Writers don’t describe. That’s a painter’s job. Writers render experiences by filtering them through a narrative lens.
Is the cigar smoke “coiled around her neck” or “draped over her shoulders”? Nothing in the physical scene determines this.
“How do you describe a werewolf?” is the wrong question; “How does the protagonist see a werewolf?” is the question. The answer is: it depends on whether they are a werewolf-hunter or someone trying to run away.
A sad person might see the gray clouds, and a happy person might see the bright sun, looking up at the same sky. Our mindset and personality shapes what we perceive, so it should shape your narrative.
A scene cannot be described without knowing who is telling the story, or what kind of story it is meant to be. To properly render a scene, you need to use a narrative lens.
The Narrative Lens
The narrative lens comprises all the high-level, structural considerations that can be brought to bear on word choice when rendering a scene. The most important considerations are about your point of view character: what sort of things do they notice; what kind of language do they use; do they have habits of thought; are they in a particular mood; etc. The narrative lens also includes other high-level considerations that might be on the author’s mind (as opposed to the viewpoint character’s mind): establishing tone, developing theme or motif, foreshadowing. However, these should be secondary to considerations of the point of view character; theme, motif, and foreshadowing should emerge organically, as much as possible, from the narration, which strives primarily for psychological fidelity and believability.
Narrative lensing is the practice of rendering details by using a narrative lens. You cannot properly render a scene or describe something in a story unless you figure out the narrative lens for that story.
Developing an appreciation of the utility of narrative lensing; developing an understanding of the dimensions of narrative lensing; developing the ability to apply narrative lensing to render a scene.
These exercises are meant to practice the skill of narrative lensing. Some of these you will find easier than others. Some of them will seem very strange, and some will seem unduly challenging. Between the whole set, they cover a wide variety of different sources of narrative lensing: tone, emotional context, psychological disposition, expertise, diction, etc.
For each of the following exercises, there is a scene to describe, and a narrative lens. Your job is use the narrative lens to render the scene. Don’t take too long on these; it’s mostly about picking a few details, and choosing how to present them. Remember: the whole point is in seeing how the narrative lens shapes the description.
use third person limited, past tense
use 2 to 5 sentences per description exercise
focus on sensory details and psychological experiences (minimize internal monologue)
try to hit three different senses
Describe a pub, from the POV of a trained assassin who suspects someone is trying to kill him. Describe a pub, from the POV of a recovering alcoholic who is there to meet an old friend.
Describe a ballroom, from the POV of an undercover agent who is posing as a wealthy investor as part of an investigation.
Describe a grocery store, from the POV of a shopper whose family has recently died in a plane crash. Describe a grocery store, from the POV of someone who has recently won the lottery.
Describe a fist fight, witnessed from the POV of a music teacher who has never been in a fight. Describe a fist fight, witnessed from the POV of a retired boxer.
Describe the steps to the courthouse, from the POV of a paraplegic ex-marine.
Describe a sky-dive, from the POV of someone obsessed with collecting marbles.
Describe a presidential speech, from the POV of a child who wants ice cream. Describe a presidential speech, from the POV of someone with blackmail material against the president. Describe a presidential speech, from the POV of an alien who has come to Earth in human form to investigate our society.
Describe an old/malfunctioning starship engine from the POV of an expert starship mechanic. Describe an old/malfunctioning car engine from the point of view of an expert mechanic.
Describe a scroll of spells that was recently discovered, from the POV of an expert wizard. Describe a wall of hieroglyphics that was recently discovered, from the POV of an expert archaeologist.
Describe a delivery van, in an early scene in a horror story about a gang that kills people to sell body parts.
Describe a funeral home, in a scene during the second act of a comedy about college students experimenting with drugs for their blog.
- Describe a train station, from the POV of a blind person.
- Describe an airport, using a third-person omniscient POV, in a story about how people around the world are affected by the world coming to an end because of a climate catastrophe.
- Describe the planet Jupiter, using a third-person omniscient POV, in a story about the pioneers and scientists involved in humankind’s colonization of other planets.
Which exercises did you find easy, and which were hard? Why?
What different skills were required for different exercises?
We looked at Narrative lensing -the practice of rendering details by using a narrative lens. The narrative lens comprises all the high-level, structural considerations that can be brought to bear on word choice when rendering a scene, such as tone, emotional context, psychological disposition, expertise, diction, etc. We did a series of exercises in order to develop an appreciation of the utility of narrative lensing, to develop an understanding of the dimensions of narrative lensing, and to develop the ability to apply narrative lensing to render a scene.
Bottom-line: Writers don’t describe. That’s a painter’s job. Writers render experiences by filtering them through a narrative lens. You cannot properly render the details of a scene until you figure out the narrative lens for that story.
I hope you liked this article on Narrative Lensing. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.
If you want updates on articles like this one, join my mailing list.
Someone asked me for an example of a werewolf described from the point of view of a werewolf hunter.
Its hunched form lumbered across the treeline, snapping through dry brush. Now and then it stopped, thrusting its snout towards the moon to sniff furiously, searching for a scent. It was big. Not the biggest Kaja had ever seen, but big enough to quicken her heart, to make her own breathing seem louder, to make her second-guess the wind. She breathed in. The creature’s musk was there, like a wet dog. As long as she could smell it, it couldn’t smell her.
Kaja closed the distance carefully, matching her footsteps with the beast. Its strides were long, but hers were quick, and she gained half a pace with each burst. She would just have to get close enough before the winds changed.
Kaja raised her crossbow and readied a silver bolt.