Novel Writing Tips - Use Description for Your Plot

Looking for novel writing tips? On this page, you'll learn some ways to use description for your story's plot. At the bottom, you'll find links to more novel writing help and resources.

Chekhov's Gun

Description can be fundamental to the plot of a story. For example, in a detective story, descriptive details contain clues. In a romance story, description is used to show which characters belong together.

You can also use descriptive details to set up plot possibilities for later.

Let's say a character's hiding from the killer in her garden shed. The killer's footsteps are approaching inside. Your character reaches inside a big flowerpot, and her hand closes on a revolver.

If this is page 342 of the book and you've never mentioned a word about this revolver before, your reader might feel cheated. It seems too much of a coincidence that this flowerpot happens to contain a revolver. Your reader has done some gardening himself, and not once has he ever found a revolver in a flowerpot, so it doesn't seem realistic that the character should conveniently find one just in her moment of need.

But, let's say you lay the groundwork for this situation ahead of time. On page 12 of the book, you describe the gardening shed and casually mention that the character has hidden her husband's gun there. The thing gives her the creeps; she doesn't want it in the house.

The reader might not pay much attention to the detail because you don't dwell on it or give it importance. But when the character runs into the garden shed on page 342, the reader suddenly wonders if that revolver is still in the flowerpot. Or maybe the reader has forgotten about the gun altogether until the character reaches for it.

Now, what the reader feels is recognition. "Aha!" he thinks. "Of course -- there's a gun in the flower pot!"

Since the gun was mentioned early on and the reader accepted it as part of the world of the story, it doesn't feel like a coincidence when the gun turns up again later.

Chekhov once said that if there's a gun on the stage in the first act of a play, someone must fire it in the second act. Chekhov's Principle seems to say that dramatic details shouldn't be wasted. But it is also the flip side of the gun-in-the-flowerpot idea: if you want a gun to go off at the end of the story, it's helpful to put it there ahead of time.

You can also use Chekhov's Principle to open dramatic possibilities for yourself. Not sure what's going to happen in your story? Leave a revolver lying around in a flowerpot, and see if someone picks it up later. When you describe your character's garden, mention the nest of snakes -- maybe someone will eventually step on one of them.

You can think of this as planting seeds for yourself or as planting booby traps for your characters. Either way, if you don't find a use for a particular detail, you can always go back afterward and edit it out.

Create suspense

Your character's crouched inside the gardening shed, clutching the revolver. The reader's eager to know what's going to happen. Why not drag out the moment a bit longer to build some suspense?

So, you describe the woman's hiding place behind some crates. You describe the ache in her thighs as she crouches there and the rasp of her nervous breathing. You describe the crunch of the killer's footsteps outside. At first, they start to fade as if he's walking away, and then they come back. Meanwhile, the reader's tension is growing and growing.

Control the reader's attention

You describe the lumpy tarp in the corner of the shed where your character hides from the killer. If you mention the tarp briefly and move on, the reader might not think twice about it. But if you start elaborating on the shape of this tarp, the reader will start to wonder what's under there. Isn't it funny how the tarp looks almost human-shaped, as if there's a person crouched under it?

The amount of detail or description you give to a particular element in the scene can send a signal to the reader about what's important.

You can use this to make the reader focus on a particular aspect of the scene, building curiosity and suspense around it. Or you can use this to trick the reader, glossing over the crucial clue so casually that the reader barely pays attention until that "Aha!" moment when the clue comes back and you reveal its true significance.

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