I first came upon the publication in your blog. Then this link also appeared and i clicked on it, only to read the very same what you’ve posted (to my surprise).
    I tried to find any reference to your blog or at least mention of your name in the above post, but I failed to notice. It may have been there yet, as I didn’t check thoroughly. I just thought to send u the link anyway.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you, Yana. I appreciate your pointing this out. As it happens, I had posted the article on squidoo a long time ago and forgot about it, but there have been times when people have plagiarized my articles without giving me any sort of credit, so thank you!

  13. Frelisa Walker Says:

    This is very helpful for me because I struggle with setting and how it connects to character and story.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Setting took me a long time to learn, too. Too often writers just leave their characters dangling in space, and we have no idea where they are or what they are doing besides speaking or thinking.

  14. Hazel-ann Says:

    I love to write and read great writing. I love to play with words and to see how when we find the right combination how it positively affect our senses. A great piece thanks for sharing

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