Tag Archive | description

Do More With Descriptions

Descriptions and narrative can be a wonderful tool for a writer. It is often overlooked by beginning writers—or those still learning their craft—in favor of going for scene after scene after scene. We’re all influenced by both the fast pace of modern life and the fast pace of movies and TV, but stories in print have advantages that the screen lacks. What can great description do for your stories?

"Use the right word, not its second cousin." -- Mark Twain

Set the World—Vivid, specific descriptions put the reader into the world you build. While you may be able to assume much if you’re writing in the modern world, you may still have unique places you want to bring to life. Don’t assume the reader knows what your fictional seaside small town looks like, or what the big city feels like—you may have readers who have never been and want to be transported. In a historical or fantasy setting, you have to build the world for the reader, and you don’t just want the reader to “see” the world, but to experience the sounds, the smells, to feel the weather, to have the touch of the wind on their skin and all of this takes vivid details. You want to layer in sensations for the characters, so they become the stand-in for the reader in that world.

Reveal Your Characters—What a character notices tells the reader a lot about that character. Is your main character a baker, and smells really matter? Does your character have an artistic bent and colors stand out right away? Is your character someone who pays a lot of attention to sounds, or to the clothes of others, or to cars, or to the status of others? Figure that out and weave that in. Maybe your main character is a little bit of a snob and the frayed cuff of a coat sleeve stands out. Or maybe your main character notices the laugh lines around a woman’s face before she sees the diamond and sapphire necklace around that woman’s neck. Again, vivid specific details matter the most. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader, but you want the right description to pull the reader into your character’s thoughts.

Control Pacing—A story can move too fast. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the action just becomes action without any emotional stake in the outcome. The reader also can use a breather between too much action—you can wear a reader out if it’s just one thing after another with no relief. Descriptions can help you slow the pace as much as you need by bringing in a change of scene where descriptions matter to put the reader into a time and place. It can help you slow the pace between scenes to give the main character time to regroup and make new plans. It can also help you weave in backstory.

Set the Mood—A great story has a theme and it has a tone or mood. Descriptions are a huge part of this, ranging from the storm battered coast with a leaden sky and a crumbling castle outlined in a brief flash of lightning to the rolling, endless prairie grass dancing in a breeze scented by a cascade of wildflowers that dot the landscape, to the crowded streets of a city with gleaming skyscrapers and the rush of buses and taxies and the blare of sirens in the background. The details you weave in can set an ominous mood or a romantic one, or can increase tension or layer in the details that make the reader want to cozy up on the couch with a tea and dive into your world. We are back again to needing vivid specific detail. If you don’t know your world you must invent or you must research so that you can bring this world to life. You need to know not just the sights, but the sounds, the aromas, the feel of the place.

Is a Vital Part of Voice—A writer’s voice is one of the most powerful tools to hook a reader into wanting more of your stories. You have to discover your voice and develop it—writing is a craft to learn, and then can become an art to practice. Is your voice best suited to sly comedy or to tense drama? Look at your bookshelf for what attracts you most. Do you have a voice better suited to the modern world or to a historical era? Is your voice best for the old west or for a pirate’s adventure on the high seas? Every writer has to figure this out, and then use description as part of that voice. This is how you phrase things, how you view the world, how your characters view the world. Do not be afraid if your voice works better with omniscient viewpoint instead of third person, or go for first person if that’s the voice where you feel comfortable. Beware following trends—if a voice isn’t right for you that story’s not going to work.

Description takes all your skill as a writer to make the writing disappear for the reader, to bring the reader into your fictional world and show the reader this world through your characters’ eyes and through the vivid details that you weave into your story. You have to choose the right descriptions for the place and time—not just the era, but the month, the week, the day, the hour. Vivid, specific description—not just yellow, but vibrant lemon—make the world come to life for the reader, and that’s one step closer to making your characters come to life.

Make Your Scenes Real

mealVery often when I’m reading a manuscript for another writer the scenes will fall flat. The primary reason for this is that I (as a reader) am not pulled into the scene. The world feels flat because the only description is a little bit of what can be seen. When you neglect the other senses, the scene suffers. To be plausible, a scene needs to pull in the reader by using all the senses so the reader experiences the world.

So how do you weave in the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–without overloading the scene or the reader? Here are a few tips.

1-Start with the strongest sensation. What would your character notice first? Give that to the reader first, too.

For example, here’s a description from Burn Baby Burn where the heroine, Mackenzie, walks into a building on the edge of purgatory:

No reception desk. No chairs for waiting. Just lots of black marble, and the painful graffiti of demon-Aramaic dripping red across the ceiling and floor. Someone had also turned the air conditioning to ice-burn cold.

The chill crept along her skin as she walked, and it slipped through the soles of her boots.

Notice that the sense here is touch (the cold touching Mackenzie). There’s a little description of what can be seen (people are visual), but the strongest sensation here is of cold. So the details focus on providing that detail, and that sense is used to make the scene more real and vivid for the reader.

2-Be specific. The more specific, the better. If you say, He smelled like the woods. That’s nice. It’s poetic. But woods can smell moldy, damp, or like pine and very fresh and dry, or like a lot of things. And many readers have never been out of the city. So “woods” is not a specific description or smell. You want to layer in details that make the sense specific.

Here’s another example from Burn Baby Burn:

The half dozen other times she’d had to come down to this musty hole—and every time it had been to dig Josh out of his research—she’d thought it looked like the stacks at UCLA’s library. Miles of tall shelves with wide, leather-bound books stretched into climate controlled coolness. It smelled like library stacks, too—like dry, old paper. The place left her itchy. But any memory of college did that.

Notice the words used. Musty. Dry, old paper. A comparison is made to library stacks, so if the reader’s ever been in stacks, this will make the scene vivid. But even someone who hasn’t ever been into any library still gets the details of leather, dryness, mustiness. The more specific your details, the more the reader will “sense” the scene. Or in this case, smell the scene.

3-Go for the unexpected. If you use the usual descriptions this makes the world seem cliche. You want sensations that stand out and catch the reader.

Again, here’s an example from Burn Baby Burn:

Before she could think about it, she had him in her arms and had her tongue tangling with his. She heard his gun thud against the floor about the same time as hers, and she had her fists on his shirt to rip it off so she could get to his skin because she needed to touch him. And, oh, hell, could the man kiss—pushy and demanding, and just enough bite to make it interesting. He tasted of cherries, and if she didn’t get him on the floor in the next ten seconds, she’d die.

The guy Mackenzie is kissing tastes of cherries because he just drank a cherry Slurpee, so it’s logical that the taste would still be on his lips. This also avoids the cliche of him tasking like “man” or something else that would be too vague and not really locked into the scene and the character. Notice here, too, that we have both touch and taste being important, which shows the intimacy (you’re generally more into touch and taste and smell when you are really close to someone physically).

4-Look to contrast senses. A beautiful place that smells bad. A creepy sound along with a sensual touch along the skin. Contrast are always more interesting.

For example, in Burn Baby Burn Mackenzie walks into a beautiful house:

The rooms had a faint scent of lavender, and something else vaguely familiar. Stopping, Mackenzie took in a deep breath, and realized it was mint—with a vague hint of cloves, and something a little off. She’d know the scent of Josh’s charms anywhere, but this smell had a sour tang that made her want to open windows to air out the place.

So the house is described in a way that seems inviting, but the sour tang gives the reader an uneasy sensation that something is off in this place (and it really is).

5-Remember that a reader needs to be introduced to characters and to settings. This is where description is vital, and you do need to provide the right amount of description so the readers can see the characters and the world. This is very important in the first part of any story where everything is new to the reader.

Here’s a character introduction from Burn Baby Burn:

Glancing at the driver, she came up with an alpha silverback gorilla vibe; short hair going gray, and a lot of long-limbed muscle. The black dress shirt, rolled back at the cuffs and open at the throat, added to the image. And his khakis had not come off any rack. Judging by the expensive clothes and the weapon-edged angles to a face half-hidden by reflective aviator shades, she’d go for another line of work as this guy’s main vocation.

Notice that by putting the description in Mackenzie’s viewpoint it shows the reader what Mackenzie is seeing and thinking. That helps the description avoid the “laundry list” of physical assets. Also, this is where you can get a little lyrical and tell the reader a little not just about what someone looks like but what emotion does that look inspire.

Remember, all the senses help to convey an emotional reaction.

6-Use dialogue. The line from Star Wars, “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered,” delivered with sarcasm does more than say that it smells bad.

Here’s a similar line from Burn Baby Burn:

“This house smells of blood.”

The words came out a deep rumble, and Mackenzie glanced at Felix. Was this his way of saying this place creeped him out, too? Or maybe that he felt all homey because of it?

Have your characters react to the world in ways that help realize the world for your readers.