Oct 09

Describing Descriptions Descriptively

Frameworks for Plot and Narrative
Some Self-Reflection and NaNoWriMo

So, with the plan laid out last week, action, dialogue and description are on the cards. This week the focus is on descriptions and describing things and a detailed deliberation of details. With less alliteration going forward, probably.

Why description first out of the three? Well, because I knew what I wanted to talk about with it, that’s why. However, on reflection, it does make reasonable sense as description is more than tacking adjectives and adverbs onto sentences. It is taking that image or idea in your head and writing it in such a way that the reader will have the same image or idea in theirs. If you cannot create the images with words, how is the reader to imagine the action scenes and conversations?

Not only is it important, it can be difficult to get right. In my own experience, I have written descriptions that feel like instructions for building furniture – full of detail but overly dry and methodical – or sometimes I have picked out the important features in the room, like the chair soon to be smashed across some character’s face, and skimped on the rest. It is a careful balancing act and while your description presents a character or setting to the reader, you must also present the description itself in an entertaining way. Describe-ception. Descception?

Anyway, let’s jump in!

First of all, it is important to use the full variety of your tools and to mix things up. Using only adjectives is unimaginative but using only similes is just annoying. Here, more than anywhere else, a broad vocabulary really comes into its own, as repetition gets boring fast. It is also important to use a variety of sentence structures – perhaps more important than at other times. Instead of “the tree was tall… Joe was tall…” try “standing tall, the tree… Sally looked up at Joe”.

This brings us onto my next point – you do not always need to be explicit. I touched on this briefly in the Character Creation post, but assume that your reader is smart enough to understand that if Sally is looking up at Joe, then Joe is taller. My personal preference is to imply as much as possible. In particular, it is very rare that I will ever describe a character’s personality. In my mind, “Sally was short-tempered” is never as good as “‘Don’t pet the bunnies!’ snapped Sally”.

To put this as a simple mantra: show, don’t tell.

Considering your implied details can also help you avoid redundancies that bog down descriptive paragraphs. For example, “the ancient ruins were covered in a thick layer of dust and filled with old relics” almost says the same thing three times. I have chosen this example on purpose as you have to be careful not to overdo it. The fact that the ruins are ancient implies that the relics within are old, but the dust only implies that no one has been there in a long time. If you cut right back to “the ancient ruins were filled with relics”, it could well be a tourist site.

The reason I lean towards implying as much as possible is because I often dislike reading big blocks of description in books, and why would I write something that I would not read? Whether you prefer to ‘trickle in’ the details or give them all in one go, it is important to consider how the description affects the ‘flow’ of the scene. Perhaps my favourite descriptive piece is the opening of ‘Of Mice and Men’, because there is nothing there to be interrupted. Imagine if it was trickled in during the exchanges between Lennie and George – both the dialogue and the setting description would lose their effect. This is more about structure than description itself, but it is something to be aware of moving forward.

So we get to presenting the description itself. Even if you show as much as possible, you are inevitably going to have to tell some details to the reader. One way and a kind of mid-point is to sit on a character’s shoulder and show things through their eyes (although really you as the narrator are still telling the details). Walk a character around a room, fly a bird through the forest – it keeps the description moving and can feed quite naturally into whatever happens next. For example, “John meandered around the room, (description). Eventually he sat down on the bench at the far end and (action)”.

Another possibility is to lead with the description. Think of your book as a movie, and the description at the beginning of each chapter as the same as the long, establishing shot you often get at the beginning of a new scene. Everything is placed early on in the reader’s mind and moves on from there and, as with the ‘Of Mice and Men’ example, it does not interrupt the flow of things that happen after. The downside is a block description that a reader may either thoroughly read or just pick through for the details, and presenting this in an interesting way is dependent on writing style and word usage. However, it is perfectly legitimate and can often make a lot of sense in terms of structure, so long as the previous chapter did not end on a cliff-hanger, I suppose.

While you can obviously do anything in between or a variety of the two, the other extreme is trickling in details. This was my preferred technique for a while, although I am (slowly) starting to move away from it as I’m beginning to feel that the cons outweigh the pros. What it is good for is dropping in the bare minimum of detail while other things are going on. When a character speaks their first line you can give them a brief physical description, when a weapon is drawn you can probably squeeze in a short sentence describing it without interrupting anything. Too much more than that though and these descriptions can seem clumsy and distract too much from the conversation or impending sword fight. As a result, this does not lend itself to flowery language or intricate design and can leave much up to the reader’s imagination – which is allowed, and not necessarily a bad thing. If you find yourself needing to add more detail at a later date, you can find yourself ‘overwriting’ an image that the reader has already constructed, and this can be awkward and not often appreciated. It is still viable and has its place – particularly for minor characters, I would suggest – but I am inclined to advise caution in overusing this style.

Anything else? Probably, but I’ve already topped a thousand words and won’t want to subject you to any more. For descriptions, variety – in vocabulary, style and structure – is your best tool. Between that and an understanding of the important role description plays in your story, I don’t think you can go too far wrong!

Next week… well, either action or dialogue! As always, comments, criticism, questions, discussion points – all are welcome below, on the forums, tweeted @mark_opera or emailed to opera@chroniclesoftyria.com.

Until next time!

Frameworks for Plot and Narrative
Some Self-Reflection and NaNoWriMo

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  1. This week in Guild Wars 2 | Guild Wars 2 Editorials, Magazine, Media & Podcast | GuildMag

    […] Chronicles of Tyria — Describing Descriptions Descriptively. “So, with the plan laid out last week, action, dialogue and description are on the cards. This week the focus is on descriptions and describing things and a detailed deliberation of details. With less alliteration going forward, probably.” […]

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