Hello and happy Wednesday!
As you can probably tell, today’s post is all about . . . description.
There are as many different ways to write description as there are authors. Some write descriptions that are lovely and poetic, rhythmic and flowing, like a stream trickling through a quiet forest, or brushstrokes of paint across a blank canvas. Their description may be so lovely, so big a part of the story, that it’s almost a character itself.
Others prefer shorter descriptions. Sentences that reach the point quickly and give just enough description to hint at setting. This style may make action feel faster, plots feel more intense, and tension more thrilling. And instead of drawing attention to itself, their description points readers deeper into the story.
Is any one of those styles – or of the numerous other combinations – better than the rest?
Not from a skills standpoint. Different people have different preferences for which they prefer to read, but no one writing style is purely good or bad. It’s simply a matter of which styles fit that story and the message the author wants to convey. For example, fantasy books often utilize more elegant descriptions, while thrillers tend to gravitate toward fast-paced prose. Still, those styles often shift and change throughout the story when needed.
A good author will vary writing styles and descriptions to match whatever’s appropriate for that scene. That’s why it’s very important to know what kind of things to watch for, and how to tailor our description to best enhance every point in our stories.
Description has never been one of my writing strengths. After much research and dozens of classes and books, I’ve improved, but it still doesn’t come naturally to me. It takes a great deal of focus and revision before I can craft descriptions I feel good about.
And yet, it is – slowly – getting easier. And I keep learning, studying, and researching, with the hopes that some day I’ll be able to look back and wonder why I ever struggled so badly with something as ‘simple’ as description.
A girl can dream, haha.
So today, I thought I’d share my best tips for writing description. Though I’m still far from an expert at describing things, I’ve soaked up as lot of information over the years, and found some advice that has greatly assisted me. I hope these are helpful to you as well – or at least inspire you to get writing!
Adjust Your Zoom
Much like zooming in and out with a camera when taking a picture, you can zoom in and out with your descriptions. When you write, you’re essentially ‘videotaping’ a mental movie for readers. When something’s important, you want to focus on that and draw their attention to it. When something isn’t as important, you want to just offer a glimpse of it – not enough to be confusing and make it appear more necessary to the story then it really is.
Zooming in should be used for details that you want readers to pay special attention to. Say there’s a tree in your character’s yard that’s very important to the story. You could try writing something like:
‘In the corner of the yard, stretching groaning limbs toward the house, an Oak tree loomed. With every gust of the breeze, it moaned and shook, and as the setting sun bathed its branches in red sunlight, the entire tree seemed to glow – as if on fire. Sarah couldn’t help but imagine it was in pain. But trees couldn’t get hurt. Could they?’
That’s just an example – and not even a great one, haha – but the point is to add more details. Draw more attention to it, foreshadow, and show the reader that the object, place, or person you’re describing is important to the story.
Zooming out is the opposite. It means glossing over and condensing descriptions for something that isn’t very important to the story. If the tree in the backyard wasn’t an important story element, and just something you wanted to mention in passing, you could try something as simple as:
‘In the corner of the yard, an Oak tree loomed.’
Much shorter, far fewer details, and unless you continue to bring up that same tree, readers won’t assume it’s going to be very important to the story.
If you zoom in on every single detail, your book is going to end up very long and potentially very boring. Readers won’t be able to tell what’s really important; what they should pay special attention to. And likewise, if you zoom out constantly and never describe anything, readers also won’t know what to pay attention to, and your story won’t be gripping or immersive. Finding a balance is tricky, but important.
Set the Mood/Tone
Just like choosing which details to zoom in and out on are important, choosing which details to even include in the first place is crucial. In any given instance, there are so many things you could describe. How do you know what’s most important, and how much to include? One way is to determine what mood, tone, or emotion you want that scene to have.
Say it’s a clear summer day and your character is walking through a thick forest. If you want the scene to have a happy, light feel, you may want to focus on the beams of sunlight sifting through the branches above, the green ceiling of leaves, the chitters and chirps of wildlife, and the comfortable temperature. Your character could be smiling, walking calmly, and peacefully enjoying her walk.
If you want the scene to feel creepy, ominous, or tense, you may want to focus on the sticks snapping under your characters feet, the dim lighting and shadows behind every tree trunk, the hooting of owls (depending on time of day), and the insects buzzing through the still air. Your character could keep looking over their shoulder, chills racing down their spine, and try to hurry back out of the woods.
Even if all those things are there no matter what, you have to pick and choose which ones to describe in depth. The ones that’ll deepen the mood you want to create. Sunshine and flowers won’t usually help a scene feel tense, while spiderwebs and wolves howling will make it difficult to put the reader at ease.
Notice What Characters Notice
Yet another way to choose what description you include in your story is to consider the filters that your characters bring. If you and I were to travel somewhere, and later write down accounts of the things we experienced, we’d both give different examples. Say we went to Paris. We’d probably both mention the biggest things – like seeing the Eiffel Tower – but perhaps you would mention the charming cafés, and I’d recount the exotic French accents. All those things are there, but different details would be more important to each of us.
Your characters are the same way. The things they pay attention to, the details they’re going to notice, and the experiences they’re going to linger on will be different depending on who they are. Chances are they’ll all describe the big things – the main plot events – but when it comes down to little details, what do they care about? What things would draw their interest? Even if you’re writing in third-person, this still applies. It only makes sense to draw the reader’s attention to the same things that your characters are noticing.
And if you’re writing in first-person, the importance of these character filters are huge. First-person narrative means your character is speaking directly to the reader, telling them the story. So the details they choose to tell must be ones that are important to them. If they wouldn’t have noticed or aren’t noticing it now (depending on tense), they can’t recount it to the reader. They’ll zoom in and zoom out on different details according to how much those things mean to them. Which means you have to step into their shoes and figure out what they’d care about enough to show the reader.
When you hear the word ‘zebra’, what comes to your mind? Probably, a horse-like animal with black and white stripes, right? Maybe you also pictured said zebra running across an African savannah. Maybe there were Acacia trees in the background, or prowling lions. Whatever you pictured, it didn’t take any description, did it? Just the name of the creature. You already knew what a zebra looked like (right?), so I didn’t have to describe it for you to form a correct mental image.
Looking back over old writing, I’ve found countless examples of times I over-described something simple, something everyone would be able to picture correctly just from its name. There are two parts to this tip. One is that you shouldn’t bother using precious narrative focus to describe something the reader is already picturing correctly. And two: don’t skimp on describing something the reader doesn’t know how to imagine.
In the example of the zebra, yes, beautiful prose can be crafted to describe the creature. But is it necessary? If it’s an ordinary zebra, just calling it a zebra works fine, or else I risk being redundant. And if it’s not a normal zebra, rather than describing to readers what readers could already describe to me, I should be showing what’s different about this particular zebra. Revealing the details they couldn’t possibly know or wouldn’t usually picture otherwise. Maybe it has a smashed hoof, an unexpected eye color, or even wings. Whatever it is, if the readers can’t imagine it without help, help them! And otherwise, try to communicate a clear image in the fewest words possible.
In a similar way, if your story has elves in it (say a fantasy story, like The Lord of the Rings), but your elves look and act different than those of Tolkien’s, you have to tell the reader. If you just say an elf did something, the reader will picture the closest thing they know already and it may not match the image you want to communicate. You don’t have to completely reinvent the species, but focus on the details that make your elves different from Tolkien’s, and make sure your descriptions are clear enough that they can picture those things. Leaving some details similar will help readers imagine them, and making other ones different will keep your story and characters unique.
Use All the Senses
This is one of those tips that seemed so simple when I heard it for the first time. Almost too simple. And yet, over and over again, using all of a character’s senses to describe their surroundings has revolutionized my writing. For example, it’s a common tendency to mostly describe what a character sees. After all, in every day life, we rely heavily on our sight to know what’s going on around us.
And yet, sight is only one snippet. Sounds, smells, feels, and tastes are all vital sources of information. In order for description to be fully immersive, we need to think through all of them in any given setting. What scents are in the village? Is the forest cool or hot, humid or dry? What does that meal taste like? What animals are braying, squawking, or chittering?
It’s important that authors know what a place is like in every one of those areas (even ones that don’t seem to be appropriate – like taste. Are there soot, ash, or dirt specks in the air that characters breathe in? Are the raindrops refreshing on their tongues?). You don’t have to and usually shouldn’t use all the details you come up with at one time, but inserting the most relevant ones causes your setting to become more and more real.
Humans experience life with a variety of senses. Characters should do the same.
Well, those are five of my best tips for writing clear, precise, and vivid description. Again, there are many ways to write description – and all of them fit well in different settings. Though the tips above are helpful to remember, there are plenty of exceptions and room for stylistic experimenting if you feel your story could use it. Play around with what works best for you. The best descriptions are the ones that fit the story you want to tell.
Did you find any of these tips helpful? Are there any you don’t like using? What are YOUR best tips for writing description? I’d love the chance to learn from you – so let me know your thoughts in the comments!