So we’ve looked at developing our characters and their dialogue to a compelling level. Now what about their surroundings? Today I’m taking a look at description and some ways you can dress up any passages that you feel are particularly lackluster. Standard Disclaimer: Blady-blady-blady. Please don’t take my opinions as facts.
The typical mantra for writing description is “paint a picture”. This is essentially a euphemism for using adjectives and adverbs. Instead of saying Tyler looked out over the plain, say Tyler looked out over the grassy plain. The addition of the adjective gives the reader more details. Of course, you want your description to tie into the story and you don’t want to create a large string of adjectives and adverbs to append to every noun. My rule of thumb is that most nouns can support two descriptors / modifiers. Less than that is fine, if I use more than I need to really pay attention and make sure I’m not creating conflicting implications or being clumsy in my word choice.
Note: There are schools of thought that argue for using only the bare essentials when it comes to adjectives and adverbs, if using any of them at all. They speak at great lengths of the wicked “purple prose“. My personal opinion is that while they have a point, they take it way to far. Just because an overload of “flavor” is bad doesn’t mean that you should strip all the flavor away. I honestly enjoy a little purple prose every now and again.
Back on track. So judicious use of adverbs and adjectives to “paint the picture” is giving us better description. Next is to see how immersive we can make it. If you look at trends in the entertainment industry (which, let’s face it, is what us fiction writers are in), the big push is to make everything more immersive. So how do we do that? Go beyond painting a picture.
When you’re describing your scene, do not only focus on the visual aspects. Describe the sounds Tyler hears as the wind brushes the tall grasses together. Include smells, like the faint sweet of honeysuckle mingling with the dry brush of hay. And since he is standing next to a stone wall, we might as well describe how the stone feels under his hand; rough, warm and slightly damp from the moss he dislodged. And lastly, the easiest piece to forget is the spicy tar taste of the cigar he is chewing on.
By utilizing all of the senses, writers can provide the reader with an immersive experience that they cannot obtain from video games or movies. While it can be easy to neglect using all the senses, especially in today’s visual and audio driven environment, by incorporating them in their descriptions writers will bring their scenes to life in a readers imagination. And that, after all, is really what we want, right? No matter the perspective, we are trying to create a certain experience and allow the reader to become lost in it.
If you want in depth reading on writing description, I recently finished “Word Painting” By Rebecca McClanahan and highly recommend giving it a go. Here is an excellent article on using adjectives effectively by Laura Cortright.
Quick Tips and Tricks:
- Practice describing things using only smell, touch or taste. For a fun exercise, make cookies. While they are baking, sit down and write a paragraph or two describing the smell. Really stretch yourself and create some really purple prose. Once their done, write a paragraph describing their taste (of course you have to eat at least one). Get a feel for what adjectives and adverbs work and where.
- Take a walk outside and listen to the bird calls. Smell some flowers. Smell the dirt. Touch the trees and note the different types of bark. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell them you’re conducting research on sensory development.
- Draw a map. No seriously, if you’re having trouble capturing the scene, draw a map of it. You can include characters, movement, walls, doors, appliances, whatever you want. You can make it as dynamic or static as you need to. But it will help you keep everything straight and keep you from missing things.
- Don’t describe down to the most minute details. I like to give the reader enough to make a frame and a push as to what should be in there and let their imagination do the rest. For example, wood panels are just fine for me, I don’t need to say cedar wood paneling with a light red wood stain that clashed with… See what I mean. Unless it is important to the mood, tone, or plot that kind of stuff is a little over the top.
How about you? How do you write your descriptions? Do you prefer stark prose or the more colorful variety?