Hello readers! Once again, we’re back with more Being a Better Writer! But first, how was your weekend?
Here on the site, things went pretty well. In fact, there was a surge of material posted here this weekend if you kept up with things. Friday saw the posting of a completely unexpected short story, Firstborn, which can now be found over at the writing sample page, while Saturday saw the once-again return of Fireteam Freelance with a new episode (number six), Mandatory Takeout. Meaning that the series is now halfway done!
And still completely free. Kind of like BaBW.
Anyway, if you missed either of those updates this weekend, you can still catch up at their respective pages (or you could just scroll down if you’re reading this post day of). With that said, let’s get into today’s post topic: Descriptions in writing.
Now, some of you may already be looking up at the title and wondering “what gives?” since the title had and extra bit in there, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that. For now, let’s just start with descriptions.
Descriptions, or the act of describing things, has been a steadily recurring topic on this series for a few years now (try that search bar if you’re curious). But ultimately that’s fair because not only are there constant newcomers to the art of writing, there are also a lot of different ways to approach how to describe a scene or object.
And I mean a lot of different ways. Emphasized both times. To drive this home, I had a teacher in one of my college writing courses assign the following challenge to her students as homework: Go home and pick an object. Something somewhat simple and common, like a lamp or a chair. Me, I chose a yellow plastic cup with a smiley face on it.
Once we’d picked the item, we were to write a paragraph describing it. Not too hard, right?
The next day we were given the same assignment. For the same object. The catch being that we couldn’t use any of the descriptions we’d used in our prior paragraph.
Oh, and we were going to do this for a week. Seven more descriptive paragraphs. No repetitions between them.
As you might imagine, by the end of the week I was pounding my head against a table to try and think of another new way to describe that blasted cup. But ultimately, I did it. I made it through, and described this simple yellow plastic cup in a variety of ways, all different from one another … and yet every case was still identifiable as a cup (even if it took a bit of thought for some of the later ones).
Now, my point in sharing this challenge with you isn’t to say “now you try it” … Though I have done that before on this blog and I do consider it a wonderful challenge of an exercise if you’re looking to stretch your faculties. So I would certainly encourage it.
No, my point was to explain that it can be done to serve as an example for how many ways there are to describe a thing that we’re all familiar with. There are dozens, even hundreds of common ways to describe something most people are familiar with that would give them an immediate grasp of what the speaker is writing about.
In other words, when any writer sits down to write a scene or describe a setting, the challenge is not whether or not they’ll be able to adequately do so. Few make it out of high school without the ability to describe something. Given a dozen pages to fill and a single house to write about, most writers would readily be able to fill those dozen pages.
Volume and capability, then, is not the issue. And if you happen to be writing a technical document about a house for a potential buyer, then twelve pages describing every detail of the place is likely exactly what they want. However, if you’re writing a social drama novel about two rich neighbors going to war with one another and destroying each other socially … twelve pages about a house may be a bit much. Both all at once, and for the story in total.
See, especially in fiction, it’s not enough to simply be able to offer descriptions of things. We need to be able to focus our descriptions to what’s pertinent.
Tying this all back, then, simply being able to wax on and on about something and what it looks like or how it functions aren’t enough to be able to write good descriptions in a work of fiction. We need to consider other elements as well. Length, being a key one. Priority another. And last but not least, focus.
All of these intertwine, and I worry that by splitting them even as I have above I’ve set up some sort of hierarchy in your minds, but in truth each of these elements is like the leg of a three-legged stool: You need all of them to function, and the order doesn’t so much as matter as having all three. They must be acknowledged if you’re going to work on description.
Okay, let’s talk about them. Again, the order isn’t important, but I’ll follow the setup above and discuss length first.
Okay, so look: All of us could spend ten pages describing a character’s car or looks or really, anything, to a reader. It wouldn’t even be that hard for a lot of things. All you’d need to do is go really deep in depth.
But would it be interesting at all to the reader? Or even relevant? Or would the reader just have stopped dead in the middle of an action sequence for a two-page description of the getaway vehicle?
Any time you’re given the option to dive into a description of something, you should consider how much space you have to give to that description. Narrative space, not page space. If you want to go in-depth on an item, like a vehicle, is there space in the narrative for it? Or would it be bloating to the scene in question?
Let’s take, for example, the description of the Python, a submarine in Colony. When the Python is introduced, it gets the better part of a chapter as the protagonists arrive at it and look it over. However, this works because the chapter is set up to introduce them to what will be their home for the next several weeks, and the characters are interested to see it (more on this character aspect later).
But shoving those descriptions elsewhere, when there are other focuses of a chapter, would make their length and detail unwelcome and out of place. A chase scene, for example. Your readers will likely not care or enjoy several paragraphs of detail about a car’s manufacture and make in the middle of a chase. They want to know how the chase is going!
Length of a description needs to be considered, with relevant though given over to what the current narrative has space for. If there’s a lot going on, breaking for even a paragraph to offer a description of something may be too much.
Even a full length sentence may be too much, depending on what’s going on and where a reader’s focus may be. A shorter, more tightly compact sentence may serve better. Or even an aside combined with several other things.
This may be sounding to some of you like prioritizing, and you’d be right. But you can take it further: Do you even need a description at all.
Going back to Colony and the Python, one of the reasons there’s a chapter introducing the sub early on is so that later, when the story has an active scene where the protagonist throws it into a loop to dodge an incoming torpedo, the story doesn’t need to spend time explaining what the sub is, or how it may look doing that loop. The reader already knows what they need to know.
What the reader needs to know is also an important thing to keep in mind with a description. Take, for example, a story in which a character is running for their life and sees a getaway vehicle. You’re in the middle of a chase, but it’s the first time they’ve encountered this vehicle. So when it comes to length, you don’t have much to dedicate. Maybe a paragraph? Or less? Two sentences?
What two sentences will convey the most important visual to the reader? Are you going to focus on how the vehicle looks fast? On its color? On the low, squat, predatory shape?
Basically, in line with length, we also have to consider what we’re going to prioritize in a description. What are the most important aspects we want the reader to know about? Do they have to know about them? Can three become two, maybe? What do we want the reader to know above all else about what they’re reading about? Is it color? Shape? Size? When you only have one sentence to give, which will you choose? Which is the most important?
Last, but not least (again, three-legged stool), we have focus. Which slipped in a bit with the ending of priority above (because all three of these are pretty intertwined). But for this, I’d say “think of it like a film shot.”
Every movie (or at least, every good one) has a focus to each shot. Something that draws the viewers attention, that takes center space on the screen.
Our descriptions should be the same way. What is the focus when we describe something? If we’ve just brought our reader into a room, is it what they’re familiar with? Is it the leather-bound chairs? Or the diplomas on the wall? The near and orderly rows on an individual’s desk? Is it what’s new? What’s unique?
Like length and priority, focus is something we need to consider when keeping our description “on point.” so to say. In fact, you could say the focus is what keeps it on point, since it requires knowing what the point is. What are you hoping to accomplish? What focus serves that?
For example, if a character is pulling off a heist, what should be their focus upon entering the office they’re supposed to rob? The desk? The clock? What would serve the narrative best?
So, with description, you have length, priority, and focus to consider. But now, and at this point, we have one more major point to bring up and address.
See? Told you that’d come up. So everything we’ve talked about thus far is a good way to look at writing description in story, but we’ve ignored a very critical aspect, though we began to touch on it.
Point of view.
See, everything above we’ve talked about is important to consider, but the moment you start getting into any sort of fiction with a viewpoint, there’s a very important shift that takes place.
Omniscient or even limited narrator? Like the voiceover of a documentary? Well, that’s one thing. The above aspects of description will still be improtant.
But what we’re not writing some omniscient, invisible commentator. What if we’re writing from the perspective of a character? Third-person or first-person, does this point of view change our description?
YES. Or rather, yes it should. Because where the three points above still matter in the writing of said description, there’s something very new to consider, especially with regards to focus and priority. Where a neutral narrator can simply choose what they believe will do the most for the reader, when the PoV is filtered through a character, we as writers must consider what the character would have as a focus and priority.
Going back to the earlier example of a character that’s breaking into an office for a heist of some kind, we need to consider when they break in what they would look at first. What would they notice that would set the scene for our readers? What would their focus and priority be? How much length might that give our descriptions?
For instance, they might come through the door and, rather than examining what the reader would expect, examine the corners of the room before anything else, looking for sensors that could reveal their intrusion. Or the clock on the wall, if they’re on a schedule.
Character, however, can go further than that. Character can come across in how things are described as well. Have you ever read a book that has a chapter or a scene start with a setting, but you know who the viewpoint character is even before they’re named because there’s just this way they talk about the world?
That’s an example of an author using their character’s language in description well enough that you recognize their character. Maybe it’s the way they refer to colors. Or the way they focus on some aspect of a scene. But there’s something to how they talk, to who they are, that makes the description them.
So when you do this, what you have is a situation where not only are you considering length, priority, and focus, you’re considering all of that through the focus of the viewpoint character as well. What language are they likely to use? What would they notice first?
Now, a bit of a warning. You don’t have to make this anything all consuming. Not every description has to be fed through their lens in some effective degree. People (and characters), for all their differences, still can be pretty similar.
But it’s something that can add flavor to descriptions, like salt and pepper, that in turn will make the character and setting feel a little bit more alive even as the reader learns about them. Little touches that show a point of view, that give a reader not only a visual picture of the room but as that character sees it? That brings a story to life!
Okay, so let’s recap. When considering description in a story, consider length, priority, and focus. Do you have the space to fit the description in? Is it well-placed in the narrative and/or needed? And what are the most important things you want the reader to envision or know?
Then, with all that in mind, don’t forget that the narration may shift based on the viewpoints involved. Language, word-choice, terms, even what the priority or focus is may lean in a different direction based on the character who’s eyes we’re seeing the world through.
Now, with that said, I want to offer one final bit of advice on what’s been said today: This isn’t an end all. As I said, description has been discussed multiple times on BaBW, and each time from a new angle. Hopefully, something I’ve said today helps you view it in a new and helpful light. But it isn’t the end-all on description in stories, so if you’re still feeling lost, try looking up one of the other posts about it.
And above all else, good luck. Now get writing!
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