Description is one of those wonderful writing elements that you can bend and shape and mould and make it what you want it to be. It’s not fixed and it’s not governed by absolute rules. If a story were a canvas, the description is the colour; layers and layers of it to make the picture a whole.
So how do you go about transforming dull, boring description into something a little more lavish or evocative? It all comes down to that old adage: show, don’t tell. Show the reader, involve them, but don’t tell them.
The descriptive element of any narrative is there to assist the reader, who cannot see the world your characters live in unless you paint it for them. The reader, in effect, is without any sensory detail, unless you provide it. It allows the reader to see this descriptive world, not just read about it.
That descriptive detail is the difference between someone reading your work and enjoying it or not reading it at all.
Descriptive writing is incredibly important to every writer. Description should convey more to the reader than just a setting or a bit of action; it also conveys the hidden nuances, the emotions, the colourful embellishments or the subtle hints of things to come. Description is so much more.
Of course, creating sparkling description isn’t all about making sure every paragraph is jammed with descriptive passages, because it’s easy to overdo it. On the whole, a writer should instinctively know when to add those extra elements and when to leave it fairly simple.
Whether description comes alive or remains turgid, it all rests on the one factor that all writers should pay attention: choice of words, the way they fit into the scene, the way they sound, the sibilance they create and the overall effect you want to achieve with them. And of course, always make the description pertinent to the scene and the characters. Don’t just plonk a bit of description in here and there to pretty things up a bit – it doesn’t work. Make it count and make it mean something.
The words you choose and the way you construct the sentences are what really makes description sparkle.
Here’s an example of one of my flash pieces, published in 2010 in the 6 Sentences anthology, The Mysterious Dr Ramsey, with the original descriptive elements removed.
Sounds drifted in, like vibrations, where the universe came back into view and my eyes opened to life.
I turned my head to the brightness and reflections shone with a muted glow, while dust filtered through sunbeams, the particles glittering as you approached.
Now compare it to the original excerpt, complete with description:
Sounds drifted in, like water-muffled vibrations, where the universe came back into view and grey shapes dissipated as my eyes opened to the majesty of life like a slow, unfolding flower.
I turned my head to the brightness as honey layered clouds and Midas reflections shone with a muted glow, stark against a cobalt blue sky while dust filtered through angled sunbeams, the particles glittering like traces of tinsel and dancing as you approached.
The choice of words above makes the entire scene feel very different. The right amount of description coupled with the right selection of words make a big difference when trying to transport the reader to the fictional world you’ve created.
Think about the scene you are writing – is it tense, atmospheric, romantic, action packed? The words you choose should reflect the feel of the scene you’re trying to create.
There are a few types of scenes which could always benefit attention where description is concerned:
Key scenes (action, emotion, atmosphere etc)
Usually, key scenes - action scenes, emotional scenes, tense scenes and so on – all demand that little extra where description is concerned, otherwise you’d end up with dull, flat, uninspiring rubbish that fails to keep the reader interested. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of these types of scenes and exploit them to create more emotion, heighten conflict or atmosphere etc.
Location scenes also demand something extra. It’s no use your character being in a great location – be it vibrant city, the countryside or the beach - when the reader can’t feel or sense the place because of a lack of detail.
Scenes where you introduce your characters are always ripe for a little more descriptive flourishes because they give the reader something more than the clichéd ‘he was tall and lean’ type of description.
Introducing new characters sometimes needs elaboration rather than a boring two-line mention which often happens.
Where you have quiet scenes, scenes of conflict or dialogue scenes, there is always room for some descriptive flourishes to make the writing stand out.
It’s all in the detail
Details – the ones we sometimes overlook – can make the writing better. This is where observation plays an important part of the writing process. How many writers might ignore the patterns on a floor made by the sun through the windows? How many would ignore the sound of rustling leaves on trees? How many would overlook the myriad colours of a sunset?
Sometimes it’s the simple things that catch our attention. Description is no different. A good writer is very observant; everything provokes interest – the way a stream meanders through woodland, the way mist clings to the ground, the way fog vapour swirls etc. Things you wouldn’t think twice about are the enticing little brushstrokes within description that sing from the page.
For instance, your character is walking through an airport. This is where many writers go for the ‘John walked through the arrivals hall and went outside to get a taxi…’
‘John walked along the narrow beams of light created by the sunlight that filtered through the huge shuttered windows and he headed for the exit to get a taxi, his mind still whirling from what happened in London…’
A little flourish with the sunlight, a reference to what John is feeling, all make the scene pertinent. Remember, it doesn’t have to be pages and pages of description. Just a few sentences or words can dazzle, or even a couple of paragraphs.
Another thing to consider is the sibilance of words within scenes. If there is an action scene, then short, punchy staccato descriptions push the pace along, however if you have a love scene, then the description should reflect that – it will be slower, and words like sensual, sweet, seductive or sexy add sibilance to the feel of the scene.
Lena drew back, tears brimming, unable to speak.
There’s nothing wrong with this, however, the power of the emotion in the scene can be exploited.
Lena’s lips stung with his kiss and she drew back into the shadows, eyes brimming, veiled, unable to speak above her latent fear.
Again, it’s about choice of words and this second example brings the scene alive with what she is feeling within her surroundings, and her reaction to a kiss, and it’s all done with a few extra words. That’s how you make description sparkle.
- What is it you want to express?
- Show, don’t tell.
- Observation – it’s all in the detail. Readers love those little nuances.
- Add layers of colour.
- Sensory details – explore the five senses
- Choose the right descriptive words for the scene – action scenes, love scenes, emotional scenes etc
- Create sibilance and rhythm.
I’m away for a well-earned break, so the next article, Modifiers, Qualifiers and Intensifiers, will return on the 22nd October.