Descriptive Writing to World Build
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for April:
- What is Descriptive Writing (4/4)
- Descriptive Writing in Dialogue (4/12)
- Descriptive Writing to World Build (4/18)
- Descriptive Writing Action (4/26)
If you read Write Better, Right Now #13, you know what descriptive writing is and how to use it in your stories. For the rest of the month, I want to dig deeper into different ways you can use descriptive writing. We’ll explore how to use it in your dialogue, world-building, and actions. By using our descriptive writing to world build in the movement of the story, we can create a colorful and standout scene for our readers.
“Brad took his shiny black trash bag to the garbage bins in the back of his Tudor-style home.”
While the above line is descriptive and does some world building, it doesn’t tell us much about the story or character. It’s lacking that spark we’ve been learning to put into our descriptive writing.
“Brad took the small trash bag out back where his house border an onslaught of other homes all stacked close to each other like weeds in a forgotten garden.”
Now that line uses voice and figurative language to give the reader an image of what the world is like and how the character sees it. Many writers lose focus when they go to describe the world their characters exist in. They use specifics but placed on the wrong information. By wrong information, I mean information that has no bearing on the story or characters. They don’t show the world through the characters’ lives and eyes, leaving an impression on the reader.
We were traveling across Yorkshire, on a Midsummer’s Eve like many that had graced the thirteen centuries since the birth of our Lord. I led our old donkey Bess across the worn gravel path, spurring her gently through the warmth of the afternoon. Crickets chirped in the meadows, nestling in the long, pale grass swaying at the breeze: their murmuring blending with the crunching of hooves on pebbles and the ever-present drone of insects.
Let’s get into it more below!
Just as a quick refresher, when we talk about descriptive writing, it is a blend of showing and telling that conveys information to the reader about your story.
Descriptive writing: In the sun heat, Sally sits down, smearing grass all over her yellow jean overalls.
Not descriptive writing: Sally sits down.
Showing: In the sun heat, smearing grass
Telling: Sally sits down, yellow jean overalls
I’ll keep that reminder up throughout all of April’s posts because I’ve been told it’s helpful! When it comes to using descriptive writing in our world building, things can get really tricky. Descriptive world building is the easiest way to fall into a hole of describing information and moments not important or necessary to the flow of the story.
The above example from a published work does a fantastic job at introducing character, voice, place, history, culture, religion, and physical descriptions. And all of it is descriptive world building. The author shows the readers what type of world the character is in and what that world looks like by using crisp and sharp descriptions.
Everything down to how the character names the day shows the reader aspects of the world. The author could have just gone out and written precisely what day it was in a way that is familiar to the reader: ‘It was a Thursday.’ Or that they were simply riding through a valley. But no, the author uses every word to show the reader their story’s world.
This is what is meant by descriptive world building.
Writers can do this in their own writing by knowing their world and how their characters move through it throughout the story. Pair that with what you want to show and tell the reader about the world to create memorable lines of descriptive world building. But don’t forget that readers come to your story using an onramp. That onramp is your prose and how you describe your world. If you use clunky and hard-to-digest words, readers will want to exit your story.
Take a current or recent work in progress and pick a scene where you’re trying to do a lot of heavy world building. Maybe it’s your opening scene or introducing a new place to the reader. Whatever it is, pinpoint:
- what you want your reader to see
- what you want your reader to know
- what your character(s) are doing
- where the scene takes place
Once you identify this information take the scene through four rounds of line edits, each focusing on the aspects mentioned above in this order:
- Line edit for what your characters are doing
- Line edit for what you want your reader to see
- Line edit for delivering information about where the scene takes place
- Line edit for what you want your reader to know
Let’s say your scene is taking place in a location where a significant event is going to take place later, and you want your readers to know this place as something meaningful to both the characters and the story. Your first line edit would focus on reading what you have on the page and making edits to fine-tune the characters’ actions. If you have a line where the character walks across a room, tighten and heighten the line by adding description and information or character voice.
Once you’ve gone through smoothing out your characters’ actions in the scene, go back through the scene, focusing on how the lines convey what you want your reader to see. But ask yourself if you’re showing it in a descriptive and memorable way, or is it confusing and overly specific? Color the lines to show the reader what you want them to see.
Now that you’ve edited for reader visuals and character movement through the setting, focus your line edits on conveying important information to the reader about the environment. For example, the earlier example of having a character walk across a room could get heightened even more by not only describing how they are crossing the room but possibly what rug or wood they are walking across. You could also show them going to lean on a large globe that you’ll have the same characters break in the later scene.
Bring forth specifics of the location that are important to the scene and any information you want to slip to the reader. Are you trying to show that their location is unwelcome to them, then perhaps show the character moving in a way that makes them small to avoid dedication or in a way that makes them stand out because they don’t care if they’re caught?
The final line edit in this exercise is now all about identifying whether your lines are conveying the correct information to your reader through your descriptions.
While extensive, going through this line editing exercise will help your writing brain see ways you can create informative descriptions.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics from March:
- Finding Our Characters’ Voices (3/7)
- Developing Our Characters’ Voices (3/16)
- Dialogue as Exposition (3/21)
- Inner Voice (3/28)
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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on using descriptive writing to world build or your struggle areas with it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on descriptive writing in action.