Writercraft: Subtle descriptions

I’m not a very observant person. There are things I usually can’t help noticing, usually to do with words, the ones people roll their eyes at you for correcting—spelling mistakes, famous quotes said just a bit off, analogies used incorrectly. You know the ones. Yeah, I’m that person. Sorry.

That being said, I think I appreciate it all the more, then, when I find an author or a songwriter that describes without breaking that thread of tension that drives a scene. Someone who can re-cap past books in a series without making a thing of it. An author that’ll find a way to describe a character, or a scene, or part of the world they’ve created without it standing out.


I’ll be honest, I don’t care how blue the sky and waves are, or how yellow the sea. But I do want to know more about that chair. Good authors don’t waste time painting background scenery.

There’s not many good ways to do it. Having your narrator start explaining a situation  they’ve understood for years to themselves makes no sense, and unless you’re going to do the old ‘looking at self in mirror’/’critiquing own physical appearance’-thing, it can be hard to find a way to make it work.

I’m usually not in favour of out and out ‘rules’ of writing, because style is a very personal thing, and what I like a lot of people don’t and disclaimer-disclaimer-disclaimer; but below are some of the less tiresome ways of introducing facts the reader needs to know, that the narrator takes for granted. They are roughly arranged from most to least overused, but I firmly believe that a skilled writer could make the ol’ mirror scene seem new and interesting, so none of this is intended as criticism. (Enough disclaimers now? Okay)

  1. Explain the situation to a novice/foreigner/child

We’ve all read this one before, right? Usually with chosen one style situations. A mysteriously powerful farmboy (or equivalent: private investigator, teenager, newcomer of any kind) needs instruction in the field/society they are thrown into. A fish out of water thing, where the reader learns along with the main character. Easy for this to be boring, because anyone who reads (or has watched a movie) has seen/heard this before, a lot.

  1. Slipped into the world

If you need to mention magicians of old so that the revelation in chapter 5 that the main character has superpowers (gasp!) isn’t jarring, it can be less blindingly obvious what you’re doing if it gets blurred by a mess of various other descriptions. A fountain commemorating the spot a famous hero once defeated the evil magician Foreshadeo; an architectural quirk once believed to protect those within from witchcraft, charms sold to gullible tourists made from genuine magician’s bones.

  1. A change is as good as a detailed comparitive description paragraph

One time when people really do look back on things that are common knowledge, is when things are changing. You might reminisce on your childhood as you’re leaving for school, a death of a loved one might bring old memories to the surface, or maybe you notice the colour of your hair as you’re considering a cut. Whatever it is, if you have to describe a plain facts situation, don’t start with out-of-the-blue descriptions of something everyone knows/can see. It’s one of the easiest ways to spot clumsy writing. Even third-person only covers so much. ‘Jane was young’ = fine, but don’t end it there, use the fact to explain/excuse something relevant.

‘Jane was a young, blue-eyed blonde, always noticing the little things in life and sticking up for the underdog’ = boring, this is the definition of telling rather than showing. I don’t 100% subscribe to the abhorrence of just telling your readers things, I think trying to show everything can get boring suuuper quickly, but I think the things you tell should be to show something more important, or more relevant to the plot.

So if the fact that your character is discriminated against is about to be relevant, you can ‘tell’ the readers that the dirty looks are regarding the MC’s [race/sexuality/class/etc]; but use the opportunity then provided to demonstrate the effect it’s had on their personality, or job prospects, or social life. Give it weight.

  1. Regional variations

I really like this one—have the narrator notice reactions to an aspect of their appearance/the appearance of a companion. Mention how strange their current surroundings are when compared to their homeland (double whammy—describe two places in a relevant way without being infodumpy, because you’re comparing the two). Likewise, you can discuss the common religion/power structure/belief if there’s variation, which also makes your writing more true-to-life and believable, and maintaining the willing suspense of disbelief for your readers is half your job, as a writer.

A minor variation on both this and number 5 is to have the novice be from an offshoot, or join an offshoot, and marvel at the strange beliefs/practices of those around them. So say your main character was raised with religion as more of a tradition than a belied, meeting true believers (or a god, whatevs) could be both an entertaining source of friction, and a convenient way of explaining things to your readers, without them getting drawn out of the story.

  1. If you can’t be smooth, stop trying.

You’ve tried slipping a description or explanation into a tone-setter and it seemed to heavy and out of place?

Your character list is full up and there’s no room for a ‘mirror’ to contrast someone/thing with?

Your MC has amnesia and doesn’t know their own name, let alone what the street they’re walking down used to look like?

Okay, stop trying. If you can’t be unobtrusive, just intrude. Say what needs saying and get out of there. ‘Remember last year (cough cough, last book) when that wizard tried to kill me? Weird, huh? Oh well, back to establishing scenes!’

I don’t like forewords or previously ons, but sometimes they’re necessary. Not everyone is going to re-read (or even skim) a twenty book series before the new one comes out, sometimes you need to remind your readers of who someone is, or tell them some backstory there just isn’t room for in the plot, or explain a detail of the world that is such a given, there’s no non-clumsy way to explain. ‘Can you believe that ridiculous lady said magic isn’t real? Everyone knows…’


I think if you can’t be subtle about your world-building or re-caps, just stop trying. Rip the band-aid off. Insert quotes, articles, or ominous future predictions. YES, you have to use this tactic with care, but writing is a delicate craft that requires overthinking at every step (okay, maybe it doesn’t require it, but does that stop me?); and sometimes your craft isn’t that well-crafted. Don’t let that stop you.

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