Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writing Advice 11 — Description

I was doing a signing once with another author where we both got up behind a microphone and talked about our books. His was about a man in ancient China who was cursed with immortality and spent centuries learning how to lift the curse. Turns out the author was an expert on Chinese history and I thought, wow! This sounded great. He went on to describe how the man lived through the various regime changes, the rebellions, the invasions of the Mongols and so on. He went on to say how the main character left China and went abroad to various other countries, and how he returned for the Western invasion. The story went on to present day and covered several wives and the birth of many children, and the many adventures this guy had as he tried to lift his curse. It sounded like a really cool story. Then he held the book up. It was a standalone novel and about as thick as Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. I thought—really?

When I first began writing, I was thirteen and plodding my way through eighth grade. I gave my stories to my brother and after reading them he mentioned that he liked the story and the characters, but that everything else was missing. He didn’t know how exactly to articulate the problem but described it like seeing a play with no scenery. “Other books have all this other stuff but all your stuff is missing.”

He was talking about descriptions. Like most writers I wrote the way I would tell a story. “So yesterday I went to the store and bought a gallon of milk and brought it home.” I never once considered describing the trip, or the store, or the guy behind the counter, or even the dialog that was exchanged along with the money. People don’t do that when telling a story, so it is natural to skip that when writing one. It takes effort and training to remember that the reader isn’t you and has no idea what you are seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling. So if you are encountering the problem of writing novels that are filled with events and characters, but which are oddly novella length—it’s most likely a lack of description.

A lot of people have problems with description. Dialog can be easier because you can imagine a conversation, you have them all the time, but people don’t make a habit out of describing their surroundings, or the people they meet, and if they do it is in a very utilitarian manner that doesn’t play well in a novel.

I read sample chapters of an aspiring novelist book that introduced the main character as being six foot two inches, Caucasian, having black hair, brown eyes, and wearing a blue suit. This isn’t a description so much as it is a police report. And writers are always doing this. Consider for a moment how often you notice the exact height of a person, or the color of their eyes. Writers love to tell you the color of a character’s eyes. But let me ask you something, do you know the eye color of your four closest friends. Assuming all your friends are not of a ethnic background that makes this more of a logic puzzle than a memory thing, you might find this surprisingly hard. I would be hard pressed to tell you the eye color, or the exact height of my own children much less a stranger I just met. Eye color just isn’t a priority upon first meeting, but in most written descriptions, writers feel the need to list it, and not just tell you that they have brown, blue, or hazel eyes either. They are always something bizarre like cerulean, azure, emerald, sapphire, etc. When you have noticed a person’s eye color, how often have you described it as cerulean? If a cop asked you to describe the mugger who snatched your purse, would you say he had azure eyes, or blue eyes? How many of you could identify the color cerulean if you saw it?

Not only does this kind of list form of description not reflect reality, it is also one dimensional. All it is telling you is the physical stats of the individual. When most people see something, be it a person, place or thing, they don’t register it by mere visual stats, but rather they get an “impression” of it, and often that impression has little to do with the visual.

The man was a granite cliff.

This sentence tells you nothing literal about the character, except his sex, but it presents an impression. Only six words but you can already see him in your mind’s eye, can’t you? Think a second. Is the man young or old? Pale or tanned? Baby-faced or wrinkled? Tall or short? Dressed in fancy clothes or old clothes? Does he wear glasses? Is he friendly? Talkative? Does he drink margaritas, Scotch, or beer? You might not know, but you likely feel you could venture a good guess, right? With six words that simple description told you more about the character than all those statistics because it gave you an emotional impression rather than a literal visual.

This technique is what I call Non-Description, or describing something without directly describing it. John Updike was a master of this. He could describe something far more accurately and vividly without ever using a word that would be literally associated with it. After noticing how he did this, I spent time walking around mentally writing impressionistic descriptions of the most mundane things, avoiding any reference that might be remotely literal. I’m not suggesting that you form all your descriptions this way, but realizing that you can often say more with an idea than with stats is important.

The challenge with descriptions is that when it is well done it reads a bit like poetry, and writing good poetry forces a writer to labor over tiny things. Each word is important, and when you just want to describe a simple room where some cool stuff is about to take place, it seems stupid to spend hours finding the right word to describe the quality of the light. You might figure that most readers are going to skip this stuff anyway. Who really cares if there is a sofa against the wall or not? And you’d be right. If that is your attitude when writing it, readers will feel the same way. This is often the difference between good description and poor description. Poor description acts like stage cues in a script—a necessary element. Good description is as compelling and fun to read as the action and dialog.

One way of doing this is employing the a fore mentioned mini-stories technique where you try and employ relationships between the character and how they view their surroundings or people.

Bob was leaning against the wall, another pair of cerulean eyes glaring at me—what was with all the cerulean eyes? The girl next to him at least had a scenery breaking pair of azure eyes. Taken together they formed the variety pack.

This paragraph is drawing on my earlier comments about eye color in order to engage you in the description. You might find reading it more fun because I am sharing sort of an inside joke with you. This sort of mini-story is like that spoonful of sugar that helps the description go down.

Looking at things differently and taking the time to develop interesting metaphors can also be intriguing:

Autumn is near its peak and despite the rain, trees blaze. Falling leaves — brilliant parachutes of a million tiny paratroopers — invade the road sides, lawns, and sidewalks where they lay like stains of paint.

And this brings us to perhaps the most important rule of description. Consider that you were supposed to go to the store and get a gallon of milk (yeah I use this a lot.) But let’s say you forgot and came home empty handed, and your wife, or mother, or roommate asked what happened and you decided to lie. You could say:

“I went there and they were all out.”

Or you could say:

“Oh don’t get me started. I went to Seven Eleven down on 8th. The traffic was incredible, some guy in a blue Toyota Camry plowed into the side of a commuter bus—can you believe it? There must have been twenty people standing around blocking lanes. Anyway I got to the store and there was a line. It wasn’t a long line mind you, only three people, okay? But the checkout girl is this tiny thing that could barely speak English—she was Asian—Korean or Taiwanese maybe, and the two people ahead of me were this couple wearing matching his and her, blue and gold rugby shirts. They were from Columbia—I know because they could only speak Spanish, and the word Columbia, was the one word I could understand because they said it over and over. Anyway they have this argument that goes on forever about the Superball 8 lottery tickets. Long story short, by the time I get to the counter I’m already late and I find they are out of milk! So I was just fed up and came home. Forgive me?”

Which lie do you think is more likely to be believed?

Not only is the later more elaborate, but it has more detail. Someone lying to you isn’t as likely to bother mentioning the color of the couple’s shirts ahead of them in line, but that is the kind of detail you might remember if it really happened. As a result you are more inclined to accept it as truth.

Writing fiction is no different. You are telling lies, known falsehoods and you are trying to make the reader believe you. This is especially hard because they already know what you’re saying isn’t true. So instead of trying to convince them that something actually happened, you are trying to do something called suspending disbelief. If you write something well enough, the reader can pretend it is true. They can suspend the knowledge that it isn’t real. They want to do this, because it makes the story fun to read. You help them by making your fictional world as real as possible and you can do this with details just like it was done in the failure to get a gallon of milk story.

This is particularly important in fantasy because you can’t rely on readers to know what the interior of Hogwarts Castle looks like the way you can assume they know what a the interior of a suburban home might look like. And just as you don’t use stats to describe a person, a laundry list approach doesn’t work well for settings.

The room was small and square with two chairs, a single bed, a window with long drapes, a closets and a dresser.


The first thing I noticed was the giant poster of Justin Bieber on the wall of the bedroom, under which was the pink quilted bed with a row of Barbie dolls all sitting in a neat row, each in a different dress.

Which room can you picture more easily? The first description mentions six items, the second only three, and yet you are likely to get a much stronger impression not only of the room but of its owner. This is another technique that works wonders. Don’t try and describe everything, for one it would be very hard to do and second it would be boring. Instead focus on two or three significant things that can define a person, place or thing. In this case, the poster, bed and dolls speak volumes about this room and conveys an impression that is larger and more fully formed than the more informative laundry listing. As a writer you need to understand that the reader’s imagination is more powerful than your ability to illustrate anything. As a result, you will gain better results by igniting that imagination and then getting out of the way. Good descriptions are made up of carefully planted seeds that you then let grow in the reader’s mind.

Another thing that new writers fail to take into account is that we have more than one sense. As humans were are very sight oriented and tend to forget the others. Some aspiring authors, those who took classes usually, keep a checklist of the senses and endeavor to account for each in every scene. I find this overkill. Most of the time, like with eye color, you just aren’t aware of your other senses. So the usage needs to be tempered by the situation. If the character is in a room temperature environment, it isn’t necessary to mention the temperature, but if you step off a plane into the Sahara, okay, you had better include a description of a blast of hot air. If you are in a kitchen, or walking by a street vendor selling hotdogs, you need to describe the smell. And if your character just entered a sewer, then describe the smell, and clammy damp and the sound of dripping water. You want to bring the scenes of your story alive and engaging all the senses is the way to do it.

Something else I’ve found lacking in books is a sense of time and weather. All too often authors fail to mention what time of year it is, and oddly the weather is always clear and sometimes it is always day. Throwing in references to the seasons can add all kinds of depth to a setting, and help anchor the reader into your world. Throwing in the occasional storm, rain shower, or snowfall, also helps to remind the reader that your story takes place in a real world. And a reference to the time of day and a varying of scenes from daylight to night to morning helps keep the scenes from feeling like they were staged on a budget.

This concludes the Basics of Writing. Next week I’ll get into more advanced stuff starting with—Trusting the Reader.

For homework, in order to discipline you to stretching your descriptive muscles, try writing no less than 500 words (about two pages) describing nothing more than a drop of water falling from a spigot into a sink. You don’t need to restrict yourself to sheer physical description but can use elaborate metaphors, and any PoV you like, so be creative. Grading will be on how interesting and captivating the description is. See if you can do it, and on Wednesday I will post my solution to this problem.

That’s the bell. No running.


  1. So I have actually received a few responses to this homework assignment. And I first wanted to, you're actually doing it? Great! Second, most have not exactly understood the point.

    That idea is to write 500 words about a drip of water falling into a sink, not to write a story that involves a dripping sink. The idea is to purposely restrict the subject and setting forcing you to be creative in how you go about describing something. Take note of what I described in this post about non-description to help.

  2. Thanks for your advice. Actually, I used your recommendations for the introduction to my college thesis, and it turned out great, your advice and help helped to collect and execute the necessary work. I think it does not matter what you are going to write, it is important to follow the correct structure and without excess to reveal the theme

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