After talking with a couple of friends this week, I realized something: Descriptions are hard. We tend to either a.) go into WAY too much detail and bore our readers into oblivion, or b.) give so FEW details that readers aren’t sure of anything.
When I taught creative writing, it was one of the most difficult things to get across to students. They always wanted to sloooooow down and give paragraphs of information – an information dump. “The white two story house with an attic had a white picket fence, and the siding was weathered and one window had been broken out by a baseball back in 1994 and never replaced and the shutters were all askew except for that one at the very top on the southwest side that’s missing, and . . .” Or they went the opposite way. “There was a white house.”
Both are bad.
But how do you teach someone how to do descriptions? That’s what we were trying to do Friday. And honestly, as with all things, I think you have to go back to the Golden Rule of Writing: Read and write. In this case, read is the operative word.
Some authors are brilliant at description. Some aren’t. Some struggle with it. But when you read, you really get to see how other writers deal with the issue.
Take this photo, for example: How do you describe this house and this scene?
Do you say it’s tumble-down? Decrepit? Sagging? Ready for the bulldozer? (That one is WRONG, by the way!) “A still wind would have knocked it over.” Or better, “A STIFF wind would have knocked it over.” Depends on if you’re going for something Twain-esque or not, I guess.
Do you go for something more literal? “The house had two stories – for now. The windows were long gone, the porch sagged, the rafters were exposed to the sky. The only inhabitants were rats and ghosts.”
It depends on you and your writing style. It’s a tricky balancing act.
In her book The Writing and Critique Group Survivor’s Guide, Becky Levine gives us a list of the things description needs to do:
- Evoke an image or a feeling.
- NOT distract the reader, but draw them further into the story.
- Use all of the five senses, if possible.
- Be necessary and ACTIVE. The characters need to interact with it. Live within it.
- Create a sense of personality (especially in a first-person narrative).
Take the photo of the house again. Does your narrator consider it sad? Creepy? An eyesore? Is it in the way of something she wants to do? Maybe it’s more complicated than that: maybe this is the house her grandparents built. Perhaps she had a traumatic experience there. All of those feelings and emotions will affect the words you choose to describe it.
In my descriptions, I didn’t use all five senses – touch, taste, sight, sound, and hearing. And let’s be honest – most of us don’t. But did you know that the sense of smell evokes the most memories for us? So how does the old house smell? Maybe there are lilacs outside, or a seventy-year old rose rambling up a broken lattice. If your character goes inside, what does she smell? Decay? Mold? Rat and bird droppings? If she touches the porch railing, does she get splinters? Do the floorboards give under her weight, maybe even crack and groan? Can she hear the wind whistling through the rafters? The scratching of rats in the walls?
Taste is one of the hardest senses to work into a story, unless you’re Elizabeth Gilbert. But how many of us refuse to eat things we find disgusting? Taste is an extremely important sense in our everyday lives. It doesn’t have to be food, either. Fear has a taste. So do tears. If you bite your tongue hard enough, you taste blood. Look at your story. Where are there places you could gently work it in to add depth and dimension to the story, without distracting the reader?
One of the most important things we need to keep in mind is this: our characters have to interact with their environment. So many writers give us an information dump, and then expect us as readers to keep all that in mind for the next several pages while the characters blithely move through life – but apparently, not through a setting! Ground your characters. Are your characters having a chat? Sit them down on the wide veranda with the mimosa tree overhead, and a pitcher of iced tea between them. Smell the mimosas. Taste the iced tea. Hear the ice clinking against the side of the glasses. Have the characters move. Make them interact with the setting. Open a window to let in a fresh, pre-storm breeze, or close the shutters against the first spatters of rain.
To write good descriptions, we need to be aware of how much we interact with our own setting, every single day. For a week, just observe yourself and others. If you’re having a conversation, what else are you doing? Fiddling with your cell phone? Making a mental to-do list? Pacing? Plucking at stray threads on the blanket over your knees?
And we need to read as many books as possible, in all different genres. Underline or highlight every time you see description of any kind. How do they do it? How seamless is it? Did you almost miss it? Or was it glaring? Did it evoke anything in you? How many senses did they use per scene? Could it have been better?
Some writers have a knack for dialogue, others for plot, still others for characterization; some have a knack for description. Like everything else in writing, it’s a skill you can learn. If you want yours to be better, you may even want your beta readers to read specifically for description, and give feedback. But above all, just read. Diana Gabaldon, Karen Marie Moning, and Jim Butcher are my go-to authors for description that is pitch-perfect. All three address it in different ways, but all three get it right.
Go forth. Read! Write! Describe! 🙂