Descriptions are another element of my own writing that I've really worked to improve, and I've learned some valuable lessons along the way.
The best book I ever read about description is WORD PAINTING by Rebecca McClanahan. Can’t recommend it enough. One reason I like the book is because McClanahan references Aristotle and his belief that good description should be four things:
1. Concise – use the specific, proper names for things.
2. Sensory – appeal to all five senses.
3. Active – describe things in motion, create moving pictures in the mind.
4. Metaphorical – descriptive language and metaphors conjure vivid images.
- Use active, vivid prose.
- Avoid filters like “She noticed” or “She felt”; state image directly.
- Avoid linking verbs like appear, seem, was, were.
- Avoid helping verbs like would, can, might, must.
- Avoid adverbs.
- Metaphor isn’t the marriage of two things; it’s the child produced.
Tips for describing characters:
- Appeal to all five senses.
- Modify adjectives completely. For instance, instead of “green eyes,” say “eyes like cheap brass.”
- Make details as specific as possible.
- Don’t overdo it; focus on most revealing details.
- Don’t clump physical descriptions; spread details throughout scene.
- Set characters in motion.
- Use the environment to describe characters. For instance, if the character is sad, the environment’s description can help convey the sadness.
Aristotle’s four points are the most significant; everything else kind of flows naturally from them. Keep those points in mind whenever writing description.
Also, David Morrell, the fella who created Rambo, practices what he calls “triangulation.” Basically, he always tries to combine sight description with two other senses, triangulating on the subject matter to provide a strong image. Again, you may not be able to do it every time, and if you did, it would get repetitive like anything else. But triangulating is a good tool to have in your toolbox. You can bust it out whenever you really want to drive home a description.
Clumping character and scene descriptions is probably the most common mistake I see. Clumping occurs when you place all your descriptions in one paragraph and then move on with the story, essentially segregating the description from the rest of the story. It happens the most when characters get introduced. Avoid giving extensive physical descriptions right away. Spread those details throughout the scene.
You never want to describe something just to describe it. Every description should be crucial to defining character, establishing atmosphere, or advancing plot. Make the details essential to the story.
I have a writing teacher named Tim Esaias who always points to the book SHOGUN as the perfect way to do description. The story takes place in feudal Japan, where a lot of the buildings had paper walls. But we don't know the room has paper walls until someone puts his fist through one. Until that moment, the paper walls aren't important, so there's no need to describe them. Make sure the description is vital before writing it. Otherwise, unnecessary descriptions bloat prose and slow pacing.
Make sense? This was just a quick review of the key points I try to remember when writing description. In the next blog post, I’ll provide some examples to illustrate effective description.