In part 1, we looked at the kinds of details that make description effective – the sensory, visual and emotional details, however, good description is also about the words you choose and the way they fit into a scene. It’s about the way they sound, the sibilance they create, which produces the overall effect you want to achieve. It’s all about detail.
The words you choose and the way you construct the sentences are what really makes description work. The right choice of words makes the entire scene feel very different. That’s because 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, to get them to imagine the details being described.
Not all scenes are the same, of course, so your description should reflect this. Think about the scene you are writing – is it tense or atmospheric, is it gentle or romantic, or is it action-packed? The words you choose should reflect the feel of the scene you’re trying to create, so when we think of action scenes, we think of short, staccato words to give the illusion of a faster pace. In emotional or romantic scenes, the words should be more descriptive, more alluring or prosaic. In atmospheric or tense scenes, writers tend to use darker or moody word choices to reflect the tone.
The right word choice makes the difference between flat, boring description and vibrant, poetic or visceral description, it’s about what the writer wants to express. In the example below, the description is about the lynching of a black man:
The hazy light shone through the trees as the fire grew bigger. A burning smell wafted underneath their noses while the rope became tight with his weight…
The choice of words in this example doesn’t really do the context of the scene any justice. Important scenes need the right attention; they need the correct description to bring the scene to life and to create effect. For example:
Amber slices projected through the trees and the haze of the fire began to swell. The hint of burnt sienna wafted close and scorched a path beneath their noses. The rope fibres moaned as they became taut, to temper his weight…
Clearly the right words make the description much different, it allows the reader to imagine much more, to almost feel that scene.
Give the Right Detail
Details – the ones we sometimes overlook – always make the writing better. This is where observation plays an important part of the writing process. What we observe in everyday life can add to the descriptions we use in our writing, for instance, the pattern that rain makes on the windows, or the sound it makes, or the colour and shape of storm clouds. What about the eerie quiet of an empty house? Is it truly silent?
These are the things we notice, but they’re also the kind of details that add to the effect of any scene, especially if it needs to be atmospheric or tense. Give the reader the right detail rather than the wrong detail, for example:
She had green eyes and pale skin and her hair was a coppery mane that rounded around her shoulders.
She looked beautiful to him, like a doll, and he stared at her intently…
This example shows how the wrong choice of words doesn’t give the effect required by the scene. It lacks any punch or atmosphere. Compare it with this second example, however, and you can see how the right choice of words makes all the difference to the description:
Her leaf-green eyes accentuated her skin; pale and without blemish, and her hair - dark copper - shimmered beneath the light like strands of silk…
A beautiful vision in his eyes, a snapshot - a moment of her life caught in wonderful, delicate colour - swirled like the fine filaments of a sunbeam as he gazed at her with ruthless detail.
With the right details, any scene can be layered with more detail for the reader. The more you give them, the better they imagine.
Why sibilance? Because this literary device gives the narrative an extra dimension, it creates sound in the reader’s mind, because often there is an ‘sss’ sound of certain consonants that are stressed when used in narrative. This can provide softness to the narrative and it can also be melodic to the reader’s ears. This example shows soft ‘hissing’ sibilance:
The bristle of leaves sounded like a soft soliloquy against her ears.
The words in bold are sibilant and the effect is that it is soft and melodic, with the stress on the ‘sss’ sound – just by using the right words. The narrative almost sings.
Sibilance also comes from using ‘ch’ or ‘sh’, for example: ‘Shadows drifted and shades dawned’ or ‘chasing her was a chore akin to chewing cud.’ Writers use sibilance to add emotion and imagery and a hint of sound to their descriptions.
Be Punchy or Protracted
Description also depends on pace for detail. If there is an action scene, then short, punchy descriptions push the pace along, it gives the effect that things are moving quickly. Words such as kick, run, punch, ram, yank and zip are all succinct and effective and straight to the point. These word choices help to increase pace.
If you have a love scene, however, then the description will be slower, and the pace may linger with words like sensual, sweet, seductive or sexy, as well as adding some sibilance to the feel of the scene as well.
Detail matters where description is concerned. It relies on so many elements to make it effective, to make it lift from the page and almost be real, so remember:-
- Know what it is you want to express.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Observation – it’s all in the detail. Readers love those little nuances.
- Add layers of colour and texture.
- Sensory details – explore the five senses.
- Choose the right descriptive words for the scene – action scenes, love scenes, emotional scenes, atmospheric scenes etc
- Create sibilance
- Let description create pace.
Again, it’s all down to the right choice of words and all the examples above bring the scenes alive with various effects on the narrative. That’s how you make description sparkle. That’s how you make it effective.
Next week: Creating Tone in Your Writing