Describing the world of your novel – mood, POV, senses, pictures and real life experience

Learn to describe the world around your characters with skill and you will add layers of depth to your story. You won't have to rely on the amateur’s method of 'telling' to get across how your character is feeling and thinking about everything, because it will be evident from your rich descriptions.

Reflect the mood

So don't just describe your surroundings for what they are, stuff them with propaganda.
A country garden can be cast as cheerful and airy or sinister and dark, depending on what your character is going through and their mood.
Be specific and use evocative words - Don't just say there was a bird call. Was it a cheerful greeting or a shrill warning? Don't just say the woods were dark, were they speckled with cool, relieving shade or dense with heavy shadow?

Stick to what your Point of View character can see

Even if you're in the third person you should only see whatyour character sees, and tell it from their point of view. The better you can do this the more real your character and story will feel. 

For example, your character:

  •  can't see something that's around the corner
  • doesn't know what other people are thinking
  • will see things through their world view – or as I like to put it: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like an nail. For example, if your main character is an accountant, they might view a fight in terms of how much the damage will cost. A Hell's Angel will think it's funny, and a little girl will see the same fight as giants tearing each other apart and have nightmares about it for months. It's not just a fight, it's a hundred things to a hundred people. Be sure you know who your person is. 

Use the five senses

Don't worry about prose for a minute, just make list. In each situation, what can your character:

  • See
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch
  •  Hear

Once you have these things you can either knit them together into a single descriptive paragraph to set the scene, or sprinkle them throughout the scene.

Use a picture

Tells a thousand words and all that. Thank whoever it is you might thank for these things that you are lucky enough to live in an era where millions and millions of images are available for you to browse at a moment's notice on the Internet. Centuries of pictures at your fingertips. Moments of history captured by the deft fingers of expert photographers, the essence of great leaders echoed in the brushstrokes of master painters, grand landscapes portrayed in breathtaking art, and crappy photo snaps of cringeworthy chavs. It's all there.

And life is always a thousand times richer than anything you can imagine, so take advantage of it. If you need to describe a rainy cobbled street in ancient Japan, hunt for a photo that is the closest approximation. Sometimes you might need several pictures, and none will get it exactly, but each will add threads and beads to your tapestry that you might never have found inside your own head.

Go there

Even better than looking at a photo is looking at the real thing. Many leading authors will go to the places they are talking about (as well as talking to the people who do what they're writing about, or even better, having experience of doing it themselves - such as being a detective or being in war). If you have the time, you should do this too. The power of allowing your senses to experience the night forest / battleship / penthouse suite cannot be overstated. Often it won't be practical, but if you get the chance, consider it a great prize.

If you'd like more help writing your novel, find out what makes The Novel Factory so effective.