Effective description by Rick Taubold

Read the original article at Write Well, Write to Sell

on  at 9:29 PM

Posted In: Basics of writing, Story Details

From Rick:

The best good description should be as transparent to the reader as possible, meaning it should blend with the story, not stand out from it. Well-written description can be so compelling that the reader experiences rather than sees the scene. If the reader is more than lightly aware of the description, then it’s not done right.

Good description is like good art: it should have a focal point, not just be dumped on the reader. A good artist knows how to create the focal point in his work and how to wrap the rest of the piece around it. A non-artist may simply see the whole picture and miss the focal point.

So it is with writing. When describing the scene and the character, you should find the focal point of each. What stands out most? Remember that in writing the scene is being told from the viewpoint of one particular character at a time. The character’s interests and personality will color how he or she sees something. The writer should therefore describe the scene as the character, not the writer, would see it. What aspects draw the character’s attention? What parts are most important for the reader to see? This is where you learn to edit your writing.

The same holds with a character’s description. You want just enough so the reader can visualize the character. What aspect do you want to highlight for the reader/viewer? As an exercise, look at random people on the street or in a mall. What about them catches your attention first? That’s what you put in your writing. Beyond that, trust the reader to fill in the details.

Don’t forget that description, while necessary, does slow or stop the story. Sometimes you want to do this, as when the hero in a romance first sees the heroine. You may want to stay in the world around him while he takes her in.

On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of action sequence or suspense scene, stopping the story for description is the last thing you want to do—unless that description will enhance the action or suspense. If your character rushes into a posh hotel suite to find another character pointing a gun at someone, you don’t want to take the time to describe that room while the reader patiently waits to see what will happen next.

I’m not saying that you should keep all descriptions short all the time. You can dole out details a little at a time. Just don’t feel obligated to dump everything at once. Prioritize the details: what does the character notice first? What details come into play next or notice only after careful inspection?

Let’s take the gunman in the hotel room as an example. Your character kicks open the door. What catches his attention first? If the gunman is an average thug with a 9mm handgun, your character will see him differently than if he’s a six-six guy dressed in an expensive suit pointing a machine gun. The gunman and victim standing the middle of the room in broad daylight will be seen differently than if they’re off to one side and not spotted immediately—or if it’s night and the room is not well lit.

This scene is treated differently if the character barges into an empty room expecting someone there or than if he enters casually not expecting someone there (or maybe he’s meeting the woman he’s having an affair with). If he was in an average hotel room instead of a luxury suite, you would handle the description differently than if he saw what he was expecting.

In good writing, the degree of description should be colored by the perception and expectation of the viewer and tailored to the needs of the scene. Yes, there will be times when you want—and need—lavish and detailed descriptions. If a stunning setting blows the character away, then you to blow the reader away as well. One of the things a good writer needs to learn is editing restraint and to be constantly aware of story pacing when it comes to description.

The opening of Dickens’ Bleak House is pure, lengthy description, but it’s also much more than description. It sets a mood that draws the reader in. Good description paints the picture with the senses and the emotions and thus becomes more than description. Dickens makes the setting a character in the story.

Description colored by a character’s perceptions is more effective than simple description. Consider how I achieved this in once scene in my novel “More Than Magick.” The POV here that of main character Scott Madison, twenty-four years old. You’ll some of his attitude (from an earlier falling out with Jake) and personality in it. I’ve omitted part of the scene (marked […] that’s mostly dialogue and pick it up where the description comes back in.

**********

I walked outside. The clear sky had a hint of light left in it. From here, the town appeared quiet, but we were several hundred feet up and a half mile or more away. Looking down at the too-idyllic town unsettled me. I also felt someone watching us. I scanned the area, but saw nothing in the low light.

The others stood twenty feet away at the end of the ledge. When I joined them, they were discussing appropriate attire. I heard Jake suggest that since we didn’t have time to scout ahead, and the chance that none of our clothing likely matched the native dress, we should go as we were and hope that “we’re from another land across the mountains” would suffice. Jake had added a black T-shirt to his black jeans. I didn’t think he was in mourning. Not for me anyway. Smear a little soot on his face and he’d be ready for a black ops mission. Not that I cared. I still had on my black tank top and considered changing to dissociate myself from him.

Kedda wore a gray tunic and darker gray cloak. “I have some experience in these matters,” he said. “Now that Scott is awake, we should go.”

“Shouldn’t we wait until morning?” I asked.

“It is morning,” Jen-Varth replied.

The sky was lightening into a vibrant, deep-blue canvas with high, wispy clouds dry-brushed onto it, the antithesis of the rain-induced pallor on the previous world. “This planet must have short days,” I said.

We gathered our gear and headed down. […]

Only Enelle had a problem negotiating the steps. She refused to remove her formal shoes, lest her feet get dirty, and complained that her dress was getting wrinkled.

“Take it off and carry it!” I said. “There’s probably nothing worth covering anyway.” She bared perfect, white teeth at me, the kind that took lots of money to have straightened. “Nice teeth, Princess.” Genetically engineered? I decided not. She wasn’t bad to look at, but she wasn’t as perfect as a genetic engineer would have made her. About five-eight; a hundred and twenty pounds; a bust that added interest to her dress; dark eyes; petite nose; slender cheeks. I’d have made her lips fuller.

“Stop staring at me!”

She probably liked to be on top.

The steps changed into a gently sloping trail. The feeling of being watched didn’t go away. I got neither stronger nor weaker, as if the watcher was moving with us.

I remembered that the Gate had been sealed from the other side, not from this one. After I pushed away the unpleasant implications of that thought, another observation replaced it. Everyone we had met on this journey was human. Not humanoid. Human. Like Jake and me. Jen-Varth’s bronze skin, blue eyes, and black hair might elicit a few stares on Earth—Arion’s and Dayon’s tapered ears definitely would—but all of them were human. Dev had said as much back in Freetown. And who met us at the bottom of the hill where the trail widened? Four humans. Waiting for us.

Two of them were dressed in stiff, oatmeal-cookie-colored caftans and bell-bottom pants, with dark-chocolate (I was hungry), Roman-style sandals laced up the leg. I decided they were bodyguards or law enforcement. The other two wore turquoise caftans with white sashes over the same arrangement of pants and sandals. They would be the honchos. White headbands kept their shoulder-length, dark hair in place. No visible weapons.

**********

One of the faults I see too often is writers stopping their story just after the opening so they can insert description or background or other exposition. There’s nothing wrong with description. You need it to ground your reader, just as you need background details to set the scene and set up the characters. But there are proper ways to do it that don’t stop the story.

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Here is an example using a lot of pure description. The characters Chloe and Zoe are fourteen-year-old twin sisters. This is a lot of description, and to some reader it could be boring because nothing is advancing either the story or the characters. The story has stopped for the moment.

**********

Chloe finished with her side of the second floor east hallway well ahead of her sister. While she waited for Zoe to catch up, she looked down at the two-story lobby of the museum from the balcony.

The morning sun coming through the upper windows made the white marble floor glow against the dark, recessed, wood-panel walls. The double, ten-foot-tall, solid-wood entry doors had semicircular windows. To the right of the doors stood the stuffed bear.

Above the center of the lobby hung a giant, crystal chandelier. Dual, arcing staircases that led down from the second floor with a Victorian-style, oak balustrade. Straight below was look straight down at the welcome desk where Doris Peekskill, their receptionist and close friend, sat watching a small TV. On top of the main part of the old desk were a lamp and a small pile of visitor brochures.

The lobby itself didn’t have a lot in the way of displays. Against the walls, several solid stands held replica pieces of ancient pottery. They kept the genuine ones in safer locations. A huge mural on the east wall displayed a collage of various Civil War battles.

Off each of the first-floor wings, several rooms housed specialized displays, such as the various Near Eastern and European history rooms in the east wing. The west wing was devoted to American history.

The second-floor display cases that the girls were currently wiping off lined the east and west hallways of the second floor. As in the first floor wings, most of the rooms there were reserved for themed displays. The library occupied three rooms on the second floor and held over seven thousand books and archaeological journals.

The third floor served as their residence.

A door behind the welcome desk led to the kitchen and the dining room, whose many tall windows gave a great view of their grandmother’s English garden out back.

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Here’s the same passage with Chloe’s personality inserted. Not only is the description enhanced, but it sheds light on her character, and includes bits of backstory. Instead of dull description, story is merged into it.

**********

Chloe finished with her side of the second floor east hallway well ahead of her sister. While she waited for Zoe to catch up, she looked down at the two-story lobby of the museum from the balcony. She loved living here—what fourteen-year-old wouldn’t?—especially when her twin sister wasn’t being so annoying. None of their friends lived in anything even close to this.

From up here, she saw a palace. The morning sun coming through the upper windows made the white marble floor glow against the dark, recessed, wood-panel walls. Sometimes she found it hard to believe they lived in this elegant place with its forty-five rooms.

The double, ten-foot-tall, solid-wood entry doors had semicircular windows and looked as if they belonged to a church. To the right of the doors, the menacing stuffed bear with yellow teeth reared up as if guarding the entrance. After Zoe saw the movie Night at the Museum, she claimed the bear came to life at night, and Chloe had nightmares about it for weeks.

Above the center of the lobby hung a giant, crystal chandelier, but Chloe’s favorite thing of all were the dual, arcing staircases that led down from the second floor. The Victorian-style, oak balustrade—Zoe called it a banister despite Chloe’s attempts to correct her—was breathtaking. The sturdy spindles had just enough space between them for the girls to push their small legs through when they were younger. Zoe used to sit on the balcony and dangle her legs out over the edge, especially when the museum had visitors.

A pang of sadness went through Chloe. They arrived here four years ago, when their parents went to that archaeological dig in Egypt. Zoe had said the place made her feel like a princess in a magical castle. Halfway through that fateful summer, they received the news that a cave-in at the dig site had killed both their parents. The castle had lost its magic after that.

Chloe leaned over to look straight down at the welcome desk where Doris Peekskill, their receptionist and close friend, sat watching a small TV. On top of the main part of the old desk were a lamp and a small pile of visitor brochures.

The lobby itself didn’t have a lot in the way of displays. Against the walls, several solid stands held replica pieces of ancient pottery. They kept the genuine ones in safer locations. A huge mural on the east wall displayed a collage of various Civil War battles.

Off each of the first-floor wings, several rooms housed specialized displays, such as the various Near Eastern and European history rooms in the east wing. The west wing was devoted to American history.

The second-floor display cases that the girls were currently wiping off lined the east and west hallways of the second floor. As in the first floor wings, most of the rooms there were reserved for themed displays.

The library occupied three rooms on the second floor and held over seven thousand books and archaeological journals. Some were too advanced for Chloe, but she didn’t let that stop her. She was the only kid in her school who could read Egyptian hieroglyphics, some anyway. Zoe, on the other hand, occupied herself with video games, sports, and boys. To her, old books were vile things better left to collect dust.

The third floor served as their residence.

A door behind the welcome desk led to the kitchen and the dining room, whose many tall windows gave you a great view of Grandma’s English garden out back.

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The next time you have to write description, keep these things in mind:

(1) Don’t pile too much on at once.

(2) Integrate your description into the story. Don’t let it stand by itself.

(3) Where possible, put the POV character’s personality into it or let it reveal something about the character.

(4) Make sure the description serves to advance the story, not stop it dead in its tracks.

–Rick

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