Describing a Winter Scene — Again

The most viewed of all my bloggeries (supposedly that’s the correct name for blog posts) is The Origin of the Grim Reaper. The second most viewed is Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way.  The third is Describing a Character the Easy Way, and the fourth is Describing a Winter Scene. Apparently, writing description is a difficult subject to master. And so is deciding how much or how little to describe.

It seems as if this year we are getting plenty of winter. So, if you want to figure out how to describe a winter scene, don’t think of this a terrible winter but as a marvelous opportunity for learning how to describe a winter scene. The secret  is to find the telling details — the sights, sounds, smell, feel, taste that evoke the entire feeling of the season. Even better is to find that which only you can experience. Icicles dripping from the eaves have been described a zillion times. (A slight exaggeration, but you get the point.) The crystalline aspect of ice-covered trees has probably been described as often. And so has that childhood horror of getting one’s tongue stuck to metal. But what about shadows on the snow?  Rats. That’s been done, too. 

Sitting at a computer and looking out the window is no way to come up with telling details, which is why I can’t think of a single way to describe winter that hasn’t already become a cliché. Winter looks like a Christmas card when looked at from inside, but it can only be experienced (and hence described) by going outside and . . . well, experiencing it.

So, I will leave you all to your chilblained fingers tapping on warm computer keys, and I will brave the elements. But don’t expect me to tell you what I learn. My winter is not your winter. We each have to describe the winter that only we can experience, otherwise there is no reason to describe it at all.

Describing a Winter Scene

One of the most common reasons people come to my blog is to find out how to describe a scene. A subcategory of that is how to describe a winter scene. I can tell you one thing: you do not learn how to describe a winter scene by Googling it. You go outside. Stand still. Observe.

When writing about a place, we have a temptation to describe it all at once, but it’s more effective to begin at a distance, then 100_0876bmove in for the smaller details. So there you are out in the snow and cold. What is the panoramic view? What specifically do you see in the distance? What sounds are coming to you from far away?

Bring your focus in a little closer. Pick out a few details from the middle distance. Now bring your focus in to your immediate area where all your senses come into play.

How do you feel? You are probably shivering because you thought you’d be outside for just a minute and didn’t put on a coat. Make a note of that and whatever else you feel. Touch the ice or snow or slush. Is there anything you can say about it besides its temperature? If not, forget it. Everyone knows what cold feels like.

What do you smell? Taste? Perhaps a low-pressure system is keeping the car exhaust from dissipating and it is so thick you can taste it. Or perhaps the smoke from wood burning stoves is choking you, and you can taste it in the back of your throat.

What do you hear? Cold engines idling? Birds calling? Children laughing? Ice crackling?

Finally, what do you see? Focus on the small details. Are dead leaves or blades of grass poking up through the snow? Are there mice or deer tracks? Is a perfect feather lying at your feet? Is a nest visible in the bare tree branches?

When you have absorbed as much sensory information as you can, you are ready to write the scene. Resist the urge to string together adjectives — too many can diminish the power of your description — and resist the urge to use everything you learned. It is better to pick one or two exceptional details that give an impression of the whole rather than attempting to describe the entire scene. Most readers today do not want to sit through long descriptions. They want to get a quick sense of the place and then move on to the action.

Better yet, couple your description with action; give it movement. Have snow crunching beneath running feet. Have a character dodging around a stalled car. Have the blood of a victim staining winter-dry leaves.

Most importantly, if you can’t think of a single original thing to say about the scene, don’t describe it at all. Why waste your time and your readers’ by telling them what they already know?


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.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.