Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Describing Your Fictional World

by Cynthia Owens @EfficiencyAdict

Become a travel guide for your readers!
One of my weaknesses as a writer is adding sensory details. I tend to start with the dialogue, add the critical action items, and toss in just enough deep point of view (POV) to help the reader connect to the character. Description and sensory details are the last things I consider. Part of this is because I can see my characters’ world. It exists in my head in vibrant detail, but as my critique partners frequently remind me, I’m not always letting the reader in on the action.

So today, as I’m reviewing a manuscript, trying to add all those worldview details I didn’t include on previous edits, I’m reminded of the last time I traveled.

I was a stranger in a strange land.

My father and I were visiting Spain and Portugal, and for this southern girl, those were wonderfully unique places. When I returned home and tried to describe my experiences to my husband, I found myself drawing on storytelling skills to portray the worlds I’d seen.

There was Fatima, where the streets are stone and kneeling pilgrims hobble around the outdoor altar, their rosary beads clicking as they murmur prays.

There was Porto, where blue-tiled buildings teeter over a golden river carrying oenophiles to port wine tastings in subterranean vaults filled with oak barrels.

I mentioned the eye-watering smoke of the incense-filled cathedrals, the smell of the street-vendors frying fish, and the damp of the caves used to protect World War II soldiers from Hitler’s thundering battleships.

I described all the details that were different from our world so he could picture the wonder of theirs.

How This Applies to Our Writing

Our fictional characters live in a world we’ve designed. It may be magical or frightening, full of intrigue, mischief, or fun. Regardless of whether it’s exotic or familiar, our readers need to see it. They are strangers wandering through, and we, the writers, are their tour guides.

Think about the last time you traveled.
  • What got your attention?
  • Where was your focus?
  • Why? 

If you haven’t traveled in a while, try visiting someplace new in your hometown. Venture to an unfamiliar restaurant, park, or museum and ask yourself these same questions.

Next, consider how your characters would answer these questions both about their world and within each scene. Where is their attention? What do they notice? Why?

I’m hoping that by making these questions a habit, I’ll gradually improve my inclusion of pertinent sensory details.

How do you determine what descriptions to include in your stories? What techniques do you use to draw a reader into the world you’ve created?

READER UPDATE: Last month I shared how for years I’d struggled to finish a novel-length manuscript. I was finally making progress, but as of that posting time I still had about 25% of the story to write. Today, I’m happy to report my very first novel draft is complete. Yay! I still have lots of editing to do, but I’ve made it over that get-it-done hurdle, and it feels great!

If you’re struggling to complete your first manuscript, perhaps the mindset changes that helped me will benefit you. See what made a difference in my writing by checking out the article Write to Finish. And thanks for your encouragement!


Cynthia Owens is The Efficiency Addict, a technical trainer helping writers, speakers and small business owners work more effectively. She runs www.TheEfficiencyAddict.com, which specializes in computer training, business organization, career development and event coordination. 

Connect with Cynthia on Twitter and Pinterest.

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  1. Thank you, Cynthia. I'm writing my first fiction suspense novel, and your article truly helped me.

  2. That's wonderful, Cherrilynn! Glad this article could help you on your writing journey.

  3. Congratulations Cynthia! Love the article. World building can be complicated. Love the travel analogies.

  4. So happy for you! A wonderful accomplishment 🙂

  5. Hi Cynthia, I can so relate to what you shared. My descriptive skills are the weakest and like you, I see it so cleraly in my head I don't realize I haven't painted it clearly for the reader. Good tips here. Thanks!