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[Writing] Description

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

Description is the biggest problem of them all for most beginning writers. You have probably written an essay, report, letter or grocery list multiple times in your life – but there’s usually not a single descriptive sentence in there. The problem is therefore not that description is extremely difficult, but just that we’re not at all used to writing descriptively.

Any sentence that shows, and doesn’t tell, is descriptive. When you say

He was smart’

you’re just making a sudden statement. If you change that to

He passed every test with flying colours, while still finding the time to hang out with friends. He liked solving crossword puzzles at breakfast, and had – only a few days ago – set a personal record of a mere 30 seconds.’

you are using description to make your store much more lively!

A successful writer must be able to describe anything, in a way that will cause the reader to prickle with recognition.

Figurative language/tropes

Figurative language can be used to compare or contrast unlike things. You can use them to express something unique, something you wouldn’t be able to easily say without figurative language.

On top of that, it also says a lot about how a character sees his or her surroundings. Somebody who loves nature will use personification to attach human attributes to trees, plants or animals. Somebody who hates their neighbourhood will compare it with all the worst things in life.

Some types of figurative language are found very often and are almost unnoticeable, but others draw much more attention to themselves. You should therefore only use a small amount of figurative language per (descriptive) paragraph.

More on the actual types and implementation of tropes can be found in the tropes chapter.

Only describe what’s necessary

A good description isn’t an overfull one. For different characters, different things are noticeable or relevant. Only use description to paint a vivid picture of the world in the reader’s mind and to reveal character. Including too much description drops the story’s pace and makes the reader read and remember things that are not at all relevant to the story.

A good description consists of only a few well-chosen details that stand for everything else. In most cases, these will be the very first ones that come to mind.

A man who just lost a child in a car accident might fixate on the sounds of traffic, but drown out the sounds of people laughing and birds chirping. The fact that he wears a green T-shirt and has a small pimple on his face are probably not relevant.

Sensory description

Humans have 5 senses that help us perceive the world: sight, sound, taste, touch & smell.

When we write, we usually describe something by what it looks like. While you may paint the most beautiful pictures that way, the words will never really come to life – you need to include all the senses for that.

When describing something, really place yourself in that scene. Try to find out what things feel, smell or taste like. Hear the sounds and find one or two that are most dominant or relevant to the story.

Name things properly

Don’t use vague descriptions. General adjectives, nouns, and passive verbs should never be used. The whole point of description is to put a scene or situation as realistically as possible onto paper.

Let’s say there’s something lying on a table. If it’s unnoticeable or not at all relevant to the story, you might say

A pouch laid on the table

or not mention its presence at all. If that’s not the case, just calling it a pouch is far too general. You’d be better off writing something like:

‘A small, black pouch laid on the table. It was made of velvet, and held inside a large group of very fine diamonds. It felt soft and new, but had a fumigated smell.’

Either way, don’t ever say ‘Something that looked like a small bag was lying on the table’

Use the reader’s imagination

Don’t fill in every single detail for the reader. Describe broad enough things, then let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. As said before: you should find a few details that are very important and stand for everything else. The reader can then fill the world you started painting with the colours and imagery he or she likes best. People think faster than they can read or speak – when they read the first few lines of description, their mind has already made up the rest.

Organization & subtlety

Description should be organized. Don’t write one sentence about someone’s character, then one on his clothes, then another one on the character, and so forth. Group sentences that are connected or share similar descriptive ideas together. Make your description flow from a starting point (where we don’t know anything about a person, place or thing) to its end point (where we have become acquainted with the subject).

Some ways to organize are: chronological, spatial and order of importance. For example, when introducing a person, you may start with physical description, followed by how that person thinks, feels and acts.

Also, don’t throw all description into one place. If a person, place or object is important enough to return in the story multiple times, it has several moments where particularities can be added. However, the rule or organizing still applies: the first time you introduce something, make it the biggest and most fundamental description. (Unless you intend to take the attention away from this object or person for narrative purposes.)

Ask yourself the questions Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? if you’re stuck.

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