How DO you write? – Part 2
How you write is all down to how to construct your descriptive passages and how effective they are, which is why the advice to show rather than tell really does work. If you show the reader it means you involve them with senses, colour, visual imagery and provocative words. If you tell the reader, then they cannot become involved in any way.
How to Approach Description
The best way to approach it is not to be afraid of it. It’s a fundamental requirement, because without it, there is no story to ‘tell’. But the way to approach description is to understand the many functions it performs - it’s a way of involving the reader, it gives them necessary information, it helps them build up scenes and images in their mind with background and foreground detail and it helps to move the story forward.
There are moments when the writer needs to describe something to enhance the scene and the flow of the story; without which the story fails. But description is isn’t about throwing everything at the reader. It’s not about boring them to death with pages and pages of it. Effective description is delivered in easy to digest amounts – everything from a couple of paragraphs to a line. It blends with action, it shows the reader and it lures them with imagery.
How to Make it Effective
The best stories use description as an active part of the story, the way it can set the scene, set the tone, mood and atmosphere, the way it can foreshadow events, the way it characterises, the way it creates tension, drama and emotion and the way it paints a full picture so that the reader can ‘see’ into this world.
And it’s by showing the reader that makes it work so well. Don’t tell the reader the sun is shining. Show them with rising heat that shimmers, the bright colours, the colour of the sky, the beads of sweat on the brow, the hot glare, the warmth of the skin, the reactions of the characters...there are so many things that could show the reader. Showing the reader = effective description.
Make Description Visual
‘Visual’ simply means a way of showing the reader vivid imagery which brings the descriptions alive. It’s about making the ordinary extraordinary – but it’s all down to how you write. Description, and how it’s constructed, is a stylistic aspect individual to each writer, so the type of words, the strength of those words and how they’re put together is what makes description visual, for example:
The snow fell and covered the ground very quickly. It was cold and he shivered in response and blew into his hands to warm them up.
This tells the reader, but it doesn’t show them, and therefore doesn’t engage them. There is nothing in the description that stands out. It’s flat and boring. Now compare it to the same passage, which shows the reader:
The snow drifted down with silent discord and covered the ground like tinselled dust. Frozen breath lingered like a fog and the cold gnawed at his flesh, right down to his bones. Reddened fingers cupped his mouth and he blew hard to warm them...
This example uses stronger words like discord, tinselled, fog, gnawed, flesh, bones and reddened. These nouns and verbs work well to help the description (rather than too many adjectives and adverbs). Not only that, the description is inviting the reader to interpret the intention rather than tell them. The ‘silent discord’ of the falling snow hints at the inharmonious atmosphere. ‘Tinselled dust’ is showing the reader the fresh snow with a simile, as does ‘lingered like fog’. The cold that ‘gnawed’ at his flesh shows the reader just how icy cold it is; they can imagine this feeling. ‘Reddened’ fingers also show the reader how cold it is, because our fingers go red before turning blue in extreme temperatures.
From four or five lines of effective description, readers can build up a picture of the scene, they can imagine being there, they can imagine the atmosphere and how cold it is and so they become involved, because the description is visual. It didn’t need any more than that. And description works more effectively when it’s interspersed with the narrative and dialogue in small amounts.
A lot of writers don’t make use of the senses. Description relies on them – a character’s senses and the reader’s senses. Sometimes the reader needs to see through the character’s eyes. Sometimes they need to feel what the character touches. They need to hear what the character hears. They need to smell what the character smells. And sometimes it’s also possible to show the reader what your characters can taste – blood in the mouth tastes like iron. Rain can taste bitter. Foods...well, they can be anything you describe to the reader.
You don’t have to include every single sense in one description. The point here is to try to include one or two in order to show the reader, so they can at least feel part of it.
How do you write? That depends on what you want to show your reader, how you want them to feel and the story you want to tell. Besides, the sheer beauty of language is, ultimately, what every writer wants to show their readers.
Next week: The importance of first drafts.