Find a beautiful picture, or pause a video on something gorgeous–but without people. They’d only get in the way, for this exercise.
Your task is to write a short description of the setting, but do it twice. Once as straight description, factual and precise.
Then write it again, adding a narrator (either first- or third-person is fine) and try to convey some emotion, without creating an entire scene–nothing big has to happen.
The exact emotion is up to you–what inspires you about the picture? Go with that. Or how could you do something unexpected with it, take it in a direction at odds with the visual? Try that, if you’re feeling adventurous.
The multi-level terrace overlooks the sea. It is tiled in mottled brown. The walls are mortared cobblestone, topped with white plasterwork. Bushes grow in planters built into the walls. There are two seating areas, both have small, white tables. One has a red dining chair, and the other has two lounge chairs, dark wood frames with white cushions.
Beyond the terrace is a hill of bare dirt and rock. The water below is calm and reflects the sun. In the near distance, another stretch of land creates a bay, but the details are obscured.
There’s nothing inaccurate about this description, and if I read this in a book, I’d probably imagine something resembling the picture above. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily have the layout correct, but it would be close.
Now let’s look at the downfall of plain description. What are my verbs? Overlooks, is, are, grow, are, have, has, has, is, is, creates, are. Twelve verbs, and nine of them are forms of to be or to have.
Let’s try this again, and get a person involved.
Will stood on the upper level of the terrace, staring at the empty lounge chairs below. He should have been sitting in one of them, with Cynthia in the other, laughing at some witticism of his while they admired the sunset.
A thorn bit his finger. Will realized he’d been picking at the branches of the shrubs planted along the cobblestone wall, pulling off the new growth at the tips. He sucked the bead of blood off his skin and stepped away–the hotel wouldn’t thank him for destroying their property.
But standing at the wall gave him something to do–gazing at the sea was a reasonable pastime. Without it, he had no purpose on the terrace. If he sat down at one of the pristine white tables in the small dining area, with its posh, red-upholstered chairs, a handsomely uniformed waiter would come out to offer him espresso or wine or a plate of cheeses with names Will couldn’t pronounce. If he ordered something, he admitted defeat.
He wouldn’t be waiting for Cynthia anymore, but dining alone.
Did I get every detail from the original description in? Nope. Does that matter? Not really.
When you first saw the picture, was loneliness what occurred to you? Probably not. It’s a gorgeous view that easily could have inspired feelings of beauty or romance or relaxation. But I saw those two empty lounge chairs and knew I could make the description convey the absence of a loved one, rather than their presence.
Getting a person and some mild action involved in the description works wonders for verb choice, too. I’ve still got some forms of to be and to have in there, but Wills stands and stares and picks and steps and gazes.
I don’t think anyone would argue that the first passage is better than the second, but I couldn’t have written the second without the first. I’m not saying all good description needs to go through two phases, but prewriting is a valuable tool–fleshing out the setting of a scene with concrete, uninflected detail to fix it in your mind allows you to then choose the details that matter for the scene and plan how to work them in. (Especially if you’re not working from a picture–then establishing the particulars of the immediate setting in prewriting is even more helpful, since it becomes the only reference outside of your imagination.)
If you get stuck giving your characters space to hang out in while they have their conversations or fight scenes or sneaky-stealthy spy sequences, step back, take the characters out, and just describe the setting. Pack in as much detail as you want, knowing only the best, most useful stuff will come with you to the real draft. Let yourself go nuts.
Then throw your characters back in, and poof! They’ll have space to play in.