“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I can’t think of many readers – and I include myself amongst their number – who open a work of fiction in the hope of perusing pages upon pages of description.
And yet whenever a story comes to me it never takes the shape of words alone, it visits as a whole scene: scents, images, sounds and textures alike. For my readers to feel at home in the stories I write, I have to make the effort to translate what I see, give them enough of the world I envisaged for them to be able to make it their own. All this of course, in the hope that they will want to stay.
Description brings both the settings of our stories and the characters therein to life. In many respects the setting itself is another character in the story and it needs conflict and tension to breathe alive. It craves influence.
#1 Know your setting intimately:
Listen into its everyday rhythms, its smells and sounds. Get a feel for its weather patterns. Make a sketch of buildings, fauna and flora that make it distinct. And just like any other character, the setting will relate to others. It may affect their moods and behaviour, and at times it may even reflect their temperament.
Some places are such an ingrained part of our identity that it is almost impossible to detach and commit them to paper. The attempts feel intrusive: as if we were carving out pieces of our own selves. If that holds true of us, then it must be also true of our characters. In describing the spaces they inhabit, we lend them weight and substance. Yet how does one decide what to describe and where to remain silent?
#2 Be selective about the details: make them allude.
A telling detail will always trump pages of flourish description. It will tell the reader everything they need to know about a character or a place, pull them into the story and make it vivid, while remaining unobtrusive.
Some authors are more generous in their descriptions, others almost spartan. My own approach is one of light brushstrokes. I always try to give the reader enough so that they can get a feel for the place where the action or dialogue takes place and for the characters within, but not so much that they would stop and think: “Aha! Here’s the description.”
No matter how wonderful a passage of description or characterisation might appear at first glance, if it stops me in my tracks on a second reading and I find myself gloating with a poetic turn of phrase or gushing over an exquisite sentence, then I know that it will have to go. Or at the very least it will have to be retired for a story that would allow it relative anonymity.
#3 Aim for specific detail and avoid the generic:
“It was a dark and stormy night” may well have appeared florid even to the 19th century reader who first opened Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. What if the storm were announced by the “parched creak of a door” or “the incessant sigh of the wind” as it does in one of John Le Carre novels instead?
When done well, description will ground both action and dialogue. Characters will no longer be spectres who speak and act in a void. The edges of their physical world will no longer be indistinct and their own bodies and personalities too will gain sharper contours.
#4 Add mood and tone through the use of the senses:
Sight and sound, taste and texture – all serve a double duty. They don’t only enliven a scene or a fragment of dialogue. More than describe, every one of them can offer a sense of who the characters are and how they relate to the world they inhabit. This allows characters to transcend the fictive reality and become – to the reader at least – real people. After all, the suspension of disbelief is what all authors strive towards.
#5 Use description to deepen key scenes:
Description can be a great aid to setting the pace. Key scenes often require a slowing down of pace. Since the reader has been building up to them for pages on end, these are the moments they want to savour, really be there alongside the characters they are rooting for. Each key beat, each turning point allows the author greater leniency when it comes to description.
Yet no setting, no matter how detailed its exposition and no character description, however masterfully handled, can supplant the rich imagination that a reader will bring to the page. No two people will see the same hillside, abandoned cottage or factory furnace. No two passionate mouths or sylph-like figures will be the same in the eye of the beholder. Each and every one of us will bring our own furniture to the set and populate even the most exotic of locations and radiant faces with that which feels familiar.
The skill of the author then lies not in the number of details provided, but rather in how those details are woven into the fabric of the story, so that – while seeming subordinate to the rest – they offer a deep sense of place.
Here are a few passages of description that I am particularly fond of because they do more than offer information, rather they entrap one into a sensual experience of (both) place and people.
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop… [s]omehow it was hotter then… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. … There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
“…it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock- no pain, only violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand bags in front of me receded into immense distance.” George Orwell, describing his experience of being hit by a bullet in the Spanish Civil War.
“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonised by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Capote rightly said that writing is easy when things are happening. It’s the necessary “still” moments that make a story concrete to a reader that are the most difficult to write. I think you’ve given good advice for that!
Thank you, Martha. I have to admit tat description has never been my strong point, but I have taken troubles to improve. In the past I assumed that for descriptive prose to read effortless, it has to be written so too. Only after spending hours on end polishing details to make them unobtrusive did I realise that the two are not necessarily related and more often than not it takes more effort to “hide” the description than the opposite. I could have never guessed it as a reader.
I’m definitely having trouble with writing a setting as compelling as a character. I can’t seem to get a clear picture of it in my head.
It does get easier with time. The more you write, the less difficult it will feel. One of the tricks I use when a setting is not vivid in my own mind, is to imagine where I might choose to film it if I were a director: I visit places that could work as a set and make notes about elements of that “set” that someone could not find out simply by reading a tourist broshure (looking for telling details) and then use those to sharpen my description. Give it a try and let me know if that works for you too. And thank you 🙂
That’s a great idea, thanks 🙂
My pleasure. Any time.
Very well said and shown
Thank you, Richard. To think only: this post started off as a footnote 🙂
The smallest words spawn the greatest masterpieces
I love that. When it comes to art, every word – every brushstrokes matters.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, Vi. You discuss topics in depth and very perceptively that I only touch on flippantly and frivolously in posts.
I am going to re-read this post, several times. In fact, I’ll use it while re-editing my masterpiece…err, I mean, manuscript. It is as I said, brilliant.
I’m so pleased that you enjoyed reading it, Lee-Anne. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any writing tips. Long overdue.
I’ve been thinking about the next writing 101 assignment, which is supposed to be a piece of description and couldn’t focus on one particular setting. There are several vying for attention, demanding to be written. So to ease myself into the task I started writing by way of a footnote some thoughts about description and why it is – for me at least – one of the more difficult aspects of writing. One thing led to another and here you are.
I find that my best fragments of description are always those that I did not think of as being “description” as such. Thinking of setting as a character has certainly helped me along the way. 🙂
So thank you and I do hope that the post lends a helping hand when you need it. x
PS: Love the chicken cartoon, it reminds me of just how ‘precious’ and thin-skinned we humans are. Also, it’s hilarious!
Isn’t is lovely? Made me chuckle and I’m always happy to share a smile along the way 🙂
Sound advice, and well chosen examples of potent writing.
Thank you, Chris. There are so many more that I could have included, but did not want to overburden the reader, as the post was shaping up to be a fairly long one already. I am very fond of them and always discover something new in-between the lines when I re-read them. Certainly, the best writing always lends itself to a second, third and n number of readings.
Good article Ma’am Vic.
We can take this into most creative writes I imagine. I mean poetry IS imagery portraying a short story. Describing (hopefully briefly!) the everything we want the reader to experience – painting the picture with words.
Writing poetry helps that part of story telling doesn’t it? It must do? SHit I love writing – LOL!
So lovely to hear from you, Belinda and I’m glad you liked the article. You are quite right: poetry often describes and yet we never think of it as description. I was thinking of that as I was writing this post – you must’ve read my mind. And certainly, I found that writing poetry has helped me be less apprehensive about delving into description for prose as well.
Love writing! Yes. That we certainly do.
Times are busy for all hey 😉
It does help doesn’t it? Makes you feel just a little freer. Says me who seldom really write anything BUT poetry and word sketches!! LOL! (and ofcourse the occasional ranty 😛 ) But yeah – when I HAVE worked on trying to write ‘fiction’ – I did find the the ability to use words in an interesting way with all those language tools (alliteration. juxtaposition etc blah blah – DON’T ask me what they are all called!) easier – as it is already kinda imprinted to use them.
Anyhow – off to go do something or other – GORGEOUS weather we have had! WOW…feel vaguely human again 😉
I often catch myself caught up in writing dialog and too lazy to ‘describe’.
Need to work on that…
Great post Vic.
Thank you, Lance. Dialogue equates fast paced action so it is an ideal place where to insert a few details about a character’s reaction here or a line of description there too. If you are struggling for places where to insert the description, I recommend a pause or moment of silence. If one character says something that will affect the other (and most of the time they do) then that’s a great place to stop and show how the other reacts, their movement, a twitch of the brow, a shuffling of feet – before answering. They might even look up or over their interlocutor’s shoulder and notice something about the setting that helps them remember something that will shape their answer. Hope this helps, Lance. Let me know how you get on when you write dialogue next.
I must say, I am very impressed. You really do care. (Not trying to sound trite here).
What you have written by way of a response is spot on (I am cutting and pasting it to refer back to). Such good advice (you should be teaching creative writing in a university–are you?).
Amazingly simple, yet it never occurred to me to stop/pause the dialog to insert some description.
You have truly given me a new ‘tool’ for my mostly empty writer’s toolbox. It stands out: all shiny and new. (This will change as I employ it–it will become shop-worn soon)
(Too much hyperbole I know!)
‘Thanks, thanks, and ever thanks!’
Oh thank you, Lance. I am touched that you should think that I teach creative writing. One day, perhaps, but for now I am still polishing my own writing. Always glad to share insights I’ve gleamed through research and writing, so feel free to ask any time you reach a stalemate.
There are quite a few posts on the craft of writing in my Writing Tips category, so if you would like to replenish your writer’s toolbox, feel free to delve in and see what else you can find that will lend a hand.
Hope you are well.
I certainly will (explore/read/peruse) your wonderful blog in further detail.
Hope you find the articles both enjoyable and useful 🙂
I enjoyed immensely the examples you shared Miss Vic. I’m not sure that readers realise just how much work goes into painting a picture words at times.
Thank you so much, Suzy. You know, I think that is when we as writers do it best: when the reader gets immersed into the story – setting and characters and all – and never once suspects what it took to get them there.