Tip #1—Remove Passive Sentence Constructions.
A novel comes alive when a reader mentally lives inside it. However we write we want to do whatever we can to get a reader engaged and keep them immersed. When our writing uses too many passive sentence constructions, it can strip a novel of life and energy. Environmental descriptions are prone to passive constructions more than other parts of writing, after all, we’re painting the ground beneath our character’s feet, the walls behind them, and the sky above them—and paint doesn’t move!
What’s a passive sentence construction? When a sentence uses any of the following verbs; ‘was,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ ‘were,’ ‘have,’ or ‘had,’ as the primary verb, that sentence uses a passive construction. This writing is at its strongest when portraying factual statements—reports, legal documents, business briefings, and school essays. The boring stuff. We don’t want to write boring stuff. If we use enough passive sentences when describing our environment, we risk sounding like a textbook. The reader’s imagination will be lulled to sleep. Passive sentence constructions give the reader’s brain the least amount of work and, thus, they make the least impression. But how do we describe static, motionless elements of a scene without passivity? The answer is to write using active verbs.
A few examples:
“To the right of the desk was a cardboard box labeled—for Margaret,”
can be changed to,
“To the right of the desk sat a cardboard box labeled—for Margaret.”
This one word change makes the cardboard box more tangible. It gives the item a stronger relationship to its world. The scene is easier to visualize.
Action scenes are weakened by passive constructions as well.
“The Kholi were in battle formation, and their lasers were trained at the hero,”
can be changed to,
“The Kholi battle formation bristled with lasers that trained on the hero.”
Feel the difference? The mental involvement of reading is simply connecting verbs and nouns. When the verbs are weak, the writing suffers. A simple step towards improving visual elements of a scene is to identify passive sentence constructions and rewrite them with active verbs. With practice, you will learn to write with fewer passive sentences constructions. Your writing will strengthen.
Tip #2—Know your stuff. Details, details, details.
Your readers have a lot of practice reading. It’s possible they know more about your locales than you do. You may not be a doctor, but some of your readers might be and will notice if your hospital details are wrong. Readers are owed an amount of homework from a writer. The facts should ring true.
Thankfully, in the age of the internet this work is easier than ever. If a pivotal scene you are writing takes place at a hydro dam (perhaps to hide the fate of a character about to take a dive), learn what you can about the layout and operation of a hydroelectric dam. How loud is an operating hydro dam? You may not know, but your reader will expect you to know. Furthermore, this can lead to meaningful plot improvements. For example, the dam may be so loud the characters can’t hear each other at all, hindering their goals. Or perhaps they are forced to yell at each other which turns a calm exchange of information into a shouting match, ratcheting the tension. Tempers flare. Drama ensues. All because you did homework and used it.
Making your environment contribute to the events of a scene will make your story more believable and easier to visualize. If it’s an outdoor scene, what season is it? If your story is set long ago, are there anachronisms? A good reader will notice these small details. It’s an unfortunate truth that readers have more practice reading than you have writing. That’s why they appreciate and notice when extra research shows up in writing. It’s worth the effort.
Let’s look at another example. If two characters are talking while one lies in a hospital bed, consider writing a nurse barging in and interrupting the conversation. It’s just a hospital being a hospital. Nothing special. However, the nurse’s entrance can impose a sudden silence on the characters, forcing them to turn inward. The story halts while the nurse runs down a routine. Yet this inward moment is a place where the characters can invisibly change. The nurse leaves. The conversation resumes. Or, at least, tries to. One character has decided that silence is what they want now. They refuse to return to conversation despite the other character’s pleading. Pain stretches across the room. Heaviness hangs in the air. Incorporating real details from your environment into a scene brings the reader’s imagination into the story and holds it there—the goal of any good writing.
Tip #3—Order your Whos and Whats.
A chair, a table, a filing cabinet, and a window—the only objects in a room. How do you choose to order their description? One option is to move from least important object to most. Does the chair signal a missing character? Linger on it last. Does the filing cabinet hold secrets? Describe it last. Wherever your visual descriptions culminate, this point will take on special importance to the reader. The final item described should be the next point of action or interest. Film-making uses this technique constantly to good story telling effect.
The same goes for a room full of characters. Seven new characters. Seven. How do you order their description to help a reader visualize the scene—beyond their appearance, demeanor, and name? Move through them in such a way that the last character described is the first to speak. Or perhaps the last character mentioned is so important that they preside over the meeting without speaking, establishing enormous authority. Ordering elements in a scene communicates volumes about the who and what of your novel. They’re small signposts to help the reader navigate your world and characters. Arrange them well and your readers will follow your story easily.
When writing a description of outdoor environments, choosing how to order what you describe will clue the reader into potential themes and foreshadowing. Generally, visual outdoor descriptions come from a human vantage point. They can be divided thus—ground level below, eye level ahead, and sky above. What difference does it make what order we describe those things in? Ordering sky to ground can draw the reader into the world’s reality, hinting that the character in view will soon do likewise—their lofty goals about to come crashing down to earth. Describing an outdoor environment from ground to sky can signify hope, a shared world, or possibilities beyond what a character yet knows of their own world. Simple changes to ordering your descriptions can add depth and awareness to your writing which gives your readers a better ability to visualize your story. Many of these practices can be difficult to use when composing a first draft, but when revising it’s worth considering anything and everything that can improve your reader’s experience.
Tip #4—Try to Avoid Clutter and Unnecessary Details.
Choose details deliberately. Is the detail relevant? If you are writing a fantasy novel and your invented ‘goober-berries’ play an important, as-of-yet unknown role, then mentioning them on a table paves the way for the later reveal. The reader who pays close attention and recalls the detail will be rewarded. A rewarded reader will examine for other connecting details, engrossing themselves further in small details. They will engage with the writing more. Exactly what we want! As interesting as your ‘goober-berries’ may be to you, you should consider removing or replacing them with something more important if they serve no story importance. Just as a reader will ask, ‘what is this doing here?’ a good writer should ask themselves the same question.
However our details come together, we want to avoid confusing a reader. Sloppy writing is filled with careless details and meaningless clutter. Readers notice it quickly. Ever heard of the term ‘purple prose’? Even experienced writers can fall into the trap due to carelessness. What’s the symptom? Too many adjectives and adverbs.
“Noticeably, his bulging quadriceps and biceps stylishly rested on the dark granite counter comfortably.”
Ugly, isn’t it? That’s three adverbs and three adjectives with one verb. Too much modifying and not enough being modified. Does it make sense? Mostly. What’s the solution? Let’s try to cut the sentence down to one adverb and one adjective only.
Our revised sentence:
“His muscled arm rested comfortably on the counter.”
Same meaning, new look. Remember we want our verbs and nouns to do the work. Think of it like building a house. The nouns are the floorboards and the verbs are the framing and roof. If what we add to our house is nothing but the curtains of adjectives and the paint of adverbs, we may have a pretty looking house, but no one wants to stay in a roofless, dirt-floored but colorful shack. By harnessing our details and removing cluttered phraseology we can improve our readers’ experience. This takes practice, but your readers will engage and enjoy your writing more.