Saturday, 7 May 2011

Description and why it's important

Description is one of the three key elements in fiction, along with narrative and dialogue, which brings your story to life.  It’s the lifeblood of your role as storyteller.  It means a writer must involve the reader at every level, and he or she can do that through the medium of description. 

Description creates a vivid picture for the reader, it allows them to open a gateway to your story and imagine themselves within your fictional world.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to go into detail about everything for every scene.  It simply means that you have to be prudent in knowing when it’s required and why.

You as a writer can elicit emotions within your reader, you create tension and atmosphere, and you create a sense of immediacy – a sense of being right there with the character.  Great description helps the reader to build a fully formed picture in their mind’s eye; to understand what your character is going through and how the character sees his or her world.  It creates a sense of the whole scene.

Description isn’t about using pretty words and pages of complicated sentence structures to make a story, it’s about understanding the reason why you use it and when you use it that matters.  It’s about conveying important information to the reader in strategic places.

The idea here is not just simply to fill your pages with description in the vain hope of plumping your masterpiece; it’s about conveying four key things that will happen in your story:

·         Convey a sense of place/background
·         Convey a sense of emotion and mood
·         Convey a sense of tension/atmosphere
·         Convey a sense of action

Scenes that include some of these can help focus your story.  So how can you achieve this effectively?  By remembering that you are telling the story, not actually being a part of it.  Your reader is the one who will become part of it; they’ve purchased a ticket for your particular roller coaster ride and they want to experience everything you have to offer and enjoy every moment.

Probably one of the best ways any writer can achieve this is through the use of the senses.  In real life we perceive the world with our senses; we smell, we touch, we taste, we hear and we see, but so too must your reader.  They want to feel and touch and taste and see your fictional world.

Descriptions that incorporate sensory stimulation help the reader to transport themselves from real life to your character’s story.  This is where the power of a writer’s observation and imagination mix with amazing results. 

The idea is to reward your reader every now and then with some descriptive flourishes to enhance all that is happening within scene, particularly important ones.  Let them hear the door creak, let them shudder in the dark as they see the shadows, let them touch the softness of a character’s skin, let them smell the trash cluttering the alley and let them taste the fiery sting of a malt whisky.

Description doesn’t have to fill page after page.  It could merely be a sentence or two, a snippet within some dialogue perhaps, or a simple flourish within the narrative that will fire the reader’s imagination.  Of course, there will be occasions where longer descriptions are required, particularly if you need to express the setting of the scene and the atmosphere of it, and maybe build some tension throughout the scene.

The idea is to involve the reader on as many levels as possible.  Scare them, make them cry, move them, make them laugh.  Description can do this, and it can also move the story forward.

All this leads to the question: how do I achieve this? 

Firstly it’s important to identify what is it is you want to describe and why.  Do you need to invoke a sense of atmosphere and tension or emotion within an important scene?  Do you need the reader to understand the place or the people?  Do you want your reader to feel what your character is feeling at that moment during an argument or a kiss? Do you need to show the mood of the moment, the fear or the panic?  If it does, then describe it.  If it doesn’t, leave it. For example:

He ascended the stairs, moved through the dark, listened out for noises, but he didn’t hear any.  At last he reached the top of the stairs.

The above paragraph is typical of lots of ‘descriptive’ writing I see with writers, but it doesn’t do much.  It’s pretty flat.  It’s a key scene that would benefit from some proper description in order involve the reader on an emotional level, like this:

He began to ascend the stairs.  The wood creaked beneath his feet and he held himself still for a moment, tense.  He slowly moved to the next step as the darkness pressed against him.  He listened.  Nothing, except for the rhythmic thud of his heartbeat.  Muscles tautened as he crept up each step until he reached the top of the stairs…

This builds atmosphere for the reader, it creates a mood and it shows tension. This example involves the reader, so be careful not to overlook key scenes like this within the narrative, otherwise your reader won’t care much for the story.

Remember, always engage your reader.  How you do it will depend on the following: 
  • Choice of language
  • Choice of word/sentence structure
  • Relevance to the scene
  • The ability to keep it real (description needs to feel real)
A story without description is flat, unemotional and boring.  Your reader needs to know what characters look like, what places look and smell like, what’s really happening, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, they need to know what things feel and taste like, they want to feel a little scared, a little horrified maybe, they want to feel that emotion, to smile, to gasp…all of these created through description.

Description is what makes an ordinary story a great story.

Next week: How much description?  Too much or not enough?


1 comment:

  1. good post, AJ.
    As much as not overlooking key scenes it is important to be sparse with description in less imporant scenes and not add it at all to transitions. The amount of description can be a good indicator of importance of a scene.

    I have just read a story with a lot of descriptive passages. Initially it helped building the sense of place and added depth to the atmosphere, but after page 3 it began to slow the story down considerably. Since every little scene and transition had a passage of decrption I quickly lost sense of which scene was important/relevant and also got bored.

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