Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Description In Writing - The Beauty and the Beast (Or The Benefits and The pitfalls)

A well written novel will contain both beautiful, vivid description and strong relevant dialogue. Ideally, both will move the story forward rather than slow it down. It is not uncommon for a writer to have more strength in one aspect over the other, maybe even a preference. A well-rounded writer will strive to make both facets solid or the novel will be found lacking by the reader.

In this post, I’d like to concentrate on description. I have to admit, I have a love for it, and enjoy writing it. But don't be ensnared into utilizing it for the wrong reasons. Remember that it can’t be gratuitous, there for the sake of just existing, or as filler between dialogues. Description should have a point. It should be evocative not just of physical places, events or characters but also of feelings and moods. As a reader, I want to be transported into the character’s world, not just have a basic mental understanding of it. I want to experience the feel of a dark moonless night in the forest, cold snow crunching under my feet as I’m trying to hide from a predator stalking me (because a good description will make me believe it’s me for a moment, rather than the character) . And that is a very different feeling than being in the middle of a large city where hundreds of lights are so bright, the night can never appear completely dark.

Everyone who has aspired to be a writer heard of a very important adage that has gained an almost rule-like importance in the industry – “Show, don’t tell”. That is often much harder to do in practice than in theory. Here are a few tips. You can do this by remembering to include all five senses to make your reader feel like they are in the story. Use the sense of touch, smell, sound, taste and, of course, sight. When appealing to the sense of touch, describe the texture, for example. When appealing to the sense of smell, don’t just say the cookies smelled of cinnamon. Say that the cookies smelled the way grandma’s hands always used to smell when [character] was little. By doing so, you’re not just involving the reader who may have had the same (or similar) experience, but also “showing” something of your character’s personality – maybe it’s that she misses her grandmother because she was close to her (which maybe important to the story), maybe it’s that she’s sentimental (which maybe important to the understanding of the character’s motivations).

You can show a spoiled child by having her whine or throw tantrums. You can show a gorgeous woman by the appreciative stares she gets from both men and women as she walks down the street. You can show a character’s fear by describing her sense of isolation, by the creepy sounds she hears, by her feeling her heart beating in her throat. Well, you get the point.

But never forget that you have to intertwine good description with strong dialogue and action, because that is what primarily drives the writing forward. Description is there to help create the world in which the action takes place (and I can't lie, it's extremely fun to write). However, it should never take the place of it.
Look out for a post on dialogue coming soon.


  1. Great great great advice! Using the five senses is the perfect way to heighten your descriptions and add to the story.

    Btw, I'm SO going to need you to add comments about description when you beta read. :D

  2. Thank you! I loved writing this post.

    And, absolutely! I can't wait to read your finished ms, so excited! :D

  3. Wonderful advice - thanks for sharing, it's always good to get reminders to wake up the brain. <3


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