This is a great article from Fiction University that talks about how to use descriptions to enhance your storytelling. It’s written for novels but I think the principles apply quite well to developing voice in PBs. To sum up the three most helpful points (with some additional notes of my own):
(1) determine who is looking: a Navy SEAL will look at things a lot differently than a frightened six year-old. Take the knowledge and attitude of your protagonist into account when you decide what they see. Think about how they would describe something, not how you would (note: what this really means is that we need to keep in mind that the narrator and the MC are not necessarily the same person. In PBs, we are often the narrator but the MC is the one living the story. When we develop voice, we need to make sure we are describing things as told from the MC’s POV – how they would see it, not how we see it for them).
(2) determine why they are looking: sometimes you scan a room, sometimes you’re looking for something in particular, and sometimes you’re watching to escape with your life. Your reasons for looking impact what you see and how you feel about it. If your protagonist has no feelings at all about something, why is it in the scene? While not every detail has to matter at this level, using details to bring out an emotion or thought from your protagonist helps make the setting more memorable. It won’t just be details. (note: in PBs especially we need to be careful about only including content that truly matters for the story. Identifying why the MC is looking at something helps us be more precise and deliberate in the way we – as narrator’s – talk about the MC’s situation, which is how we develop the story’s voice).
(3) determine what is important to them: people notice what’s important to them. What’s important to your protagonist? Both in general and in the scene. A girl obsessed with fashion might indeed notice what everyone is wearing, while a tired mom might not. Spending time on details that mean nothing to your protagonist (or seem weird for your protagonist to care about) risk pulling the reader out of the story. (note: I find this one to be really hard to keep in mind b/c as narrators, what’s important to us is not necessarily what’s important to the MC or vice versa. That said, in order to keep integrity in our story’s voice, we need to keep focus on what’s important to our MC.)
The article is not very long and well worth a read if you have time.
Karla Valenti writes books about and for children. She also offers professional manuscript critique and editing services. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter.