Writing Meaningful Description
To the reader? The world of your book is a black box. Devoid of all sensation—no sights, sounds, tastes, smells, or aural pleasantries beyond dialogue. It is up to you and your prowess of description to fill that world out—to let the reader experience it as you would have it experienced. Such power! Such responsibility.
If you do it right, you can grant readers the ultimate experience: the immersive feeling of actually being in another world. And trust me when I say readers will re-read the same book over and over again just to get that sensation, if you get it right. If you get it wrong, readers will at best set your book down and never pick it up again—and at worst, laugh in all the wrong places. No pressure, eh?
So—what goes into writing evocative descriptions? Strangely enough, it’s not just adjectives. It’s also character reactions, dead-on comparisons, and a sensory smorgasbord. (Not to mention point of view, pacing, structure, narrative distance, and the sounds of words, as those are addressed in entirely different articles.) And luckily, these things are pretty easy to put into practice, once you know what you’re looking for.
Show Don’t Tell
I know, I know! This is the oldest advice in the book. So old, it’s kind of cliché itself. But here’s the thing: it’s largely true (with notable exceptions, of course), and nowhere is it truer than in writing description. Writers often feel a powerful urge to make the reader feel exactly what they want them to feel—to make them experience the world exactly as they mean it to be experienced. And in doing so, new writers often make the mistake of telling us how to feel about everything that is being described—using authorially judgmental words—and symbolic words--instead of sensory, descriptive words.
For example: “The evil trees were scary and dumb looking.”
While certainly opinionated, this description of trees somehow manages to avoid telling us anything about how the trees actually looked—it fails to paint even the smallest picture. (Well, I suppose we get “trees”—but aside from that…) It ends up feeling like the author has an agenda—that the author for some reason hates these otherwise innocent bystanding trees, and wants you as the reader to hate them too. I don’t know about you, but this always makes me want to rebel and side with the obviously maligned trees.
So, what does one do? Instead of telling the reader what to think about the trees, try describing the trees in such a way so that they appear evil, scary, and dumb looking. Using evocative words that carry the associations of evil, scary, and dumb, but which are purely sensory.
For example, “The trees were the dead white of bloodless flesh, with bark that cracked and split, like skin pulled tight over too much meat.”
Metaphors, Similes, and Other Comparisons
Notice, in my example, I didn’t say the trees were white as snow—which has a positive connotation—or just white even. I also avoided “bone” which has been used often enough that it could be considered cliché. Instead, I drew a comparison to something I find inherently creepy: bloodless flesh. Then, I extended the corpulent comparison, forcing the idea of an engorged, fleshy tree on the audience, a concept I find entirely icktastic, and thus, a concept I hope the audience finds icktastic as well.
Comparisons are awesome for communicating the emotion of a scene without spelling it out for the reader. For example, each of these examples (trite though some may be) leave the reader with a different emotion:
The trees were white as snow.
The trees were white as bleached bone.
The trees were paper white and covered in the forgotten carvings of teenage lovers.
Notice that each comparison uses simple, physical objects and not melodramatic emotional symbols.
The trees were skeletal harbingers of death, loss, and soul-crushing despair.
Kind of humorous, right? Not exactly the note the author is likely going for.
Of course, metaphors and similes aren’t the only way to make evil trees look scary and dumb. You can also specifically describe what you’re seeing, with the attention to detail of a paranoid person with an anxiety attack. The attention to detail—using as many of the five senses as is appropriate--paints a much more vivid picture than a generic description would, and can also pack quite an emotional punch. And don’t forget to have your characters reflect on what they see—that, more than any purely visual sensory, makes it real. This last point is actually fairly important, as no matter how beautiful or moving a bit of description may be, without character reactions, it can tend to feel a trifle hollow. Grounding the scene in your character helps give the description meaning.
“It was the sound that drew him at first: a thumping and clacking that turned out to come from broken femurs and tendons, all tangled up in the trees’ branches--the remnants of six at least. Hesitantly, he put his hand on the blackened bark: it was still warm. He’d missed her by an hour, two at most.”
Here, more important than the somewhat lackluster description is the character reactions. We get bits of the story through character reactions that draw our attention to the details of the scene described. And, by drawing our attention to multiple senses with character reactions, we manage to make the scene feel just a little bit more real.
Other Description Tips
- Listen to the Sound of Words: Some words just sound scarier than others—just as others sound sweeter. You can also play with repetition, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. Read more about using the sounds of words here.
- The Rule of Threes: As a rule of thumb, three is invisible in description. Three adjectives, three sentences—it just has an unmistakably comfortable rhythm to it. When you do more or less than three, it makes a statement, and that can be fun to play with. Read more about the Rule of Threes here.
- Point of View & Narrative Distance: Description is not just about what you’re describing—it also tells us something about who is doing the describing. What Sam notices about a situation will not necessarily be the same as what Dean notices—and how he describes it will be colored by his experiences. It’s also important to recognize whether the narrator is describing something—say, in the beginning of a chapter, before we’re all up in a character’s head—or the character, as that will change both the time you can spend describing, as well as the style of description. Read more about point of view and narrative distance here.
- Pay Attention to Pacing: Slowing down and getting specific can add drama—but it’s not an every-scene kind of thing. Going slow in an action scene drains the excitement right out. Read more about pacing here.
- Structure Is Important: As with every paragraph in your book, if your structure is boring, your description will be boring, no matter how exciting the subject matter. Read more about paragraph structure here.