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Developing Deftness in Description
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
May 15, 2014
However, sometimes our writing interests diverge, and so occasionally I must do my own description. This article is a result of my efforts to improve the quality of my description and increase my facility in producing it.
What Is Description?
Description describes. Everything can be described: settings, people, and things. Description is not confined to describing what you see, although that is its most common application. You can also describe personalities and feelings and noises.
In many respects, description is closer to telling than to showing, which is why some people, either consciously or subconsciously, have an aversion to it. Many complain that description slows down a story. On the other hand, there are those who really enjoy it. Of course, people have different reactions to description. There's an old joke about a room in hell showing slide shows of the vacations of others (I'm old enough to remember slide shows in projectors) and one of the immortal beings explaining that there was another just like it in heaven.
Furthermore, description doesn't have to be long-winded paragraphs. A sentence, a phrase, or even a single word such as "calico" can serve to help paint a scene.
As in everything else you write, you will need to make certain decisions about the description in your story. You will need to decide what you should describe, as well as where and when to insert the description into your story. You will need to decide which words to use, which will depend greatly on the words you know and the words which you think fit the story.
Description And Its Place In Your Story
Description is often necessary to let your readers know where the characters are in the story. In TV and movies, a change of scene is often signaled by a brief shot of the place from the outside. Unless you are writing a graphic novel, you will need words to let your readers know where the characters are. Sometimes you can skip this by just having a phrase such as "3 p.m. Wednesday, OK Corral" at the top of a scene, but even then you may want to add words describing the dust, the tumbleweeds and the acrid smell of gun smoke.
Description can also be a convenient place to hide clues in plain sight. For example, in a detective story, you can describe a list of items that seem simply like scene setting, but one or more will turn out to be important to the story.
Description can be a way to develop your characters, by describing something using their voice. "Stars and shadows ain't good to see by" is a sentence from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The sentence lets us know that the characters are outside at night. By the use of the word "ain't" we become aware of Huck's lower class status (at least his education), while the overall comment -- stating the obvious but in a way that makes readers realize how much it matters -- is very much in line with Huck's personality.
Description And Its Impact On Your Readers
The best description helps your readers feel as if they are "in" the scene with the characters. They should be able to imagine the sun's rays forcing them to squint, the lumpiness of the gravel beneath the soles of their feet, and the smell of dust and asphalt on a hot day.
Description helps your readers when you are bringing them to a scene that is unfamiliar to them. Perhaps the story is on a spaceship or in a cave or in the trenches of World War I. Most readers will not know these settings, and so your description will help make them come alive.
On the other hand, your description of what is familiar can be just as powerful for your readers. Description done well can give your readers a sense of recognition. They may even feel grateful for the words that depict something they have seen or experienced but have not been able to make explicit. This, by the way, is frequently a goal for poetry, but if executed well can give your readers "yes!" moments while reading your prose.
Extend Your Abilities
Some writers are naturals at description, while others are naturals in certain domains. There are some items that I can describe pretty well -- food in Bronze Age Greece, for example -- but in others I flail. One hurdle is the old maxim: "Write what you know." Sage advice, except you can't always follow it. If you are writing about places that are impossible to visit because they no longer exist or never did, then you will need to supplement the details of your description with research and imagination.
Research. I once filled out a questionnaire containing the question: "What's your favorite type of car?" And I truthfully answered, a taxi. I do not care about cars; I'm happy to let others drive. Yet much of the world, including some of my readers and even logically my characters, do not feel that way. So when I'm writing a novel set in the modern world, cars have to be a part of it. As I don't want to describe anything so incorrectly that I offend my readers, it's time for research. That is where search engines are your friends. You can study advertising, catalogues and websites for descriptions of cars, furniture, appliances, clothes, architecture, landscaping, flowers, shoes -- basically just about anything.
If you need to work on your descriptions of people, I suggest going to a mall or restaurant or supermarket and studying those passing by. Note variations that you can use to add to your own characters: height and weight, manners and gait, dress and style, ad infinitum. Obviously it helps to study groups who will be similar to the characters in your story, if possible.
I also recommend walking into a room or some other place and studying what you perceive. Pretend you have never been there before, and enter your kitchen. What would strike a stranger first?
Finally, a thesaurus or your word processor's list of synonyms can also help you find just the right word.
Imagination. In your imagination, go to your story. Take a time out from working on the plot and the dialogue and perhaps even some of the dramatic emotions, and focus on the setting. How does it affect your story, your characters and your readers? Use the five senses -- sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste -- and imagine how your characters sense each setting and each scene. How much light is there and what can they see? What do they hear at a distance; what do they hear close by? How does everything smell? Try doing this for each of the characters in a scene and determine what is noticed by each character.
With this exercise, enhanced perhaps by your research above, you should develop plenty of possible description to choose from. You won't need to include everything (in fact let me warn you sternly: don't include everything). Nor will you need to go through this exercise every time, but it's a way to proceed if you're having difficulty mastering a scene.
Description done well adds to the story, develops the characters, and should help the readers feel as if they are really there. Furthermore, when I do it well, description makes me feel as if I know what I'm doing. I'm there and I can bring my readers there, too. I may delete some of the description afterwards, but it gives me a sense of control of my story instead of letting it get away from me. Even though I'm still not crazy about writing description -- even though it's on a par with my time on the treadmill -- I acknowledge its utility and I have worked hard to attain a degree of competence. I hope these suggestions will benefit other writers who are description-challenged.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.