The Art of Description: Eight Tips to Help You Bring Your Settings to Life
by Anne Marble
Description is something that gets in the way of many authors. Why? Well, because it's so darn hard to write. And no wonder. If you're not careful, descriptive sequences can become static, even dull. Writing action and dialogue is so much more fun. On top of that, description incorporates so many elements. It doesn't just cover describing the setting -- it also involves descriptions of the characters' clothes and appearance, the "props" your characters use, the weather, and so forth.
If you're not very accomplished at writing description, then sometimes you might want to avoid writing it. But then, you can wind up with stories where people wander vague hallways or buildings, and readers don't get a sense of time or place from your story. A story without enough description is missing something. People who read a story that's lacking in description might ask "Where does this take place? Are there buildings around them?" I must admit that often happens when people look at my early drafts.
At the same time, some writers err in the other direction, including too much description. They fall in love with their setting and can't help tell the readers about it. And tell and tell. This can impede the flow of the narrative. Imagine readers skimming your book in the store. If they see pages and pages describing the castle grounds, or the chic hotel, they will probably put it down and pick up someone else's book instead.
How bad is bad description? Think of bad description as being like that teacher who droned on and on and put the class to sleep. Good description is more like the teacher who got students involved by using anecdotes and making the class interactive. You don't want the descriptive passages in your story to put your readers to sleep, do you?
Avoid Huge Lumps of Description
In the past, authors could get away with including long, detailed descriptions in their stories. There's an infamous anecdote about a penny dreadful called Varney the Vampire. The author couldn't decide what happened in the next installment, so he interrupted the story to send all his characters off to the park or the zoo. The story picked up again in the next installment. This problem wasn't limited to the penny dreadfuls. Many famous novels of this period came to a complete stop while the author described something (such as a cityscape, a history, or even an entire profession) for a chapter or two.
Unless they're seeking out writers known for lyrical descriptive passages, today's readers wouldn't put up with that sort of thing. They don't want to sit and read several pages about a park outing that had nothing to do with the story, or about the workings of the fireplace in a Medieval castle. They have better things to do with their time -- and they want to read a story, not a travelogue.
Of course there are authors who, even in today's marketplace, can get away with pages and pages of description. Even genre writers. (John Crowley is a great example in the SF/fantasy field.) Those writers get away with it only because they're really really good. Either their writing is lyrical, or it's witty, or it's somehow so enthralling that people don't care that the book has ground to a halt. However, not all readers will put up with this, even if the writing is the terrific. Also, it's worth noting that there are many published writers who rhapsodize on everything from history to their characters' politics for long passages without being lyrical about it. In these case, the reality is that even the fans know to skim those passages.
Make Description an Active Part of the Story
To make your stories more interesting, you must find ways to blend the description into the story. Descriptions that just sit there are generally known as "narrative lumps." Like lumps on proverbial logs, they sit there and do little to your story. Send those lumps to the gym and make them work out. They can set the scene, move the plot, set the mood, foreshadow events, give us a sense of character, whatever they have to do to get the ball (or log) rolling.
The great thing about using descriptions in combination with action is that you can cut the description down into palatable pieces. In a fantasy short story, I once wrote the following sentence: "Zara grabbed her mug and gulped it down, shivering when a few drops the ale trickled under her leather top." I made my words work for me. I didn't have to say "The ale was cold. She wore a leather top." Instead, I used action to fit that description into the story in tiny bits.
How did I come up with that line? It came from imagining Zara and what she might experience when she drank that ale. Try it with your own stories. Try to think of your story as scenes unfolding in a movie or play. What do your characters interact with? Let's say you're writing a story set in a modern-day office building. Instead of stopping the story to describe the lush lobby with trees and waterfalls, come up with a reason for this description to be in the story. Yes, even "Because this office should have a fancy lobby" is a legitimate reason for the description to be in the story, as long as it doesn't drag the story to a stop. Now, come up with an excuse -- whoops, I mean a reason -- for the characters to be interacting with that setting. Are your hero and heroine walking through the lobby while having an argument? Or are they sitting at the fountain when they realize they may be in love? What they are doing will influence what they interact with, and how they filter those details.
Want to describe the heroine's living room or bedroom? Then describe it as a part of a scene full of tension, such as an argument, or during the love scene. Blend the description with action. The same goes for describing the characters. Something as simple as "He picked up the invitation with his slender fingers" is more exciting than "She noticed that he had slender fingers." zzz
Don't forget to trust in the intelligence of your audience. You don't have to spell everything out for them. You can make them figure out what something, or someone, looks like by dropping hints. Early in Walter Miller, Jr.'s classic post-apocalpytic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a monk realizes for the first time that the pope's cassock is getting threadbare, and that the carpet in the pope's audience room is worn. Miller uses description to clue the reader in on this world and to mark changes in the way the character is viewing the world around him.
Describe What Your Characters Would Notice
Unless you're writing in omniscient viewpoint, chances are that you are filtering the setting (and background) through the eyes of your characters. This will be the case whether you are writing first person or third person limited stories. In the Miller example above, the monk noticed that the pope's cassock was worn because it was something out of place.
Let's go back to the office building with the fancy lobby. If your heroine has been in that office building dozens of times, she will only give it a passing glance. Unless something has changed or something usual is going on. Then she will notice it. For example, she might not take much notice of the lovely fountain in the center of the lobby, but she would notice if the fountain wasn't working or if the building manager had changed the color of the water because of a holiday, or if the hero was standing in the fountain and fishing for quarters.
Characters in a Medieval setting won't think it's odd that there are tapestries on the walls or rushes on the floor. They will notice the unusual -- rushes that haven't been changed for a while, or for that matter, rushes that have been changed often and smell sweet. Similarly, characters in fantasy and futuristic stories won't look at the setting in the same way we would. A star pilot is unlikely to walk into a starport and think of its history, notice the number of starships, etc., unless there is a good reason. A fantasy warrior isn't going to look at a group of wizards and remember the history of magic. Instead, he would look at them and try to size up their strengths as potential enemies or allies.
You should probably avoid stopping the flow of your story to tell your readers all about how nice the hero's castle is or how important the rain forest is. I've seen stories that do so, and even if the setting is pretty, the result to the story isn't pretty. Some authors can get away with this. If you're one of them, then go for it, but at the same time, always keep your readers in mind. Do they want to read a ramble about the rain forest? Or do they want to know what happens next?
Words, Words, Words
Use strong, active, concrete writing words when writing description. The stronger the writing, the better the description. Use concrete details -- such as the detail about the cold ale trickling down Zara's chest. Nouns and verbs are your friends. Adjectives and adverbs can be your friends, or your enemies, depending on how you use them.
What should you avoid? One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you should avoid adjectivitis and similar "writing sins." Yes, I know "adjectivitis" isn't a real word -- but it should be in the dictionary, because so many writers suffer from it. Adjectivitis refers to using too many adjectives. Some writers are notorious for piling on adjectives. Not to mention adverbs, weak qualifiers such as "somewhat," and so forth. Using them in any part of the story weakens your writing. Using them in your descriptions risks putting the readers to sleep.
I won't do like some other writing guidelines say and tell you "Never use adverbs." Sometimes you will need adverbs. Sometimes people speak softly or walk slowly, or quickly. Sometimes saying "He walked slowly down the hall..." is right for the story and saying "He plodded down the hall..." is dead wrong.
Oh, and don't go to the thesaurus too often. Yes, I know, sometimes you need another word for "walked." Still, just because it's in the thesaurus under the entry for "walked," that doesn't mean it's the right word for your story. Besides, sometimes it becomes obvious that certain writers are too in love with their thesauruses. Their characters don't just shout -- they exclaim and yell and caterwaul. Enough already!
Use All the Senses
Most writers tend to concentrate on sight and sound. This is natural as those are the main ways in which we observe the world. However, you can really bring a scene to life by including the other senses. The sense of smell is an important one. What's a Western romance without the smell of leather? Of course, don't forget the sense of touch -- very important in a romance, even when you aren't writing a love scene. Taste is harder to include as humans don't tend to go around tasting things unless they're eating, but be sure to include it during love scenes.
Just because sight and sound are the most commonly used senses, that doesn't mean you have to make them, well, common. Find some new way to describe the things your characters see and hear. For example, don't fall back on the old cliches about the color of your characters' eyes -- invent new phrases that are so powerful they become cliches in the future! Also, don't forget to describe their voices or the other sounds they hear. Try listening to people talking on the radio or listening to people on TV without looking at the picture, just to get an idea of the nuances of voice.
Fit the Description to the Type of Story
If you're writing an action-oriented romance, too much description will get in the way of the pace. James Bond isn't going to stop in the middle of skiing away from gun-toting spies to ponder the beauty of the Alps. He's going to get away from them.
On the other hand, description will be a more important part of many slower-paced stories. If the book is about a hero coming to his hometown to lick his wounds after a divorce, we want to know what the area looks like and why it's so important to him. Also, a spooky paranormal tale might use description to build up the sense of unease -- for example, you might linger on descriptions of dark hallways in the old mansion and hint that there are ghosts there.
Avoid Excessive Name-dropping
First, you should know that it's all right to use brand names in stories. There are a few basic rules: 1) get the trademark correct; 2) don't use the trademark in a generic or incorrect sense; and 3) Don't portray the product in disparaging light. (In other words, don't have your characters getting food poisoning at the KFC.) You can learn more about the use of trademarks at an article on The Publishing Law Center web site http://www.publaw.com/fairusetrade.html.
However, while using trademarks is all right, using too many brand names is over-the-top and annoying. Unless you're writing chick lit about a brand-obsessed heroine, then don't waste valuable narrative telling the reader about your heroine's designer clothing, designer perfumes, expensive car, and designer pets. Some books include so many brand names that readers begin to wonder if the writer is getting kickbacks for product placement.
Don't avoid brand names altogether, however. Using brand names can be a good way to provide the reader with a quick concrete description. Does your hero drive a Jaguar? Or does he drive a VW bus? Right away, those are two very different heroes. (Even more different is the hero who owns both a shiny Jag and an old VW bus.)
Don't Let Description Hang You Up during a First Draft
If you're not comfortable with writing description, don't let it get in your way when you're writing the first draft. Remember, you can always go back and add it later. If you have any critique partners, however, you might want to warn them that your early drafts won't have all of the details built in.
This is the way I work. For example, when I was writing the first draft of my fantasy novel set in a prison of mages, I had a clear idea of the characters and plot, and I certainly knew what my characters looked like. (They were yummy!) But I wasn't set on the description of the setting yet. So instead of stopping, I wrote. I worked out the plot. Then, whenever I went back and edited the novel, I added more description where needed.
This technique doesn't work for all writers. Some writers must have the description down-pat, or they won't be able to continue. However, if you think it might work for you, try it out. This technique has an added advantage -- if you change any aspects of your setting in midstream, you won't have as much rewriting to do.
Copyright © 2004 Anne Marble
Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.