Inkception News

How Description Works

Posted by jenny.wendorf@rocketmail.com on May 10, 2013 at 11:15 AM

A writing friend of mine recently related to me that he would love to use more description in his stories but that when he does, people generally tell him to cut down and stick with the story at hand. He laments, and actually chooses to not describe in order to please the masses. Yes, he is very right that you don't want to be long winded. You don't want to rattle on and on and bore your readers to tears. However, description done the right way is an incredible asset to a story, and it separates an ametuer from a pro.

The problem is, too many ameteurs don't know how to pull it of, so they shirk it altogether. This saddens me because if you read the best Fiction today, the National Book Award winner for this year being one example, description is the glue that holds the thing together.

Here's a short excerpt from "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich:

“Cappy was a skinny guy with big hands and scarred up knobby feet, but he had bold cheek bones, astraight nose, big white teeth, and lank shiny hair hanging down over one browneye. Melting brown eye. The girls loved Cappy, even though his chin and cheekswere always scrapped and he had a gap in one eyebrow where his forehead had been opened by a rock. His bike was a rusted blue ten-speed Doe had picked up at the mission. Because their house rattled with tools on every surface, Cappy kept it halfway fixed. Still, only first gear worked. And the hand breaks gave out unexpectedly. So when Cappy rode, you’d see a spidery kid pedaling so fast,his legs blurred…”

This book was amazing, and it was the National Book Award Winner for 2012.

The key as far as balancing description and detail, is to make it pay rent. Make the description do many things at once.

First and foremost it should describe.

Second, it sets the mood. Don't just describe the first thing that comes to mind. What is the character of this story? Think Edgar Allan Poe, or Jack London, or Khalid Hussaini, or Barbara Kingsolver. Do you want to scare the reader or be mysterious, fun and quirky, profound, unique, gritty or hard nosed?

Third, when you describe, focus on the five senses. Sight is good, but don't forget smell, taste, touch, and sounds. Keep things active. Try to avoid passive voice and your description will not feel so laborious to the reader. Use fewer adjectives and more fine tuned, colorful and specific nouns and verbs. Nouns and verbs are the engine of description. If your description relies on too many adjectives it will feel to readers like funky flowery perfume: unnatural and overdone. If your verbs are action oriented and specific (stumbled, stuttered versus was clumbsy) then you will describe without it actually feeling so much like description.This is the equivalent to "showing" and not "telling". Don't tell us she's poor, show us by her dirty fingers nails and ear grinding Brooklyn accent.

Fourth, select images that reflect a metaphor...AND that metaphor should mirror one of your story's themes. In a story about eventual redemption, a character might have stains on their clothes. A cup might have a crack. Anything. Have the character look at it. What does it remind them of? Draw it into the theme, use it for all it's worth!

Fifth, be unique. Many people describe boring items in a boring way. This is usually why description is...boring. This is where writing meets art. Something I've done extensively to improve my descriptive power, is to go and sketch a real scene, a character, an event, in words the way an artist would sketch something for practice. Freewriting also helps. Go to the mall, sit there, take one glance at a person and sketch them in words. Physical appearance, personality, brief personal history, emotional state, motives...practice, make it up. Find the interesting and sort it out from the mundane. The more you practice this the more you can do this in your stories...AND you can even use these sketches in your stories.

There you go! Good luck with your description!



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