A certain story circulated among first year students in the creative writing program:

The university had had a visit from an up-and-coming author, a young woman who promised to make waves in the literary community. She brought nothing with her to her guest lecture and sipped at a can of Coke until she was introduced by the instructor. Then she stood up, downed the rest of her soda, and set the teacher’s stool in the middle of the floor. She then placed the can on the stool and stood back. “Describe this,” she said.

After ten minutes of pens scribbling and keys clacking, she called for volunteers to read. Obviously they described the same item, using many of the inescapable facts about the can. Red, Coke, aluminum, can, lid, opener, soda. She stopped them again and told them they did alright, and yes, they described the can. “But,” she said, “none of you described the emptiness. Listen again.” She lifted the can and set it down again. Now that the room was quiet, and they were listening to what she had heard, the aching ring of a vacant aluminum icon.

Alright, this is dramatic, but it does point out the core of most poor description; missing emotion. Description, as a tool, is meant to project an image into the mind of the reader. As a vehicle for story, description not only shares detail, it evokes emotion, touches the heart, enlightens the mind, and tickles the funny bone. Any machine can identify endless facts and details, but it’s the careful selection of which to include and exclude that create the art.

Excellent description, Stephen King argues, is telepathy. The following is an excerpt from his book, On Writing, which illustrates this principle.

“Look— here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome— my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation. For one thing, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes. It’s easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, “on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high”? That’s not prose, that’s an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of— wire mesh? steel rods? glass?— glass?— but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care. The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . . except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy. I’m not going to belabor the point, but before we go any further you have to understand that I’m not trying to be cute; there is a point to be made.”

King, Stephen (2000-10-03). On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (p. 105-106). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Yes, this is a long excerpt, but there’s so much here. Writing description is an essential element of narrative fiction. Even if you write a story completely with dialogue, you will be describing characters with their dialogue. The following are frequently quoted tips for writing excellent dialogue:

It takes effort to recognize which details are vague and to replace them with specifics. Sometimes vagueness is used as a tool, but in articulate description specific details provide more color.

Be Specific. In the above example, “blue 8” is specific. He discusses the non-specific details, the table cloth and the cage, but these are not the details that have the most meaning. If this image were to continue to a story, it’s the blue 8 on the rabbit that would most likely become a plot point. Give crucial detail the most specifics in order to focus attention on it, like focusing a camera lens for clarity.

Use Verbs. Adverbs and adjectives exist to describe, yet verbs are the more powerful part of speech. Active verbs describe without distraction. While the example given in the excerpt doesn’t include action, note it also doesn’t contain extraneous adjectives. In pure description, the action of the paragraph is the motion of the reader’s attention from one detail to the next in a pattern dictated by the author. As with any action, this should have a purpose.

Don’t Info-Dump. Following these other principles will, for the most part, limit the off-putting “info dump”. Essentially, this trap entails sharing everything a reader needs to know all at once, often using a thin story device to hide the straight telling of facts. This happens with character descriptions, fantasy/sci-fi world building, and background information. These long, drawn out descriptions and/or blocks of narrative summary resolve when they’re restructured into active scenes. Describe necessary details along the way, adding in details to develop a scene’s tone, intensity, or interest.

Show Don’t Tell. Telling is the mainstay of straight description, but there’s so much more to this device. The use of deliberate detail communicates more than the facts. The right details in the right place draw on contexts beyond the immediate sentence in order to evoke emotion, wake memory, and deliver a message. An excellent example is a famous six-word story, often attributed to Hemingway (though versions have appeared before his publication of it).

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.

The details here are obvious, but the implication is tragic. Why? The force is all in the context of the description, cultural values, and readers’ memory. Other examples abound: red lipstick, cold rain, white lily, black curtains. The presence of objects and their specific descriptors carry a meaning from their previous uses, and the meaning shifts depending on their use and placement within a story or scene.

For more discussions on description, see the links below. Happy writing!


Links & Resources:

Explaining Too Much | Caro Clarke

Descriptive Writing | Reading Rockets

Writing Powerful Descriptions | Lit Reactor

Description | Writing World

11 Secrets to Writing Effective Character Descriptions | Writers Digest

How to Write Better Descriptions | Write to Done

Writing Tip: Use Vivid Description | Writers Treasure

Mastering the Art of Writing Description | Steve Friedman

Expert Tips on Writing Sensory Details in Setting Description | Writers Digest


Great Character Descriptions from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books



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