Organic Descriptions

Probably the biggest "Ah ha!" moment of my entire writing career was when a brilliant teacher (the fabulous Sarah M. Eden) said something like this:
"Your character has to have a reason for noticing what you're describing."
Simple words, but for me it was more than a lightbulb moment. Metaphorical fireworks went off over my head. Whatever success I've had since then, I can trace back to that moment and several select others. Few things bring me greater joy than sharing the epiphanies that have helped me evolve as a writer. Because before them, the hope of being published was just a whimsical daydream. Now, it's a firm goal with a clearly outlined plan in mind for achieving it.
The things we learn about our craft, guide our path.
The concept of a character having to have a reason for noticing things took my writing up at least seventeen notches, and I recently taught a workshop at our local writers' guild on the subject. I asked my students to close their eyes. Yes, I said, I know it's cheesy beyond belief, but humor me. And, to my shock and delight, they actually did. I asked them to picture walking into their living room on an ordinary day. What do you notice? I asked. What stands out? Do you notice the paint color, the artwork on the walls, the pictures of family members on top of the end table?
Several of them shook their heads. Someone opened their eyes super wide because they got it already. They got the point. No. Of course you don't notice those things. But maybe you notice that the damn cat spilled their food all over the carpet again. Or maybe you notice a picture out of place, or the clock on the wall because it happens to chime the moment you walk into the room. Maybe you notice something isn't where you left it.
But whatever you notice, you have a REASON to notice.
Now, picture yourself walking into an art museum for the first time. The works of the great masters lining its walls. What do you notice? What do you feel?
There's a definite benefit to introducing your character to a new situation. Everything they experience has the potential to be evocative. What they see, smell, touch, taste, hear. All the five senses can come into play when your character is exploring a new environment. This is reason #23 why starting your book or chapter with your character waking up in their bed is a bad idea. What could be more familiar, more universal than that? Your reader knows what that feels like. GIVE THEM SOMETHING NEW.
Okay, back to your living room. Except it’s not an ordinary day. You’ve just come from a family member’s funeral. You are grief-stricken. Your eyes have that gritty, dried-out feeling. How do you see your living room NOW, in this context? Do you notice different things this time? Do the things you notice hold a different meaning than they did on that ordinary day? Perhaps you see something the departed loved one gave you. Perhaps they HATED your paint color and the sight of it actually causes you pain.
A familiar location changes when your character changes. Most important of all, what your character notices shows the reader who your character IS. It shows them what your character places value in. If your character walks into a room full of people and notices their clothing first, they're going to come off a little shallow. If they notice someone who's upset, they're going to seem empathetic. 
But above all, there has to be a trigger. I've come to realize that this is one of the dividing lines between good fiction and fabulous fiction. Do the descriptions feel organic? Do they pull us into the main character's point of view to the degree that we feel like we are experiencing the story with them? Do we learn about who the character is through their sensory experiences of their world?
If we want to progress as authors, the answer to all those questions needs to be a resounding, "YES."

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