How To Filter Description Through Your Characters

How do you describe a scene without slowing down the pace of your novel? What do you include? What do you leave out? Here's a neat trick: use your own experiences as a guide.

When we encounter a new setting or new experience, all our senses are on the alert. While we may not be conscious of it, we are using filtering that experience in our own unique ways. We react to what is happening according to the following:

1. Our Prior Experiences

Remember the scene in "Pretty Woman" where the heroine has her first experience of the Opera? Her reaction was vastly different to that of someone who might take such outings for granted - someone who had been accustomed to going to the Opera all her life. If you are poor, you tend to take for granted humble surroundings; but you notice the trappings of the rich. You may envy the rich, or you may feel that this is a lifestyle that is totally foreign to you, and you prefer a simpler life. If you are used to speaking in one language, you feel all at sea if you are surrounded by foreigners.

Make sure you show your character's reactions in a way that fits with her prior experiences.

2. How Things Affect Our Senses

We all experience the world through our five senses, but a blind man will rely on other senses more than those who have good eyesight. The situation will determine which sense comes to the fore with your viewpoint character. If we're in a bakery, we tend to notice the delicious SMELLS before anything else. If we're trudging home in the rain, cold and wet, we notice the way things FEEL against our skin - cold, clammy, wet. If we're in a dark room we rely on what we hear. When you are showing your character's reactions, don't automatically describe what he or she SEES. Think about the situation, and decide whether one of the other senses might be more appropriate.

3. Imagine Yourself In That Situation

To write effectively, try to BECOME the viewpoint character. Imagine what it would be like for you to experience the same thing. Which of your senses would be paramount? What would YOU notice? How would your prior experiences affect the way you react?

4. Show Only What is Important to the Viewpoint Character

Many beginning writers fall into the trap of trying to describe everything. These often become the sections that readers skip over, because they don't want to sit down and read pages of lyrical description about the countryside, or about the mansion that the heroine finds herself in. Nor do they want to read a laundry-list of what a character might see in a room.

Show the character in action. Imagine yourself looking out through the character's eyes, and show ONLY WHAT IS RELEVANT. As one writing teacher I know puts it, "when you're jumping a fence to run from the bad guys, you don't have time to admire the sunset."

Bottom line? FILTER EVERYTHING THROUGH CHARACTER. Stick to that basic rule and you won't go too far wrong.

(c) copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at

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