Blogger problem #297: Scheduling a post for the 28th, thinking it was a Tuesday and then having it post on the 28th which I set it for: Monday! So here’s the post again on Tuesday. I’m a new blogger, still learning, so I’m sorry for you who are getting post emails, you’ve got another one! And, I must say, this is better than the one that came flying in your inbox without my known authority. So … moving on to the actual post.
Two weeks ago I started a series on writing description. The first was about the pros and cons of description and last week’s post was on the difference between classics and modern bestsellers regarding description. Today’s post is tips on when, where, and how to use description in your story. Used right, it has changed the way I read, write, feel, see, and even think of the world, and hopefully that is the same for you.
Now, if you’re here from tips from a writer pro, you might be disappointed. I’m young, still learning about writing, and I can’t write as well as you can imagine (some days I feel like a horrible writer). However, a lot of what I say here are not just my opinions, but also tips I got from other websites and online sources, from writers and authors who are experienced. I will give suggestions and some of my own ideas based off of these tips. I can’t promise you’ll write like a pro after this, but hopefully it’ll give you a feel for how important description is in stories and how you can possibly write it better.
Tip #1: Blending in the Description
I read an article called The Art of Description on Writing World.com, and one of the tips on there struck me as important when writing description: Blending description into a sentence that doesn’t have any otherwise. For example: “The man wore a tuxedo and carried a gun. He stepped quickly into the room. The room was cold.” These three sentences sound choppy and the last could be unnecessary. Instead, we could blend the three sentences together and add in more description. “The nervous man, sloppily dressed in a tuxedo and carrying a smoking gun, stepped quickly into the cold and clammy study.” Better, right? It’s even easier to read. Each little sentence of description can easily fit into one and make it roll faster and easier. If you’ve got a sentence of just description, and then a sentence with just action or dialogue, you can put the two together in one. Of course, no one likes extra long sentences, so it’s best to be concise while writing with this in mind.
Here’s a thought of mine: Since blending in description means putting description into a sentence that otherwise has none, I think it applies mostly to action scenes and sentences. For example: Joe was caught, holding a sword, with five guys circling him, and more coming down the stairs. The marble staircase and white and marble. So he’s going to die, and all of the sudden I’m reading detail about a marble staircase. I’m thinking, “Dude! What is this irrelevance? This guy is going to die, who cares if the staircase is marble or emerald!” Solution: Try blending in the information of the white marble staircase: “Joe looked around wildly to find himself completely surrounded by five men in black, circling him with guns. He dropped his sword and looked up, to see even more coming swiftly down the white marble staircase, which wound up to meet.” Sleek and efficient. I have the detail in my knowledge, I have a feel for the setting, but I’m still caught up in the suspense. Because this certain sentence had to do with the action in the story, the reader will be caught up in the character’s actions and situation, and will be able to see and feel what he’s going through at the same time without getting lost.
What are your thoughts on this one? Would it work for you? In my opinion, I think it’s one of the best way to get description in your story.
“James Bond isn’t going to stop in the middle of skiing away from gun-toting spies to ponder the beauty of the Alps. He’s going to get away from them.” – Anne Marble on Writing World
Tip #2: Detail in a Scene
A point I want to make here, which is sort of obvious, is when you are specifically noting detail from your character’s POV, you want to write in the detail that only your character sees, notices, and feels, also using his or her five senses (is he deaf? Blind? Does he have no hands to feel? This does depend on the character). I think this may help your reader to connect more with your character, perhaps maybe even understand him or her better.
Here’s a little tip I came up with myself, and it’s probably something easily done, and it might not even work. But I think that depending on what scene you’re writing, and you need to put in description, you should have a reason for putting it in. In other words, the description you put in should fit with the whole feel of the scene. For example, is it in a library where your characters are having an argument? Note the specifics in the way they raise their voices, the way she slams down a certain book, the way he walks from side to side when he’s riled up. Is it a romance at the beach during sunset? Note the details in the softness of the sand, the crashing of the waves, and the rolling of the rocks when the tide drags the wave back. In my opinion, I think that this will actually help your readers to be involved; a scene is perfect when the description fits the time, place, setting, and overall feel of the characters’ situation and desires. When you’re writing a chase scene, where you are pushing your reader to endure the possibility that your main character will die any second, it’s a bad idea to devote a few sentences to skimmable detail in a brick wall. A sudden fleeting sentence of nothing but detail is entirely irrelevant, just like the Marble Staircase Problem.
BUT!!! This got me thinking. Maybe this is where you can use these description-filled sentences as an art: If your brick wall plays a big part in the story later on, you might want to keep those few “irrelevant” sentences in there, even if it does break up the suspense in the chase scene. Your reader will be confused and irritated, and might skim those sentences. But when you bring up the brick wall later on, it’s like a punch in the face to your reader: “Oh! Where did I read last about a brick wall?” If I was the reader, I’d go back to the chase scene and remember, because the brick wall now has all of the importance in that later part of the story I just read recently.
Does this strike you as a slippery little trick, or is it all blah to you? Do you think it’ll work or not? I think it sounds like a lot of fun and might want the reader to connect the dots. Just like little secrets that are dropped here and there throughout the story until the reader gets the bigger picture in the end.
Tip #3: Metaphors, Figurative Language and Use of Words
There are so many different ways to describe things other than just noting a bunch of detail. You can paint pictures with metaphors and analogies. Instead of saying “her face was white and pale,” you can take a metaphor: “her shining face was the moon.” Using metaphors can cause readers, from experiential knowledge about the world, to understand what you’re trying to describe. They know what the moon looks like: bright and pale. When you describe someone’s face as the moon, they’ll immediately think, “Oh, her face is really bright and pale.” This doesn’t always have to be literal, either. The reader will understand. The point is, what you write on the page will change for the reader, change what is there for him. Each of them will see a little part of the world in a different way.
Here are a couple things I got from this article Writing Powerful Descriptions on Litreactor. 1) This art of writing with figurative language will take creativity to master. 2) Don’t use cliché phrases and everyday figures of speech, because the reader will immediately skip over it; he’s heard that term to many times. Instead, think about it. This is your writing. Craft your sentences carefully and make them worth the reading.
Talking of crafting your words, I think that picking your words wisely is an important thing to remember when you are writing description. I don’t think there are very many people out there who would disagree with me on that. You can either use five words or one word to describe something, and there is a very large vocabulary out there to choose from. I use Thesaurus.com almost every single time I sit down to write.
Describing with the senses will also help your reader to really smell it, feel it, see or hear. (This goes way deep psychologically, but since I’m just a writer, I’ll keep to basics here.) Instead of saying the coffee was brown, say it was a “steaming hot, chocolate swirled cup of dark brown.” Okay, you probably don’t need to point that much attention to coffee, unless it serves a large part, depending. Another thing Litreactor says is that sensory description is way stronger than just plain language. And that appealing to the senses also involves other parts of the brain that wouldn’t normally be used for reading. Now I did not know that, but I guess I’ll be using more description from the senses and get the whole head and body involved.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov
Some are naturals at writing description well and can do it on the fly. Some people aren’t and need to go back over their rough draft and add in the description where needed (me). Hopefully this series has helped you writers a little. I myself still need to work on adding some more detail in my writing, and my research definitely helped me. Done right, description is an art in writing that I believe should not be rejected.
What about you? How do you write, and in what style? When it comes to detail and description, do you need some work or are you a real killer? I’m open to any other helpful comments, suggestions and others’ thoughts. Go writers!
References for the whole Writing Description Series:
My dad, for being a seasoned writer and a semi-cognitive/neuroscientist. His blog is Pooh’s Think.