You sit down to try the same thing, and you wind up with either purple prose or cereal box copy. How do you write really good description, anyway?
This October on Wednesdays, we’re talking about how to write description in fiction. If you’re interested in the first three posts, you can check out the links:
Maybe you feel that when it comes to vivid prose, you either have it or you don’t. But like last week’s post on how to choose the descriptive details you use, the key lies with your characters.
A Note on Deep POV
Once again, this brings us to a discussion on point of view, and particularly something called deep POV. The best and briefest explanation I’ve ever heard of deep POV goes like this: Whether you’re writing in first person (I, me) or third person (he, she), imagine it’s all first person.
You can only write what your POV character knows, what your POV character sees, what your POV character thinks, what your POV character experiences.
But more than that … you should only write in your POV character’s voice.
And that, my dear friends, is the key to helping you write better description.
Listen to people long enough, and you’ll realize that every individual has a unique way of expressing themselves–certain words, phrases, sentence structures, and speech habits that set them apart.
The same should go for your fictional characters. As an example, do you think you could tell a line of Gandalf’s dialogue from Gollum’s or Sam’s?
Fool of a Took!
Sneaky little Hobbitses!
What we need is a few good taters.
But here’s the deal: In deep POV, the point-of-view character’s unique voice shouldn’t apply to just his dialogue, but to the narration, too, whether you’re writing in first person or third person. By doing so, you can totally immerse the reader in your character.
Deep POV is the key to breathing life into your descriptive passages. Don’t ask how you should word it … but how your character would word it.
Here’s a scene written in third person from the POV of some random character I know nothing about:
Elbows braced on her knees, Kat stared into the painted eyes of the Jesus statue at the head of the hospital chapel. Recessed fixtures in the ceiling bathed the figure in light, giving it the brilliance of a heavenly messenger that had supernaturally dropped into the small, dim room.
Kat tapped the Styrofoam coffee cup she held between her knees.
The guy needed a touch-up on his paint job.
Steam wafted through the slot in the plastic lid and caressed her face. She wrapped her fingers more snugly around the Styrofoam. Why was she still cold? She’d been out of the snow now for hours. She could have pulled up the zipper on her coat, or maybe scrutinized the dank and dark corners for a thermostat.
But she didn’t. Wouldn’t have made any difference. This kind of chill didn’t have anything to do with air temperature. Something numb sat dead-center in her body, as if all her bones had turned to ice.
And she couldn’t tear her eyes off that carved figure.
It was just a statue, for crying out loud.
Maybe that was the problem. Maybe she wanted to feel like those wooden eyes were actually looking back. Like the expression of concern frozen on His cracked face was real.
Kat sniffled and shook her bangs out of her eyes.
Dang it, if she started crying, she’d have to start all over with her makeup.
There is no dialogue in this passage, and yet the character’s voice is evident throughout. I would peg her as the kind of gal who tries at all costs to put up a tough exterior.
What’re You in the Mood For?
Not only should you consider your character’s voice; you should also consider his mood.
Let’s say your character has just arrived home for Thanksgiving. How do you imagine he would describe his parents’ house as he walked through the door?
Now let’s say your character is coming home from his dad’s funeral. Same house. Same family. But how would he describe it now? His word choice–and even the details he notices–will probably be vastly different.
A Matter of Opinion
Here’s another random scene in the POV of a character I know nothing about:
I had never seen such a God-forsaken gas station in my life. Hanging onto the edge of town, Arizona desert in every other direction, and smack in the middle of it all, a concrete-block shoe box with two self-service pumps.
A rusty cowbell above the door clanked as I walked in. No air conditioning. Patches of sunlight on the tile floor baked the place like a brick oven. Beyond the windows near the corner counter stood a twisted old Joshua tree that would have added a nice element to any grave yard. The only sound in the place was the hum of refrigerators. I thought about pulling a door open and sticking my face inside next to the cartons of milk and bottles of pop.
If you had to guess, would you say the POV character in the above scene liked the setting she was in? Nah. She practically treats it with disdain.
Your character’s opinion of a particular person, place, or thing can also color your descriptions. The above character’s dislike for her surroundings influences her entire word choice–and makes for a fun read.
It’s Not About the Painting, but the Painter
This is the part where I take the most basic thing you assumed about writing description, and do a one-eighty on you. You ready for this?
Description isn’t about the subject being described; it’s about the character doing the describing.
Yes, we describe our story world, in part, to paint a mental picture and orient the reader. But the ultimate point of any story is to carry the reader away on an emotional, experiental journey. In that light, nothing in our story world has any value, unless we experience an emotional reaction to it or because of it.
And the point-of-view characters are our touchstone. We experienc their world through them. We experience the emotions they experience.
It’s not about the person who just walked into the room; it’s about how our character felt about the person. It isn’t about the setting in this new scene; it’s about how our character felt about the setting. It isn’t about the car, the dog, the sunset–whatever. It is, first and last, about how the character felt.
And that is the trick to writing narrative that soars. Does your POV character have a voice? Is she in a mood? Does she have an opinion, positive or negative? If you can tap into your character, you have a powerful tool to help you write your description.
Next week wraps up our series on writing description. Did you think this topic couldn’t possibly delve any deeper? Hang on. Next Wednesday we talk about the reader’s role in painting the story world, and how you can facilitate their flight of imagination.
If you like what you see here, why not subscribe? We have an ebook just for you, as a way of saying thanks. What do writing a novel and walking a cat have in common? A lot. And Carrie writes from experience.
Okay, one for the road: How does your main character feel about an important setting in your story? An important person? Feel free to wax eloquent in the comments!
Other Posts in This Series: