Tuesday, July 20, 2010

5 Tips To Better Descrption

It can be very hard to think about your writing as separate elements - and in fact, you  shouldn't, not really. Your writing should flow, the reader being taken from one scene to the next without 'bumps' that awaken him or her from the crucial reader's trance the writer needs them to embrace.

Here's the thing though, you, the writer, need to communicate your story, so it behooves you to consider description. When to do it, how to do it, IF to do it. A story is an interesting mix of details - and lack of them. For example:

1.  You need to describe your character when you first introduce him or her so you need to go for the details that are most striking about that character since you don't want to describe the character down to the last ingrown hair or burn blister. Something like, "Mr. Herbert opened the car door with a jerk, dropped his considerable weight into the driver's seat and glowered at the front door of his son's house. Past 80 he jabbed the key into the ignition, stomped the accelerator and pulled away from the curb.  He damn well wasn't too old to drive!"

That passage didn't give a lot of detail, but the reader pretty much gets the picture. Oh, and there are writers who describe a character when he or she is introduced and never again.  That's up to you. Things change and evolve.

2. Don't waste words describing what doesn't need to be described. For example, a hospital room.  We all pretty much know what one looks like. Unless there's something unusual about the one you're using in your story forget the details.  Street scenes, ditto.  We all know what a street looks like - unless there's something on that street you want your reader to remember keep description here to a low.

3. If a place has changed in some significant way during the story, remember to describe it. So if your character has been to an old, empty lot  earlier on which later is where the school carnival sets up, describe it again. Always look for important details and leave out the generic.

4. And this one is important.  Try not to simply 'describe' a place, tell the reader what it looks like.  Instead work it into your scene, hopefully into the action of your main character. For Example:
"Detective Mason stepped into the elevator, hands jammed into his pockets and stared straight ahead as the car filled with jostling people in front of him. A hum filled the car and the vibration tickled his feet through the soles of his shoes. The spicy scent of aftershave drifted past his nose on refrigerated air along with a distinctly floral scent of perfume. A woman in front of the doors waved vaguely at a fly that was trapped inside with them and found her particularly desirable."

5. And remember the details. Don't say a 'car' say a 'Mercedes' - presuming your character would know one model of car from another.  Don't say 'flower' say 'rose' or 'daisy' or 'lily' also if your character could tell one from another. Not a 'boat', but a 'yacht', a 'sailboat', a 'sunfish' if your character is a beach bum and would know.  It's such details that give your story even more life and vigor, that bring it into sharp focus and invite your reader in.

These are just a handful of quick tips to aid your description.  Thank about them. Make them yours and light up your stories.


  1. I have a question. My character has never seen the things we all know. Say for example, she is walking down a street mall. Do I describe her fasination over all the shops and tall department stores, even though my reader knows what a street mall looks like?

  2. Great tips! May I add one more based on a book that's annoying me at the moment? One doesn't need to find a clever metaphor or simile for EVERY situation. We want to enjoy the flow of the narrative, not marvel at how well the author can turn a phrase.

  3. Right on TheFrogBag - a definite positive addition to above.

    birdgirl35 - You're on the right track. If your character has never seen the things we all know, focus on her fascination. You might pick out one or two things that we know that fascinate her greatly and let the reader know why that thing got her attention. As always, test yourself, keep your writing tight, expose that information with as few words as possible. As TheBrogBag commented, we want to get into the flow, to share the experience, not focus on how great the writer writes.


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