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Good day all. Hope the writing muses are with you all.

I was wondering what helps you to imagine details in a scene? I can't say that I'm a detailed oriented person so what I find acceptable as a description may not cut it for readers for the novel that I'm working on.

I have found that by using concept art found on the internet that's close to what I'm imagining has helped me to physically reference the scene, and it helps me with the details that bring the scene more alive. However, I have found that I can't find the exact picture that doesn't fit concept art that I'm looking for in some cases and I find my description in the scene flat or boring.

And there is the whole "wanting to avoid any copyright infringements..."

I wish I could draw so I could physically refer to the scene when writing instead of forgetting details in my head.

For example, I'm currently writing a scene with members of government, navy and a religious organization. There's going to be about six people key (besides approx. 50-100 others in the room) to the scene and my description of how each look and dress seems lacking in detail when I try to write.

Not sure if I'm overthinking things or not (or using it as an excuse not to write tonight :-)...but thought I'd see what you all do when you want to get the details down for your scenes.

Thanks in advance for your consideration and feedback.

Cheers.

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    I suggest you read "Counting the Cost" by David Drake. It includes several scenes much like the one you are describing - government members, religious leaders, and military leaders all interacting in various small and large groups and scenes. Note how important characters are introduced outside of the group interactions. Note that character descriptions in important scenes are short and to the point and are mentioned as information about the character of the characters. – JRE Mar 12 at 14:47
  • A simple thing that helps me feel like my writing isn't so boring when I'm describing things is to fit the description in smaller pieces in between events of the scene. That way it doesn't seem like there is a mass of exposition and the reader flows in and out of the event, kind of painting a picture as they go. Instead of describing a character right when you meet them, try using a descriptive reference when they are obviously the subject. Also, describing how something is down can give the reader insight into why, therefore give them the image tied to the reason. – TitaniumTurtle Mar 12 at 20:26
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You are not "overthinking," though perhaps you are in need of encouragement to keep writing. Many others have had these self-same questions. In my research and reading to learn "how to write" I came across the idea of writing a "character Bible."

Character Bible and Wardrobe Charts

A character Bible is a set of files in which one writes up all the details about each character such as gender, age, height, interests, place in family, and all the important milestones in that person's life. This may include items that don't enter the story but help make the character who they are. For characters in serials, this is especially important so that the author can go check if Tom had glasses in Book 2 or if that only happened in Book 4. Or maybe it was Harry who had the glasses and Tom who wore a baseball hat everywhere he went, even to church if his wife--or was it his mother--let him.

You mention "forgetting details." This means you had them in your head and/or imagination at one point. Write them down right away. No need to draw; write them down in all their tedious detail. Make a list or chart if that is helpful. People divide their wardrobes into headgear, tops (e.g. shirts, blouses, jackets), bottoms (e.g. slacks, pants, jeans), footwear (different kinds of footwear for different purposes), accessories (e.g. ties, scarves).

I am not into clothes for my characters--they just wear the same drab stuff all the time with a focus on what's going on, but some authors dress their characters in different clothes every day. If you want to do that, I can visualize a chart for each character. Across the top, write the different categories of the wardrobe and down the side write the names of items, leaving room to list a variety of jeans, shorts, slacks, etc. Then, when it comes time to dress Tom for the government meeting or Therese for the party, all you have to do is go into the "closet" aka chart and pick from what's there.

Using Pictures

I use pictures, too, for clothing. Since I'm writing about people in earlier decades, I'll ask Google for "girl's dress 1960s" or "men's clothes 1940s." That tends to bring up Sears catalogue pages from the years requested. For the centuries before photographs, it tends to be paintings. I have not gone back far enough to need pottery or cave engravings but I think that's where information of the very ancient styles come from. To not infringe on copyright of contemporary photographs, one can pick and choose elements of the garments to describe. You are not reproducing the photograph.

How Much Description

This brings us to another of your questions: How much description is required?

I personally don't like reading long detailed descriptions of clothing when I'm dying to know who killed the corpse we met in Chapter 1. A friend suggested to use just enough detail to get the reader thinking in the right direction. Let readers fill it in with their own imagination.

For example, Tom with the baseball cap in church was probably wearing some kind of pants and footwear though we are never told. I'm making this up as I go. All we know is that he was in a t-shirt with a tie and baseball cap when his mother caught him going out the door. Given that description of his dress from the waist up (I'd add colour and design in a real story), reader imagination will dress him from the waist down. We want to know what happens when this guy gets to church, especially if it's a traditional suit-and-tie congregation.

Describing A Large Group

Don't try to describe every person in a crowd of a hundred people. Describing the six key men in your group is enough. Authors use various techniques to describe groups. Often they start with a characteristic everyone had in common, then add a bit more to give the reader a general idea. Include enough detail to carry the plot. Maybe all six men carried a briefcase or wore a tie. Maybe in your large crowd everyone is wearing a uniform or religious symbol or is "prepared to take a stand." You can use clothing and body postures to set the atmosphere of the scene (calm, tense, angry, joyful, etc.). For example, a scene with a priest who boldly displays his cross and a lawyer who pushes out the chest of his expensive suit as he struts up to him with a briefcase both describes people and suggests conflict.

How I Get The Details Down

You ask how I get the details down. Often the details are the last thing I add to the scene. I'll visualize in my head the exact location (room, lawn, etc.) where the characters are, what else is in their immediate environment, what tools they are using, what clothing they are wearing. Then I'll add enough to make the scene come alive as described above.

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Details have always been my biggest weakness. After several years of work, I've finally built them up into a strength. While visual aids and models can help, there are a few other things that I've found very helpful and effective:

1) Work on being more observant. You can't write what you don't notice. Take some time in your daily life to fall in love with the visual details all around you.

2) Put some emotion/foreshadowing/attitude into your details. "He wore a blue shirt. He wore a red belt" is boring. Sure it's visual detail, but it doesn't really take you anywhere. No wonder it's tough to write! How about "His shirt was the peaceful blue of a cloudless sky. But his belt was as crimson as fresh blood." Much more interesting, to read AND to write.

3) The last one is one I learned here, from the great @MarkBaker. Every detail can be a mini-story. "The trees were an army of straight-backed soldiers, in muddy brown uniforms" is a strong visual image, but it's also an intriguing mini-story.

When you get away from seeing visual description as a hoop to jump through, a boring catalog of details to check off, you begin to realize it's a palette for your storytelling --a way of putting the reader right in the center of the action. Nor should it just be visuals. Get sound, smell, taste and feel in there too. I can report firsthand, it really improves the way readers respond to your writing.

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  • You have some good suggestions that I use too. As a side note, you might want to research your details. Example: dried blood is brown or black, not crimson. Many trees like maples and oaks are more rounded, not at all "straight-backed" like soldiers, but others like poplars and pines normally are. – Sarah Bowman Mar 12 at 20:51
  • @SarahBowman - How embarrassing! :) Fixed – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 12 at 23:02
  • Love your description now! – Sarah Bowman Mar 13 at 1:23
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You are overthinking it.

As a reader, I mostly don't give a rat's patootie about what most of the characters look like or how they dress.

There's a handful of important characters that you will describe in detail in your novel - and you will have described them in bits and pieces throughout the story. I don't need a long winded description of those characters in a scene.

As for the others (new characters introduced in the scene,) I don't want to be flooded with details that impede the flow. A short description that gives a (very) quick sketch of the character's personality is all that fits.

Examples:

  • Your "military leader" who shows up in a fancied up, non-regulation silk version of the standard uniform is of questionable quality as a commander.
  • Your "religious" leader who has a couple of heavily armed "choir boys" in attendance is probably more than a simple preacher - this character may give the "military leader" a really tough opponent to deal with.
  • The "low ranking official" wearing a suit of better quality (finest material, tailor made) than the supposed head of the government might be the "power behind the throne."

Details are to help the reader understand the characters. You want to think in terms of sketches rather than paintings - the minimum of detail necessary make an impression.

Give your readers a framework, and let them fill in the finer details themselves. It is boring as F to read pages upon pages of details that the reader will forget or ignore anyway.

I'm not reading your novel to see how well you can describe a physical scene.

I'm reading your novel to see the ideas and concepts you are presenting.

If you have nothing to say, the level of detail of your (physical) character descriptions won't help - I'll skip all the fluff, figure out that you're telling me pointless anecdotes, and toss your book in the pile of "don't bother, can be used for kindling in the fireplace."

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    -1 For years I had the same attitude as you, but I've learned that, yes, good visual details DO make a big difference, and that a lot of readers won't stick with you without them. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 12 at 13:32
  • @ChrisSunami: I'm not an author. I'm just some clown who has read hundreds of novels and even more short stories. I don't want to read your wordy and magnificent descriptions. I want a quick sketch of the character of the person - I want to understand why character X has personality traits, not have the person's choice of clothes described to me in painful detail. All of your descriptive details won't bring me to the point of understanding - they'll more likely just muddy the waters. – JRE Mar 12 at 13:39
  • If you describe how a character is dressed in exhaustive detail, I don't know within the context of the story if that describes a serious person or a buffoon. What you do is provide the salient points of their clothing and behaviour, and have one of your point of view characters (either by action or words or thoughts) provide the judgement of that character's behavior. From that point onward, I can then recognize a buffoon in your world by the characteristics the POV character used to pass judgment. – JRE Mar 12 at 13:52
  • Or, put another way: When you walk in a room full of people, do you catalog their clothing and positions or do you draw inferences about the people from a quick scan of the room? A normal person walks in, scans the room, notes anomalies, and gets on with whatever brought them to the room in the first place (or reacts to the anomalies if needed.) An absolute weirdo mentally catalogs every piece of clothing and notes the position of everyone present. – JRE Mar 12 at 14:00
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    I reviewed your answer again, and I realize it's more the way it's presented that I disagree with than the content. The specifics of the advice is not bad, but the overall implication that visual detail is unimportant is misleading and unhelpful. It's one thing to ignore details as a reader, it's a whole different thing to ignore them as a writer. I'm willing to rescind my downvote if you are willing to make that more clear. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 12 at 14:10

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