: Writing description
Some years ago my family was jeeping in northern Utah, down a fabulously gorgeous canyon, with a staggering sheer cliff on the other side of the road. My brother said I ought to stop trying to publish novels and write a travel book, or at least a travel article. After all, he said, all you have to do is pull out the thesaurus and find lots of adjective for “big” and “spectacular.” Even back then, I knew that wasn’t true. I told him that good travel writers hardly ever used adjectives, and their writing was the better for it. Of course he then asked me to demo that—how would I describe that canyon without adjectives? I thought for what felt like a long time, and produced three or four good descriptive sentences with only one adjective in them. “You’re right,” my brother said. “That’s better.”
OK, so go light on the adjectives. But what else do you need to do to make your descriptions work? To bring a scene alive for the reader without bogging down the action?
Adjectives & Adverbs: In some ways, it’s easier to define what doesn’t work. Adjectives are the first, worst problem I see in beginner descriptions, probably because adjectives are the words that come naturally when you’re talking. I left the four adjectives in first sentence of this tip intact as a demonstration, because those were the first words that occurred to me to describe that canyon. And “staggering” and “sheer” aren’t as bad as “fabulous” and “gorgeous” which are so vague and overused as to be all but meaningless.
I’m not one of those people, who thinks you should never use an adverb or adjective. They have their place, and sometimes they’re the best, least obtrusive, descriptor you can use. But adverbs and adjectives aren’t created equal. Just as “staggering” is a better descriptor than the countless versions of “beautiful,” variants on size are usually pretty meaningless. A dragon that’s big/very big/very very very big or even enormous or gargantuan isn’t nearly as formidable as a dragon the size of a cross country bus, with muscle rippling under its scales. And though my artist-best friend would disagree with me, I think color is frequently meaningless too. Whether the queen’s gown was royal blue or forest green usually doesn’t matter to the story or the reader. The fact that light clings to it like loving hands as she danced in the king’s arms, might.
I don’t remember the sentences I used to describe that canyon as a good travel writer might, but it could have been something like: This is the scenery you get when God plays with blocks. As centuries turn to millennia, the river slices silently though stone, revealing layers of history—the story of the origin of this corner of our world. Looking over the edge of that drop makes your heart beat faster—a fear that helps the beauty to remind you, not only that you’re alive, but why being alive is worthwhile.
It may be a bit overwrought, but it’s more descriptive than a string of adjectives. And it’s not only more precisely detailed, it brings in my thoughts on the scene, and my visceral reaction to it. But in a novel, particularly a genre novel, this description would probably be “too much.” It would come across as overblown, outrageous, bombastic, it would make me want to spring to my feet and throw the book across the room, because if I read another word a vein in my brain will burst… What those who prefer a plainer style call “purple prose.”
Purple Prose: happens when writing is so vivid that it goes overboard, often becoming humorous instead of the lyrical evocative tone the writer was shooting for.
On the safe side of the line that purple prose steps over, there’s “literary” writing. My personal definition of the difference between literary and genre, is that in literary novels, the writing is supposed to be a focus of attention, and the story is usually secondary to the beauty of the prose. Stunningly gorgeous descriptions that spend a lot of time bringing a setting alive are a hallmark of literary novels…and one of the reasons I almost never read them, because I’m not that interested in gorgeous description for its own sake. (The other hallmark of literary novels is that they’re supposed to be “realistic,” which usually means depressing.) There are a handful of writers who bring literary quality writing to good storytelling—Laini Taylor, for instance, tells a great story, which also includes description like, The church bells were arguing midnight. Simple, but utterly evocative, and sets both scene and mood. If you can bring off images that fresh, precise and original more power to you!
Please don’t use all the senses: At least, not all at once. I know this contradicts the advice most writers have been given—and using non-visual details, occasionally and appropriately, is great. The problem is that beginning writers tend to go overboard, describing how something looks, smells, sounds, and feels in every single scene. This is usually too much information, and it tends to make your description into a laundry of sensory details: This is how it looks, this is how it feels, this is what I hear, this is how it smells. And that kind of rote description is no better than a laundry list of visual details.
The laundry list of visual details is what happens when a writer describes everything that’s in a particular room or scene. The temple had a square, pillared façade, with seven steps up to the wooden door, which was carved with crooked faces peering out though twisting leaves and vines. The door handle had a push-down latch button, made of tarnished brass, and the door creaked as it swung open. Inside, the long, rectangular room was full of wooden pews, carved with leaves like the door. There were twelve windows down each side, evenly spaced. The room smelled of furniture polish and dust. The altar at the far end sat on a dais three steps higher than the rest of the wooden floor, and it was made of gray granite… I could go on and describe the type of glass in the windows or what’s behind the altar—but that would only make it worse. And the problem with this kind of description is not only that most of these details are boring, but that there are far too many of them. Making all those details vivid would just dye the laundry list purple.
So how do you write good description? I attended a writing schmooze on the subject recently—and while none of the attendees came in knowing the answer to that question, they all brought examples of descriptions, good and bad. As we read them, we slowly realized that the best descriptions were ones where the author introduced one or two vivid, unusual or relevant details…and then said nothing more. In the example I remember best, we knew from the action that the protagonist was in a WWI hospital ward—just those three words—and then the author offered us a description of the flies in that room, bumping against the ceiling and crawling down the protagonist’s neck. That was it. We weren’t told how many people were in the room, what color the walls were, whether we could hear the other wounded groaning…and yet everyone in the group had a vivid picture in her mind by the time that description was done. As we read onward, we found that most of the descriptions we liked best were the ones that gave us just a few unexpected details, and left the boring stuff up to us. Confronted with a laundry list description, we all picked out the one interesting image on the list, and agreed that we didn’t need the rest.
As a writer, who struggles with description, this floored me. Did I really not have to describe anything except one interesting image? I was in the middle of writing the first draft of a fantasy novel when this discussion took place—fantasy & SF are notorious for difficulty with description, because you’re trying to bring the reader into a world that doesn’t exist. If you say the hero walks into a McDonalds, you don’t need much more description than the brand name. If you say the hero walks into a Murusanian bath house, you have to tell the reader a lot more…don’t you?
This is a scene from the rough draft of Scholar’s Plot—one of the first where I applied my new descriptive principles. See what you think:
Lady Katherine, currently wearing what was probably a modest afternoon dress for court, had demanded a disguise too. Instead, I’d come up with a cover story of a wicked friend of her brother’s, taking an innocent young maid out for a moderate adventure on the rough side of town.
Kathy pointed out that that was true. But being true is what makes the best lies work. The way her eyes widened as we stepped into the tavern, boisterous with deep male voices and a few shrill female ones, couldn’t have been bettered. But I didn’t want her to be too intimidated.
“What’s the difference between a bandit and a gambler?”
“I don’t know,” she said automatically. “What?”
“A gambler gives you a good game while he takes your money.”
She was snickering as we passed by Michael, and I had to give her credit—her gaze passed over her brother as if he was part of the furniture…
…Kathy had tucked a hand in my arm and was crossing the room boldly…until she stepped onto a sticky patch of the floor, and pulled her skirts aside to see why her soles made that popping sound.
I give her a wild grin that felt as authentic as her reactions, and scoped out the place for potential players.
There was one large round table of card players already set up, but they were playing Fox Hunt, which was probably why Stint, and an older man with spectacles thicker than Kathy’s, were sitting at a smaller table with a pot of tea between them. Not drinking as you play is the mark of a serious cardsharp. I made a mental note to order an ale when I sat down…and then to drink it very slowly.
There was no point in dallying, and it would have been out of character, so I went straight up to the tapster.
“I’ve promised to show my young friend here how Moon’s Bane is meant to be played, and I’m told this is a good place to pick up a game. Any chance of that tonight?”
“Why, yes sir, there’s a pretty good chance. Master Stint and Master Carmichael were hoping another pair of players would happen along. They’re over at that table by the wall…”
They introduced themselves as “Master,” too. I noted that Stint wasn’t a professor tonight, and wondered if Carmichael might also be one. The thick spectacles gave him an otherworldly air, but the eyes behind them were keen.
We all agreed to play for brass points—a reasonably modest stake, though it could add up as the play went on—and settled ourselves around the table with partners opposite each other. My ale and Kathy’s tea pot arrived. Stint claimed that he’d rather be drinking ale, but it troubled his digestion. Carmichael, with a dry twinkle, said that he simply preferred tea, thank you very much.
There’s almost no physical description of the tavern there—but I think it works. And I’m rapidly reaching the conclusion that, at least for genre fiction, all you need to describe is:
Any physical elements in the scene that make a difference in the action: To turn the old saw inside out: If someone’s going to fire a gun in Act 3, you’d better describe it sitting over the mantel in Act 1. When my protagonist is going to be chased around a table by the bad guy later on, I’d better describe that big round table when he first comes into the room. If my escaping suspect gets a horse out of the shed, I need to mentioned that his cottage has outbuildings when we first see it. But aside from that…
Just one or two revealing, interesting details: Aside from the table, all I said about the tavern itself was: …boisterous with deep male voices and a few shrill female ones… and …until she stepped onto the slightly sticky floor, and pulled her skirts aside to see why her soles made that popping sound. No mention of the size or shape of the room, the way it smells, what the chairs, table and floor are made of, or windows or lighting… But I’m guessing most readers will supply those details for themselves—and that picture might even be more convincing because it will come from the reader’s own imagination and experience.
If you’re writing genre fiction, try to make your descriptions part of the action of the story, instead of something set aside from it. One of the things I noticed when I was plucking those bits of description out of my text, was how deeply they were embedded in the action of the story. Even the bit about the sound of male/female voices, which is the totality of my “first sight” description of the tavern, is cast as part of Fisk’s thought that Kathy’s honest reactions will make their cover story ring true. Her reaction to the sticky floor is more of the same, and that brief mention of the big round table also serves to introduce the marks, who’ve come for a more serious game than Fox Hunt.
The same rules apply to describing people, particularly as they first come onstage. …an older man with spectacles thicker than Kathy’s …The thick spectacles gave him an otherworldly air, but the eyes behind them were keen. And then one final beat: Carmichael, with a dry twinkle, said that he simply preferred tea, thank you very much. The only physical description of Carmichael is: older, thick specs, and that dry twinkle at his companion’s prevarication—but I’m betting readers of the scene could tell me if Carmichael was short or tall, fat or thin, and what his hair looks like. And if those details differ from one reader to the next, what does it matter?
And when you describe people, often the character’s voice alone will allow the reader to form a mental picture. I stole the title of this tip from a Dorothy Parker poem:
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get,
One perfect rose.
There’s not a single word of “description” in this verse…but just the tone of it gives me a vision of the woman who wrote it, the desk she’s sitting at and the peignoir she’s wearing. And your vision of those things will be different from mine…but I don’t think that matters. What matters is that the scene comes alive for the reader—and it appears that a handful of details that are vivid enough to kick-start the reader’s own imagination are all that’s required to make that happen.