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Words of Wisdom

When the Lord finished the world, He pronounced it good. That is what I said about my first work, too. But Time, I tell you, Time takes the confidence out of these incautious early opinions.  

— Mark Twain

In creative writing, description is key to keeping readers engaged. Your descriptions of places, characters, actions, and conversations are what help you readers believe in the world you’ve created. Following are guidelines for writing clear and memorable descriptions and exercises that will help you practice.

Power, Not Length

Make your descriptions lively and vivid, not long and involved. The key to description is not length, but power. Use strong words, especially verbs, that create an impression, evoke an emotion, or appeal to the senses.

Ex. 1 Weak verb choice: “Stella!” he said, yelling very loudly.
Ex 2 Strong verb choice: “Stella!” he bellowed.
 
Weak Description: She had an annoying laugh that made people uncomfortable.
Revised: She cackled that migraine-inducing laugh of hers.


Show, Don’t Tell

Don’t tell your reader something directly. Let them see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or feel it. Don’t announce that your young heroine is mischievous; instead, have her hide in a tree and drop water balloons on those who pass beneath. Don’t tell your reader that it’s cold; show the character shivering and her breath hanging in the air. Use description to place your reader inside the scene. Telling readers something pulls them out of the scene and onto the level of the narrator; showing them something pulls them into the scene and onto the characters’ level.

Say It Simply

Select words your audience will know; don’t worry about trying to impress readers with your vocabulary. As Stephen King reminds us, “No word you find in a thesaurus is the right word.” Instead use common words in interesting ways. Often, the simplest word is the most powerful. Saying someone is “ugly” is more powerful than saying someone is “unsightly”—unless you’re writing dialogue for someone in the 19th century.  

Describing Setting/Objects

A setting doesn’t have to be described in extensive detail. It is more important that readers get the feel of a place rather than knowing exactly where each chair is placed (unless the placement is an important plot point). Color and temperature are effective descriptive modes for setting. If you walk into a warm, bright yellow room, it’s reminiscent of sunshine and your reader will feel a happy energy. An airless room with peeling, dingy yellow wallpaper would feel aged and oppressive.

Take these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:  “Let us go then, you and I, / where the evening is spread out against the sky/ like a patient etherized upon the table.” The first part of the image could be pretty—“evening spread out against sky.” But Eliot kills the prettiness in the next few words, creating a very different tone—one of staleness and unconsciousness and illness. He hasn’t said a word about what the scene looks like, but the reader can feel it. 

Another technique is to give a setting or object a personality. Talk about things as you would a person. You can refer to a clock as impatient or hobbling to convey a sense of time to the reader. You can refer to a house as senile or a hotel as huffy. Personification works because readers will understand what you’re talking about without a lot of words taking them away from the action.

Describing Characters

It’s a good thing if your readers imagine their own versions of your characters because it makes them more involved in your story. Don’t give them every little detail. Again—show, don’t tell.

Don’t Say: The man was a dentist, smart, a little pretentious, lived with his family, and liked order. 
Say: His teeth gleamed and his mustache twitched with unasked-for advice. He began every day by dispensing a strip of toothpaste exactly the length of his toothbrush. After vigorous brushing and flossing, he descended the stairs to eat the nutritious breakfast prepared by his wife.
 

Characters have to be memorable, and they won’t be if you write long-winded descriptions of their exact hair color, eye color, height, and weight. Readers, however, will remember if you pick a set of traits that distinguish each character from others and use those descriptions consistently when referring to that character. These traits can be anything from hair color to pointy ears to body type. Consider examples from the Harry Potter series:

Ex. Draco Malfoy–pointed face, blond hair, sneering. His dialogue is repeatedly described as “drawling.” 
Ex. Hagrid–giant, bearded, carries a pink umbrella. Hagrid is also distinguishable by his accent.

You can also make the physical traits associated with a character indicative of their personality. In Harry Potter, Aunt Petunia has a long neck “useful for peering over the fence to spy on neighbors.” This tells the reader something about her aside from her physical appearance. Characters don’t always have to be described directly. Sometimes, an object they own or wear can tell the reader more about the character’s personality than a direct description. In Harry Potter, Uncle Vernon’s billowing and blustering mustache personifies the man himself.

Describing Action

The key to describing action well is rhythm. If you’re describing a high-speed car chase, don’t use long sentences. Keep the words moving. Fast. Your reader should be in the car with the driver. Feeling the turns; feeling the speed. If, however, you’re describing a relaxing day in a fishing boat, use long, flowing sentences that reflect the rocking movement of the boat and the lake. Your reader should feel peaceful and slumberous, lulled by the sound and rhythm of your words. 

The other key to describing action is selecting the right verb. If you are describing a leaf falling to the ground, think about the way it’s falling. Does it fall suddenly, kerplunk, on the ground? In that case, “drop” may be a better word than “fall.” If it falls slowly and languorously, “floating” may be a better word. If it twirls and quivers as it falls, “flutter” may be a good choice. Think about exactly what the action is and describe it with one apt word rather than many. 

Practicing Description

Following are exercises you can do to practice writing description.
 
Sit at a coffee shop or a bus stop. Pick someone who looks interesting to you. Describe them in five sentences. Then describe them in two sentences. Then describe them in only a few words. Remember to consider more than just appearance. What does the person’s appearance say about his or her personality? To quote Leonardo Da Vinci, “The artist has two subjects to paint: the man and the intention of his soul.”
 
Rewrite a scene. Choose a short scene from a novel or story, preferably something with action or dialogue, such as a conversation between a couple having dinner. Rewrite the scene without relying on the sense of sight. What do the people sound like? What emotions can you sense? Is there palpable tension? Or sadness? Can you hear one of them drumming their fingers on the table? Can you smell someone’s perfume? Relying on senses other than your eyes can make your writing more powerful.
 
Pretend you have synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses are not divided. Numbers have colors and colors have sounds and music has smells. Imagine how having this condition would change your writing. Come up with a random number and then identify that number’s color. What does a Bach concerto smell like? What color is the name Franklin? This exercise can help you “see” the world differently and make connections between things you didn’t realize were connected.
 
Find a photograph or painting that intrigues you. Describe what is happening in that image in five sentences. Then two sentences and, finally, just a few words. Consider the emotions the image both captures and evokes. Again, don’t simply describe what is happening; go beyond that to the meanings beyond the action.
 
Picture a character’s room. It can be a character from another story/movie or one that you’re writing. Now describe their space. What sort of books would they have or would they not have any? Is their room messy? Are there coffee rings on the table? Maybe they have a wall covered in newspaper clippings? Why? This exercise gives you practice describing a room, as well as viewing your character through their things.
 
Focus on details. To practice strengthening your perception, sit in a room or picture a room in your mind. Write every detail of that room. Practice using all five senses, not just what you see. In a story, you won’t include all of the details you come up with—only the most essential—but you want to be able to notice those things as a writer. Maybe one of those tiny details you notice will end up embodying the persona of the whole place. Or maybe a seemingly insignificant object is the key to the entire plot. You need to be able to see the whole thing in detail in order to understand what you want to convey. The details you ultimately choose to share with the reader form your interpretation of the scene.

Further Reading

Buckham, Mary and Dianna Love. Break into Fiction. Holbrook: Adams Media, 2009.
 
Knight, Damon. Creating Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
 
Miller, Sandra. “Character Development Tips.” SandraMiller.com. 08 Jan. 2007.
 
Schaefer, Candace and Rick Diamond. The Creative Writer. Addison-Wesley, 1998.
 

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