A Practicum On Effective Description
Describing the world of your story is one of the most important tasks a writer has before him or her when they sit down to compose their narrative. I see questions all the time about the “best” or “most effective” or “most evocative” ways to describe.
Earmarks of good description:
- It does not stop the story—In other words, the narrative isn’t sitting around tapping its foot while the narrator digresses about this and that in the process of describing whatever it is we’re trying to make the reader visualize. This is probably the single most important feature of good description—that it is integrated with and in synch with the rest of narrative. This does not automatically mean the description is short—it simply means that the description does its job and moves on without additional unnecessary fanfare.
- It is evocative and visceral—An effective description will engage at both an intellectual and physical level. Not only will in set in mind the visuals, it will communicate what it feels, smells, and sounds like; taste too if appropriate. Specifically, the description should channel through the viewpoint character, NOT THE AUTHOR. When you the author are writing it… YOU should be imagining what you would sense/feel and transpose that on the viewpoint character adjusting for their perceptions and understanding of the world.
- It should be integrated with character—This is really an extension of item #2. Stories are about people and from the viewpoint of people. Therefore descriptions should be THROUGH the viewpoint of whoever is currently narrating. Omniscient narrators don’t feel emotions or have sensory registers, therefore they make the weakest most distant camera lenses through which to view your story. Avoid their use altogether if you can. Additionally, the best descriptions of the world tell us something about the character viewing them, revealing something about their personality.
- It should be dynamic rather than static—Descriptions should be sneaky if possible and integrated with what the characters are doing. Instead of describing the verdant green hills with their tall trees, describe the characters picking through the trees, the long green grass lapping at their feet and filling the air with musky scent of vegetation. One description is like a painting on the wall, the other is like being IN the painting.
- It should set the tone—Description should strive to set/mesh with emotional tone of the story. If the mood is dark and somber then the details, colors, and word choices should match that tone.
There are many effective describing techniques depending on what you are describing.
The Inverted Pyramid
Mechanically speaking, the first (and most common) is the inverted pyramid scheme. The basic idea is that you start with a broad visual, then narrow down to increasingly more specific details. The broad part of the description usually serves as a transition into a descriptive passage and is an introduction to the framework of the description itself. The inverted pyramid is usually used for descriptions of places, though it works for people and objects too.
This is a fairly elaborate description which would be a reinforcing scene setting up the environs of where the character, Jane lives. It starts with a broad introducing passage and ends with hook to tie in to the narrative. The “point” of the pyramid is the detail of the smoke rising in the hills.
The Series of Three
The series of three is a “quicky” one-liner type of description that can be surprisingly effective. The idea of this kind of description is to capture a snapshot of something and leave the bulk of the details to be filled in later. It’s useful for ancillary walk-on characters, trivial locations and objects.
The Broad Stroke (The “kind” who)
This is another kind of one-liner description used for people. This is a “nutshell” description to capture the essence of a character’s personality. It has a simple format “(He/She) was the kind of person who …” The creative part is nutshell detail given.
Another mechanism for snapshots of people, this technique uses a simile to give a quick descriptive “kick”.
Here the writer usually uses an already established character as a foil, usually describing how the two people are alike / unalike. This can be particularly effective in-character with a protagonist making a comparison to another. It is most often done is narrative exposition however.
THE KNACK OF DESCRIPTION
We went through 5 mechanisms and these examples (or combinations thereof) pretty much cover most of the types of description you may do as writer. The key thing is not the descriptions themselves—but making them work in the framework of your story. Description is a means to an end—not an end in itself. The descriptions are there to bridge the gap between you the writer and your audience. Too much description and the story bogs down—too little and the story seems empty and flat.
A rule of thumb is that every new scene should have some setting details, even if it’s a place the reader has seen before—if it’s a third or forth viewing the onus is on the writer to provide new details that are still relevant. The same goes for characters. Reinforcement is key. It’s okay to remind us once in a while that Beatrice has flame red hair, or that Hugh has cold “dead” eyes. They are tags that separate and identify those characters.
An immersive story revolves around a strong sense of place. Not only that, but a strong sense of being in that place. If it’s hot, cold, wet, dry… these are all details we should know. Is it loud, does it stink… any sensory detail that helps the reader walk a mile in viewpoint character’s shoes. The reader should be frequently “pinged” with this information reminding us of the viewpoint’s physical and emotional registers in response to his/her changing environment.
Each scene should have a descriptive agenda:
- Intro—Establish where the events are occurring
- Physical/Emotional Status—How are the characters feeling physically and emotionally.
- Time / Place—Capture and coordinate any changes in time/place that happen in the course of the scene
- Relevant magnifying character details—Introduce new or changing character details
- Environmental Changes—Introduce new or changing environmental details
- Transitional Coordination—Provide a descriptive/narrative bridge between the current scene and the next
Whenever composing a scene, look for the above elements to see if the scene is truly complete.
Description is a writer’s bread and butter, it is the framework upon which stories are built. The efficiency and immersiveness of the description are highlights which can carry an otherwise weak story, and make a strong story into a page turning master-piece. In the following sections, we’ll build upon the material we just discussed.