When crafted well, descriptions are a powerful way to draw the reader into your world by making it realistic, believable and lovable. When done poorly, readers skim over the paragraph or worse, close the book and doom it to that dark corner of the bookshelf. All your hard work, coffee, sweat and tears are gone in an instant.
Writers tend to fall into one of two camps. Overloading the senses with trivial information, or on the other hand, not adding enough realistic detail. According to Robert McKee in his book Story, “At one end of reality is pure fact; at the other end, pure imagination. Spanning these two poles is the infinitely varied spectrum of fiction.” Where do you find your own writing?
Here we will cover five ways to span this infinitely varied spectrum to help you develop your craft.
These are the unique details that capture our attention. What you choose to emphasize about a scene, person, or object, says a lot about you as a writer but even more for your story as a whole. What’s important? We’ve all read enough descriptions of cafes and houses to be bored with the usual jargon. What can you add that makes the reader interested in this particular café you’re describing?
A great example of this is from JoJo Moyes in her book Me Before You.
I liked the fuggy bacon-scented warmth of the café, the little bursts of cool air as the door opened and closed, the low murmur of conversation and, when quiet, Frank’s radio singing tinnily to itself in the corner.
2. Use active descriptions
Descriptions are there for a reason and it’s not jut to make your writing sound fancy. Make them work! Use them to move the story forward. Don’t just write out a list of things, make sure they are strengthening the story rather than distract from it.
He had an abundance of greased back hair and “brilliant ideas” which he frequently bestowed upon any lucky listeners who crossed his path. Today something was different. His normally squawky voice was deeper, soothing almost as he explained the proposal. He was surrounded by a sea of nodding heads from around the conference table.
You can also incorporate descriptors in conversation. Here’s an example:
“Are you a vegan?” She asked.
“I prefer animal murder abolitionist.”
He adjusted one bony arm on the table and she noticed for the first time his tattoo. It was a ragged green cow. The words “You feed me just to destroy me,” were branded on him.
3. Focus on a few key details
What’s really important that you want to get across to your reader? Is it that smell coming from the car AC that reminds you of the time you tried to make paleo fudge? The way the tables stick to your elbows? “The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.” –McKee
Ever had a barista give you the death glare for drowning your custom brewed coffee in sugar? That kind of vulgar behavior is frowned upon. What’s that you say? Me? Of course I would never do something like that. #AmateurMistake.
What I found out, I mean… uh…my friend found out, was that baristas are often frustrated by this. They put a lot of time into creating your pour over or specialty latte. They set the timer, let it sit, do all their fancy coffee voodoo and art to extract just the right amount of flavor. So when you don’t appreciate the floral and citrus notes and instead drown your drink in Splenda, they feel a little hurt. How dare you add other things to dilute their art!
Why are we talking about coffee? I mean yes, it is obviously an absurdly late hour for a work night, but also, it’s a great analogy for what we’re talking about here. Don’t dilute your story by adding unnecessary details just because you’re in the habit of doing it or it feels good. True art in its purest form is strong enough to stand on its own. You don’t need to add in more descriptions.
As Ava Jae puts it “If you use too much description, your readers won’t be able to pick out what physical markers are unique to your characters—but by utilizing a couple telling details instead, you’ll paint a picture of your characters much more effectively.”
4. Give descriptions in chunks- aka be sneaky about it
Instead of having a giant paragraph or pages even of descriptions, Lord of the Rings fans I’m talking to you, use smaller pieces and disperse them throughout. When the story has to stop to go into description about something that’s when you know you’re not being discrete about your descriptors.
Courtney Carpenter brings up a good point. “If you lump your description all into one page, you’re bound to either confuse the reader with all of the details or lose their attention.” Instead, dole out descriptions sparingly and naturally incorporate them.
5. Don’t give too much
This is a trap particularly new and over ambitious writers fall into. They want to show off to their reader. Their writing screams “I’ve been there!” so loudly its hard to focus on the story. No one wants a play-by-play description of all the shops on the street, nor the smell of every floor in the hotel. You’ve done nothing more than regurgitate your surroundings on to paper.
That’s not art.
Even my dog can do that. Did do that unfortunately. Your goal should be, as Idrees Patel puts it, “Concrete details. Everything the reader would want to know, and nothing more.”
You’ve heard the phrase Jack of all trades, Master of None. This phrase definitely applies to writing descriptions. Don’t be the Jack of all trades. Pick a few killer details to highlight but leave the rest. Otherwise you’ll be left with a reader who knows something about every closet and police man in the book but hardly anything about your main characters.
This is especially true for your characters. As M. Shannon Hernandez puts it, “Your readers must be able to love your characters or hate them, and you can’t do that by providing too much detail.”
We’ve covered the five essentials for writing descriptions briefly here. There are certainly more but these are some of the big ones. What tips help you improve your descriptions? Let us know in the comments!
Candace signing off in search of coffee or sleep.