Writing Vivid Scenes

Once, when I was in little, one of my teachers asked the class, “What is reading?” She was writing the answers on the white board and everything, and I was a HUGE reader back then (I mourn how little reading I get done now compared to middle school…), so I thought really hard about what reading was like for me, and I said, “Reading is like watching a movie in your head.” Which, I know, isn’t exactly the grandest of epiphanies, but it feels pretty deep when you’re eleven.

Back then, nearly every book I read came fully alive in my mind. When I think back on Ender’s Game, I don’t remember exact words or sentences. I recall the way Ender’s shoe connected with his bully’s stomach, the way the sun was over his shoulder, the look in his eyes, the set of his mouth. Going back to this passage in the book, there’s no mention at all of where the sun was, or what kind of look was on Ender’s face. But I remember it like I saw it.

When writing, I’ve always struggled to allow my readers the same kind of visual clarity. Maybe it’s because I’m older, and more critical, but not all books cast images into my head the way they did when I was a kid. Most still do, to some degree. But the picture might be a little fuzzy, or I might “see” some scenes, but not others. It’s the rare book that I feel like I’m living, not reading—where the scenes unfold like a movie in my mind’s eye, uninterrupted, fully fleshed out.

What is it that separates these two kinds of books? I’m afraid I don’t have the perfect answer—if I did, I’d definitely be using it. But I have gathered a few tips and tricks over time, mistakes I’ve made in attempts to write vividly that I hope by reading this post, you can avoid.

(Yes, this is a list. I haven’t written a post with a list in a long time, but if you know me, you know I love lists)

1. Don’t over-describe. At first glance, this might seem counter-productive. After all, when I’m writing a scene, what I’m often really doing is trying to describe what I’m already seeing in my head. I want my readers to see the same scene, right? So the more I describe the scene, the more details I put in, the better, right? Well, no. Not exactly.

Take this example (and I’m making these up on the spot, so please forgive if the “good” example isn’t exactly great literature):

A) The kitchen in the house where Mary grew up is decorated with a jumble of well-kept, but well-loved family heirlooms, scattered against the backdrop of faded blue cabinets. Her mother painted the cabinets more than a decade ago, when blue was still Mary’s favorite color. When she used to spend hours reading at the counter after school, drunk on afternoon sunshine while her mother prepped for dinner. Mary taps her nail against the fine china nestled in the drying rack.

B) The kitchen in the house where Mary grew up has blue cabinets. Her mother painted the cabinets more than a decade ago, when blue was still Mary’s favorite color. Mary stares at them, and at the rest of the kitchen, reliving old memories. The kitchen is small, with an island at the center. There is a medium-sized plastic bowl of apples and one orange sitting there, next to a stack of magazines. Behind the island is the stove, with four burners. Above them hang an array of shiny silver spatulas that used to belong to Mary’s grandmother, before she passed away. The oven is to the left of the island, about four feet away. Two potholders, one round, one square, hang from little silver hooks beside it. One is a little singed at the corner. They are brightly colored, orange and red, with fancy embroidering. The round one has a cow stitched on it. The square one has a rooster. There’s a length of counter that separates the kitchen from the breakfast table. Mary used to spend hours reading there after school, drunk on afternoon sunshine while her mother prepped for dinner.

Okay, so, obviously the second is a lot longer. These examples aren’t actually the best to show this concept, because both are static scenes, but you can still kind of tell how, though B) does give you information that A) doesn’t, it also sort of overcrowds your mind. Unless you really need the reader to know how far the oven is from the island, don’t include it. If these excerpts were part of a larger story, B) would also slow down story momentum a whole lot more.

Pare down descriptions if possible. Include vibrant details, yes, but use the best ones you have, and let them stand on their own! Especially remember this for more active scenes: “He jumped into the van and started the engine” is fine. You really don’t need “He opened the van door, jumped inside, and slammed the door shut. Then he stuck the key in the ignition and started the car.”

Your imagination (and that of your readers!) fills in more than you’d ever expect. Give them the building blocks, and they’d construct their own mental picture.

2. Involve all the senses, not just sight. You’ve probably heard this before, so I won’t overelaborate, but it’s important, so I will say it again! I know I said that my goal is to get people to “see” my scenes, so you might be wondering why I’m emphasizing non-visual description. But don’t underestimate how much description of smell and feel and sound can actually help one to “picture” a scene.

3. Front-load description, then punctuate with reminders. Basically, this means if your characters have entered a new setting, remember to sketch out what the place is like early on. If not, either your readers are going to feel like everything is taking place in a white space, or they’re going to start filling in things completely on their own…only to possibly be contradicted by your description later on. Some contradictions are unavoidable. But you don’t want readers to think a shack is a house, or vice-versa!

Once you’ve established what the surrounding are like (this can be done with very few words, if done efficiently), subtly remind readers from time to time where they are, especially if the scene is a long one, or if your characters are moving through a setting, and not just sitting statically.

There’s SO much more that can be said about writing vividly, but this post is getting long as it is, and like I said before, this is very much something I’m still working on myself, trying to figure out what it is that makes a written scene come alive for me.

What do you think? Any tips you try to keep in mind? How about books you suggest that played out like movies for you?

22 Responses to Writing Vivid Scenes

  1. cait Feb 18 2013 at 4:57 am #

    I still think reading a book is like watching a movie in my head! And I love that epiphany. 😉 I love your tips on description. I struggle with this in my writing, so keeping these in mind.

  2. Carissa Feb 18 2013 at 5:04 am #

    This post totally took me back to my childhood of reading-in-moviereel. Pictures, places, and people – not words. Ahh, loved those days. I wonder why not all books are like that anymore? I actually have noticed that if I’m reading while working out they’re more often cinematic. Perhaps the physical exertion forces my inner editor to shutdown? hmm…

    I’m definitely a huge fan of paring things down! In a lot of scenes I’ll much let much of this this happen in the editing process, however – since I’m not sure which descriptive passage will evoke the right feel I want for the scene. It’s always easier for me to pick and choose when I’m reading and understanding the pace that the reader will experience things at.

    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:14 am #

      I’ll have to give reading-and-working-out a go! 🙂 I definitely fine-tune a LOT if descriptions during the revision process.

  3. S.P.Bowers Feb 18 2013 at 6:03 am #

    I don’t slip into books like I used to either. I think that in part it is back then reading was an escape and I threw myself into the book. Now I read as a writer and it is a rare book that can draw me so far in that I forget that.

  4. Julie Eshbaugh Feb 18 2013 at 9:49 am #

    Awesome post, Kat! I think for me the difference between vivid writing (where I forget I’m reading) and more self-conscious writing comes down to which details the author puts in and which she leaves out. I definitely agree with you that sometimes smell or sound draws me deeper into a scene than the visuals. I also think writing is more vivid to me when I feel like I know the character really well. I don’t know why that is – maybe I just tune out the surroundings at times and simply focus on the person traveling through those surroundings. GREAT POST! 🙂

    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:16 am #

      Thanks, Julie! I’m definitely working on bringing in the all 5 senses rule 🙂

  5. K. Feb 18 2013 at 10:40 am #

    Great Post! I particularly like #1. There seems to be a trend toward heavy handedness in writing, with authors feeling the need to explain every last nit in their writing, and I think it weakens the story. The readers imagination is the mystery ingredient in all writing. and as authors we ought to strive to allow room for that. Of course, most certainly, this is so much easier said than done!



    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:29 am #

      Thank you! Glad you liked it 🙂 And yes, most things in writing seem to be so much easier said than done, hehe.

  6. Michelle Schusterman Feb 18 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Mental cinema ftw! I still think of it that way.

    These are great tips. I often find myself writing heavy descriptions when I come to a new setting or scene or object. I end up pasting it into a separate document for my own reference later, then whittling it down in the actual story.

    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:29 am #

      That’s a great idea, Michelle! I’ll have to give that a go 🙂

  7. Caitlin Vanasse Feb 18 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    Kat! I missed your posts! I agree a little with Julie in that great characterization is essential to pulling me in. A friend and I participated in the debut Author Challenge last year and when we discussed which books we loved, which we hated, and which we were indifferent towards we discovered that characterization was one of the biggest factors.

    I like that you talk about not the importance of details per se but the important details. As far as I can tell from reading too many books and articles about brains this is how our brain works, not just in reading, but in real life. Your brain notices the important details or what it can and fills in the rest based on past experiences and context clues, etc. Which is why we don’t notice our blind spots even though we all have them (yay optic nerves!)

    I wanted to mention too that I just finished reading a book I loved and a big part of what I liked about it is that many of the characters and situations reminded me of things in real life. This is something totally unique to me the author could never have predicted when the book was written more than 50 years ago(the narrative is terrifically unconventional too, skips around quite a bit and changes narrators from omniscient to first person, I think?) Which is all to say that you as the author can work your hardest to write everything as best you can and then completely uncontrollable elements are brought to the table by the reader and control a large part of how the reader feels about the book.

    Anyway that’s not totally on topic and probably not very helpful so I’ll shut-up now. Thanks for the lovely article Kat!

    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:31 am #

      Awww, it makes me so happy to hear you missed my posts, haha <3 <3

      I've always found the whole blind-spot thing to be so interesting! And that's SO true about how each reader brings something unique to the text, completely beyond the writer's control. That's totally on topic 🙂 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  8. JQ Trotter Feb 18 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    Great post. All your tips are true, I learned them the hard way. I can think about to my first manuscript and how in one particular scene I took up pages describing the MC’s living room. That’s all. Just the living room … which was so pointless. Using all the senses is so important, since sight is over used, and I feel like when an author invokes the sense of touch and smell I can understand better what’s going on.

    It’s so true that, when I was young, I could see the movie in my head so much clearer than I can now. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that kids just naturally have a more active imagination? They haven’t yet learned the limits of real world, so they can still believe in a little magic? That’s what I love about kids.

    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:32 am #

      I used to way over-describe, too! I think kids do just have better imagining power in general 🙂

  9. Rosanna Silverlight Feb 19 2013 at 12:38 am #

    Kat, thank you for writing this post – it’s come at exactly the right time for me! I’ve started revisions on my manuscript and have been experiencing a lot of doubt over my descriptive passages – is there too much detail? Not enough? More often than not I make notes to myself saying “this bit needs WAY more detail” or “flesh X location out properly”.

    I’m going to keep this post on hand as a reference tool for when I start going through my descriptions with a fine-toothed comb. I bet some of them won’t need as much ‘extra stuff’ as I expect! 😀

    • Kat Zhang Feb 19 2013 at 1:33 am #

      I’m glad you hear the post came at a handy time for you! 🙂 Best of luck on your revisions!

  10. Annie Feb 20 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    I find I don’t visualize books as well as I did when I was younger. I always just kind of assumed I wasn’t reading as good of books – but I think I engaged with stories differently back then, more simply or viscerally because I knew less about writing or about life and just let the stories construct the world. I don’t know…

  11. Alexa Y. Feb 26 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    I’m definitely going to bookmark this post, just so that I can remember your tips on making things come alive and seem extra vivid in my WIPs! I have a problem with using too many descriptions, so I’m thinking that’s definitely something I need to work on. Great tips!

  12. Joe Bob Nov 9 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Great post!! I think I may be ready to start on my book now, that piece about not over describing your scenes really helped me 🙂

  13. cottoncandy Apr 3 2020 at 2:03 am #

    that was not so helpful but a good job for the effort! :)

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