In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:
- Why less is more in description
- Why it is important to be choosy about what you do and do not describe
- How to fully immerse your reader in your fictional world
- How to use description to slow down and speed up your story
Description is one of the most useful yet most often abused tools in writing. When used sparingly and for a specific purpose it can bring the story to life. But when it’s used too frequently and for no reason other than ‘it sounds good’, then it becomes meaningless waffle that bogs down your story.
Let’s take a closer look at four things that help craft good description:
- Use it sparingly – less is more
- Fulfil a specific purpose
- Engagement with ALL of the senses
- Awareness of pace
To illustrate these points, let’s look at an example of bad description.
“Lara walked around the tomb. It was enormous and very old. The walls were purple marble, so dark it was nearly black, with brighter cartouches of jade-ish green covered in hieroglyphs painted in shades of ochre, gold, charcoal, scarlet, and lapis blue. The vaulted roof was supported by two hundred and twenty-seven pillars decorated with images of the Pharaoh, the Nile, and soldiers with chariots. Golden torches were spaced along the walls. Just then a massive monster came out of the shadows. It looked like a giant Sphinx with a big mane, a lion’s body, and huge white teeth. Lara shot it with her pistols until it died and then went into the next chamber.”
From this paragraph we know that Lara has entered a tomb, that it’s likely to be Egyptian, that it contains a Sphinx-like monster, and that Lara shoots this monster dead. However, the writing reads more like a shopping list instead of a piece of dramatic storytelling. It tells us what happens, true, but that’s it. There’s nothing else that immerses us in the narrative or stimulates our imagination. There’re no clues as to what is or is not important to the story. The only sense being engaged is sight, so it feels very one-dimensional. Let’s look at ways we can improve it!
1. With description, less is more.
Too much information – trying to describe everything – overloads the reader and suffocates the story. Instead, try to only describe certain details, i.e. the characteristics that set the subject of your description apart from everything else in the scene or story. For example, it is very taxing and annoying for a reader to try and remember every last detail about a jewelled artefact if you spend a whole page describing it down to the last faceted diamond. Be choosy and selective. Your reader will find your description easier to read and remember, but also more enjoyable because you are purposefully leaving some of the description to their own imagination. Remember: reading is an interactive experience between you and the reader. Invite the reader into your description with a few important and intriguing clues, but then allow them to explore and fill in the gaps in their own unique way.
2. Use description to fulfil a specific purpose.
The legendary short-story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov, has many astute quotes on the subject of writing, but this one is perhaps most important to illustrating our second point:
From our example paragraph, it’s unclear what – if anything – is actually important to the plot. Is the jade-ish colour of the walls going to be a clue to a puzzle later on in the story? Or is the appearance of the Sphinx going to be pivotal to Lara’s escape? With so much description, any important stuff becomes lost in the waffle. As Chekhov says, if you take the time to introduce or describe something in your writing, then it must be for a specific reason. If there isn’t a reason for the description, then it shouldn’t be there. It’s just a waste of words.
You might be thinking that this will severely limit your descriptive potential. However, there are more valid reasons than purely plot-critical ones to include description in your stories. For example, the dramatic principle known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’ has other, similar principles (i.e. excuses to describe things), and you will no doubt recognise these examples:
- Red herrings: these describe something in the style of Chekhov’s gun, but lead nowhere – they’re deliberately put into the narrative to mislead the reader. These are especially popular in mysteries or thrillers.
- Foreshadowing: hints – in dialogue, props, or actions – of events still to come.
- Symbolism: the use of similes, metaphors, and other types of placement to enhance a character, prop, or action’s impact.
Another valid reason for using description lies in immersing the reader. Writers construct their stories purely from the written word, therefore words alone have the power to manipulate the imagination and emotions of the reader. Rich, unique, and immersive description can help you achieve this.
3. Engage with ALL of the senses and empathise with your reader.
To fully realise and accept a piece of fiction, it must fully embrace our imagination. We have already pointed out that the example paragraph felt flat because it only described what we could see. There are practically no limits to the sensations you can stimulate in your readers, but here are some examples:
- Sights: colours, brightness, shadows, softness, harshness, patterns, symbols, writing, signs, body language, landscapes, skies, movement, stillness.
- Sounds: loud, soft, noisy, harmonious, human speech, animal noises, machine noises, ambient sounds, invitational, warning, frightening, intriguing, sensual, annoying.
- Textures: soft, furry, matted, damp, wet, drenched, dry, scratchy, itchy, hard, metallic, sticky, yielding, waxy, rough, smooth, glassy, silky.
- Temperatures: warm, cool, clammy, cold, freezing, hot, burning.
- Pains: discomfort, stabbing, aching, burning, sharp, thudding, hot, cold, itchy.
- Motions/movement: swaying, rumbling, vibrating, quivering, shaking, up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards, rushing, falling, dizzy, turning, spinning, balancing.
- Tastes: salty, meaty, sweet, sickly, sugary, bitter, rich, watery, acidic, melting, spicy, bland, sour, buttery, tangy.
- Smells: fresh, stale, damp, dry, fruity, sterile, spicy, floral, woody, musky, citrus, refreshing, stinky, odorous, oily, rancid, inviting.
- Emotions: angry, furious, irritable, snappish, embarrassed, amused, content, gleeful, hysterical, ecstatic, aroused, curious, flustered, confused, exhausted, disinterested, bored, eager, excited, nervous, scared, terrified, paralysed, numb, interested, flirtatious, giggly, determined, stubborn, humorous.
- Hungers: peckish, craving, starving, famished, thirsty, parched.
So, the next time you have Lara carefully pick up an ancient artefact from its alcove, be sure to tell us how it feels unusually heavy, that it sends goosebumps rushing up Lara’s skin because of the sudden chill of metal against skin, that soft clanking noises hint at mechanisms hidden within its burnished golden shell, that its ruby eyes seem to flicker with inner fire, and that she feels a flush of triumph to have claimed it before anyone else. Oh, and that she’d sell her soul for a cup of tea. Raiding is thirsty work, you know!
It is possible to describe things in vivid detail even during action sequences if you remember to engage all of the senses. For example:
“Lara’s out-thrust hands shattered the water’s surface. Her palms scorched as though pressed against a scalding kettle. Icy darkness filled her nose, choking and absolute. She was blind and lost in cold so intense it was like a furnace against her bare skin. Tentacles like oily ropes clasped her wrists, ignoring her struggles. Torrents raged in her ears. Her screams were drowned in bubbles. Her legs kicked but her underwater captor held firm. Anger suddenly boiled in her gorge. She wouldn’t die. Not here. Not like this.”
There is specific mention of Lara being blinded and underwater, so the focus is moved to what she can feel and hear. We also choose descriptors, especially verbs, that reflect the sensations Lara is experiencing and the situation she is in: shattered, scorched, scalding, choking, clasped, raged, drowned, kicked, boiled, etc. If we had used floated, drifted, held, wriggled, or gasped instead, then this paragraph would give the reader a very different impression. We want the reader to appreciate Lara’s sense of panic and anger, and so we need to make the reader empathise with her feelings. One way to help build empathy is to pick out specific sensations that will trigger an instant and recognisable response. For example, the sensation of striking a surface so hard that it burns your palms ‘as though pressed against a scalding kettle’ is something that nearly everyone has done, albeit accidentally, at some point! This is why keeping a journal of your observations – from the colour of mists at dawn to the metallic, clean scent of fresh snow – can be a gold mine to your powers of description.
Being specific and customised to the setting or character in question, rather than vague and one-size-fits-all, will instantly lift your description and make it stand out in your reader’s mind. For example, a jungle doesn’t have to be hot when it could be sweltering; wine doesn’t have to be red when it could be crimson; and a character doesn’t have to settle for being angry when they could be raging. There is a wealth of vocabulary out there for you to exploit – so go and exploit it!
4. Have an awareness of pace.
Passive description is the opposite of action; it literally presses ‘pause’ on the story to show something to the reader, in greater or lesser detail. For example, if you’re writing from Lara’s point of view as she slowly and warily enters some ancient ruins for the first time, then you might want to indulge in a rich, detailed description of her surroundings. Conversely, if Lara is running from her life from a horde of skeletal tomb guardians, then it will seem awfully odd for you to spend paragraphs describing everything down to the intricate details of their bronze-enamelled armour. An awareness and appreciation of pace will help you decide the quantity, quality, and subjects of your description at any given time.
Another factor governing pace in your writing is punctuation and sentence length. Generally speaking, excessive punctuation (e.g. commas) and longer sentences slow the pace down, whereas shorter sentences and fewer punctuation marks speed it up. However, this is only a general observation; check for yourself how easily you can skim through a page of text and then judge how your reading pace was affected by the punctuation and the length of sentences. When you bear this in mind and adjust your writing style to suit the situation at hand, you can speed up or slow down the pace of your description – and the story in general – with greater confidence.
Those are the four golden rules of description. However, here are just a few more useful tips for using effective description in your stories:
- Make use of similes and metaphors. These are essentially examples of symbolism (discussed earlier), but they also have specific forms. Similes occur in the forms: “the [something] was [something] as a [something]” OR “the [something] was like a [something]”. For example, “her eyes were as brown as hazelnuts” or “the air was like a cool caress”. Metaphors are similar to similes in that they use comparisons, but they don’t use ‘as’ or ‘like’. For example, “her eyes were flashing sapphires” or “the wind was a knife against her cheek”.
- Keep your description appropriate. It would sound extremely silly to describe a priceless Grecian statue as ‘it looked just like that blonde chick in Game of Thrones.’’
- Remember your research! The Mayans did not generally build their temples out of concrete breeze-blocks, and legends agree that dragons collected treasure, not trading cards. Unless you’re deliberately writing a parody or about an alternate reality then be authentic!
- Don’t overload on adjectives – learn to love the verbs! Which is the more effective description: “Kurtis had dark, curly, gorgeous hair that made him even more handsome” OR “Kurtis grinned, flicking his unruly hair from his eyes as he leaned nonchalantly against the wall”?
- Show – don’t tell. Don’t tell us that Lara is facing an evil villain, show us that he’s an evil villain by having him do evil and villainous things like whisper threatening dialogue, murder inept underlings, and plot to enslave the world. Don’t tell us that the escape car’s engine has failed, show us it has failed by having it make horrendous clanking noises and the exhaust fall off as soon as Lara turns the ignition key.
Key points for Developing Description:
- Less is more. Be choosy about what, how, and why you describe things.
- Fulfil a specific purpose. If it’s not helping your story or immersing your reader, get rid of it.
- Engage with all of the senses and empathise with your reader.
- Be aware of your story’s pace and adjust your description accordingly.
- Show, don’t tell!
Special thanks to Inna Vjuzhanina (http://inna-vjuzhanina.deviantart.com/), for her advice on the renders!
Next time – Part 5: Creating Action
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 4: Developing Description by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.