Mastering Description – Part 1

A lot of my work involves editing other authors, and if there is one thing that is most overlooked where writing is concerned, it’s description. Even the most talented writers forget the need to describe things, and that means a well thought out story won’t work half as effectively as it should – it’s flat and emotionless.

Description is important. It’s the one thing guaranteed to take your reader from their present reality to the heart of your fictional story. They won’t see that fictional world without some sensory detail to guide them; they won’t become part of it unless you describe it and they visualise it. That’s how imagination works. You describe and they imagine.

If you don’t allow your readers to do this, your story will fail. This is why the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra should never be ignored - it’s there for a very good reason. It’s a reminder to writers what storytelling is.  Don’t tell the reader about the shadows lurking down a dark them by describing the scene so they can be in that corridor at that moment that they can feel the fear, the angst, they can see hear the sounds...

The thing about description is that it conveys more than just background, character actions or information. It also shows the reader the tone, mood, atmosphere, emotions, the colours, sounds and scents, the contrasting light and dark of every scene and the subtle nuances that lie just below the surfaces.

Done correctly, it makes an impact, it lifts the story from the page, it adds multiple layers to the story and makes the story real to the reader, so as a writer, you must breathe life into your story and bring it to life. You can’t do that if you’re telling the reader everything instead of showing them. It doesn’t give them room to imagine being part of the story, or share it with the characters. Description is an integral part to storytelling, so anyone that says it’s not so important doesn’t understand writing at all.

Mastering description isn’t just about making sure every paragraph is crammed with descriptive passages or that everything is described in every minute detail. That’s not how description works.

As with everything in fiction writing, it’s easy to overwhelm the story with too much description, just as it is easy to write too much narrative or too much dialogue. Instead, there should be a balance of all three elements. Descriptive passages should enhance scenes, alongside your narrative and dialogue, at important moments in the story, so that you engage and stimulate the reader and provoke their reactions and emotions.

Often the lack of description in stories is because writers aren’t quite sure what they should describe, or how they should describe it, especially when it comes to action scenes or emotional scenes. Every writer is different, so they will approach description in a different way, but it doesn’t matter how, as long as they give the reader some sensory details that capture some of the five senses, and some visual detail at the very least, because these act like markers to the reader.

Description is nothing unless a writer breathes life into it and makes it believable.

In part 2, we’ll look at ways to master description to enhance your story.


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