Nothing adds to a sense of place like fully immersive description. Be it fiction or non-fiction, a richly detailed description can transport the reader to a location as real as the one they are reading from.
Description is an art in itself. Applicable to characters as well as location, description adds credibility to the words on the page.
Description of any kind involves translating the image in the author’s mind into words on the page. From there, those words must turn into a corresponding image in the reader’s mind. So far so obvious.
When it comes to places, the more immersive the description the better. More than simply creating an image in the reader’s mind, fully immersive description takes them to a place vivid with sights, sounds, smalls, tastes and sensations.
The more senses you engage, the more immersive the setting becomes.
Go beyond the visual. What can the character see, touch, taste, hear and smell?
Waking in the unfamiliar room, Jovanka ran her hands across the silky furs covering the bed beneath her. A candle glimmered beside her, casting sinister shadows between the low rafters overhead. Scented with lemon, the candle competed with the smoke of the fireplace, the acrid taste of it driven across the room by the whistling and moaning of the wind pushing down the narrow chimney from the storm outside. The roof creaked and groaned, such that she missed the turn of the key in the lock as the door gently opened.
Isn’t that better than: “it was a dark and stormy night outside the candlelit room. The door unlocked and opened.”
What this description delivers is
- a basic location
- the violence of the storm outside
- a host of detail about the room and its contents
- sensory detail in all five aspects: sight, touch, taste, sound and smell.
All these elements combined produce a unique sense of place and events. Immersive, yet it all remains highly mysterious.
When and How
It’s tempting to think everything needs immersive description in order to make ‘good writing.’ Don’t.
The key questions are:
- when to include immersive description?
- how does it advance the story?
Some writers make the mistake of describing every detail of the tablecloth and china teacups on it. Don’t.
Is this the time to describe the articles in a room in depth, or do action, dialogue and introspection take priority? Does the description add depth and detail or merely slow down and delay the story?
How do the details of the tablecloth and teacup add depth the the feeling of the place? Do they reveal wealth or status; dilapidation or disrepair? Do they characterise the owner’s taste? In the context of the space, are they incongruous? Are they symbolic of some other story element? Are they key props for later action? Does the point of view character recognize their use and symbolism? Are they strange or familiar within the location.
Immersive description helps a reader understand the kind of place the story is set in.
Take for example, a seashore.
Is it a sandy beach or a stretch of rock pools? Are there gently waving palm trees or the smell of wet seaweed? When you reach out do soft grains of sand flow through your fingers or do you meet cold, slimy algae? Does the air smell fresh, or do you taste the salt of the cold spray blown in your face. Do the waves lap gently with a low whoosh, like breathing? Or do they pound the shore with a thunderous crash and hiss of foam?
In the example above, we have simile – ‘like breathing’ – and metaphor – ‘thunderous crash.’ You might say thunderous reaches for exaggeration or hyperbole, elevating the description from something factual and commonplace to a heightened sense of drama.
I personally don’t write a lot of description. My prose style is, put kindly, ‘sparse.’ But there is a scene where I wanted a striking, rich, detailed and even overwhelming sense of place. It’s easily the most over-the-top description I’ve ever written. It is deliberately overdone.
Enter the Apothecary’s shop
They stood in the work room behind a shop, seen through the low arch. The work room itself was a marvel. The shelves that lined the walls were packed with row upon row of glass jars containing various exotic spices with unfamiliar names. Smaller bottles of dark liquids stood labeled with the names of obscure wild berries and plants. Strange instruments of good workmanship in steel and brass, of wholly unfamiliar designs, stood on taller middle shelves.
Between them all stood incense, wild almonds, vials of powders and tinctures, pots of small succulents in various colors, dried flowers, seeds, animal parts, scents, oils and extracts. They joined a staggering collection of many-colored crystals, feathers, scales, pelts, petals, bones, claws and teeth.
Bundles of sage, lavender, and mugwort hung from the rafters, along with some dozen small cages, several of which were covered and gently shaking.
A work table in the center had a steel top, in places burned and blacked from the spirit lamps and braziers heating assorted bowls and pots. The remainder of the surface was filled with bowls, vials and a handful of mortar and pestles of various sizes.
The smell of herbs, tinctures and potions combined, a mixture of the pungent, the sickly and the downright vile. Over the fire stretched a steel rack on which was hooked a row of cast iron pots, bubbling and smelting.