You’ve probably heard it said that you should write with all five senses. But maybe you gave that a try and ended up with a page full of purple prose. Just how are you supposed to write descriptions tactfully, anyway?
I’m so glad you asked. We’re spending October talking about the art of writing descriptions in your novel. In case you missed last week’s post, here’s the link: Bringing Your Novel to Life.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, large blocks and even pages of description were the way to go. Check it out:
The sun was setting upon one of the rich grassy glades of that forest … Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copse-wood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to intercept the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas, in the intricacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of sylvan solitude. ~ Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
This excerpt is only a part of the nine-paragraph opening of Scott’s classic. Lofty language aside … literature used to move at a much slower pace. Today, we would label Scott’s opening as a really bad case of info dumping.
You can blame it on modern society’s short attention span, or you can blame it on changing trends in literature. The point is, we found out eventually that you don’t have to stop the story to set the scene.
Weaving it In
A better idea is to drop little details here and there as you tell the story.
Foster crossed the room slowly, as if stepping on broken glass. Still several feet away, he stopped. Though he kept his hands loosely clasped behind his back, his coffee-brown eyes searched my face. Sympathetically, I suppose. But to me, they felt rather like the long needles used to probe chair cushions and sofa pillows for hidden evidence.
“Tiffany. How are you?”
In that particular tone of voice, he might have been asking about the weather, or if I had prepared a report on a recent investigation. But instinctually, I detected something deeper. Compassion. A concern that his tone belied. My cover was blown. Foster could read every word written in my heart. ~Danielle Hanna, Tiffany
A couple notes of interest I could point out:
The details are woven in to the action and dialogue. At no point do I stop the story–for instance, to write a paragraph describing Foster. I drop just a detail here and a detail there, so that action, dialogue, and description are all moving forward together.
Sometimes less is more. I mention only a very few details in this sample. Why? Here’s the paradox: when writing descriptions, what’s important is not what Foster looked like, what the room looked like, or what Tiffany looked like. What’s important is how Tiffany felt about the people or things she was looking at. Every detail I use in the narrative is there for one reason: to convey my POV character’s mood.
Exceptions to the Rule
Rules are made to be broken, right? I’m not going to be all hard-nose and say that you can never devote an entire paragraph to description. There are times when that works quite well.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. ~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
But if you’re going to go around breaking rules, you have to know how to do it with class.
Know that you’re breaking the flow. When you stop to draw a picture, you stop telling story. So the paragraph-long description works best when the person, place, or object you’re describing is so attention-grabbing, time stands still for your characters while they soak it in.
Keep it colorful. Dickens’ description of Scrooge certainly wasn’t lacking in color. If you’re going to pause the plot, you’re going to have to make restitution with some pretty kick-ass straight-up narrative. This is the time to shine. More on that next week.
Special Mention: The Signature Detail
I want you to think about your grandmother’s house–or some equivalent. Name the first three things that come to mind. Here’s my list:
- The stone statue in the foyer holding a little dish full of pennies
- Matchboxes that looked like tiny, gilded books
- The wind-up tin elephant on a tricycle
Now imagine that those three things were destroyed or lost somehow, and you show up at Grandma’s house to hear her explain …
- The statue was stolen.
- I used up all the matches and threw the boxes away.
- The elephant broke.
What a let-down, right? These were some of the things you loved about Grandma’s house! You could count on them always being there. And now … they’re gone.
That’s how I felt when my friend Terry shaved off his mustache. It didn’t bother me that he’d shaved his head, too. But the mustache? Unforgivable. That bushy mustache hiding his self-conscious smile was part of what made Terry Terry.
When certain people or places become meaningful to us, we embrace the details that set them apart. The things that say, “Grandma’s house, and nowhere else” or “Terry and no one else.”
The same is true in literature.
Our old chambers had been left unchanged through the supervision of Mycroft Holmes and the immediate care of Mrs. Hudson. As I entered I saw, it is true, an unwonted tidiness, but the old landmarks were all in their place. There were the chemical corner and the acid-stained, deal-topped table. There upon a shelf was the row of formidable scrap-books and books of reference which many of our fellow-citizens would have been so glad to burn. The diagrams, the violin-case, and the pipe-rack–even the Persian slipper which contained the tobacco–all met my eyes as I glanced round me. ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Empty House”
And just like we look forward to the stone statue and the “match books” and the tin elephant every time we see Grandma, we enjoy being reminded occasionally during the course of the book of the tobacco in the slipper and the test tubes in the corner.
I call these sorts of things “signature details,” because they are as unique to one person, place, or object as their signature. I used to worry that I would annoy my reader if I mentioned the same detail more than once. But just the opposite–I find in my own reading that I delight in being reminded of the little things that set a person or place apart.
So next time you’re creating a significant character or setting, consider creating signature details, and referencing them just often enough to make your reader believe in them–like so many people believe in 221B Baker Street.
Sometimes finding the right balance and placement of description can feel like walking a tight rope. But like any skill, it can be learned, with practice.
Next Wednesday, we’re exploring the connection between descriptive details and your characters. Still not sure which details are important enough to merit a mention in your novel? Still worried about how to write descriptions in a way that doesn’t put your reader to sleep? The key is in your characters. I hope you’ll join us!
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Your turn to talk! Name the first three things you remember about your grandmother’s house. Now name the first three things you think of in your story setting. Have fun!
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