In trying to stumble upon inspiration for this blog post, I found a lot of advice on improving dialogue. I thought about using that, but honestly I would have no idea what advice to give. Unlike description, dialogue is one of those things that comes super naturally to me. I get a lot of compliments on how real my dialogue is, but I don’t really know what I do to make it so special. Until someone told me, I had no idea my dialogue was even any good.
And that’s how I picked my topic for today- Description, my arch nemesis. I could compile a lot of advice on how to enhance description in writing because it’s something I have to work at constantly. Every few hundred words I have to remind myself that description needs to be included because if I don’t, I’ll forget and it won’t get included. I am terrible at it.
One of the reasons why Shannon Hale’s books are my favorites is because of the beautiful way she describes everything. It’s poetic and flows so perfectly. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do, but I’m still going to work at it so I can get better.
This advice is gathered from fellow writers because my own advice sucks.
Only use description for a specific purpose. Don’t describe something for the sake of having description. And in case you didn’t guess, that’s usually where I go wrong. I feel like if I don’t describe things, then people will have questions about the setting or the character, so I usually go over the top in places, especially the beginning. If it’s not important to the story, then it probably doesn’t need to be mentioned in the first place. Only those things that are relevant need to be mentioned.
EX: In Rose, my descriptions really took away from the whole story because I spent too much time describing the town, the characters, the buildings, etc. simply for the sake of describing stuff. I thought I was creating a nice little scene for the reader, but it was overwhelming and uninteresting. It had minor relevance to the plot, and could have been done more tastefully. When I go back, I’ve got some major changes to make.
Description should be used to reveal character. Depending on who is narrating, the descriptions will vary because the characters are all different and notice different things. When the narration is filtered through a certain viewpoint, the description can show a lot about their personality. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but I still think it should be pointed out.
I’m adding in a quick edit with a tidbit I gathered this morning from Erin Merrill– “What I love about description is the power it has to reveal a character’s emotional state. An object or setting can just be detail, or it can be more. For instance, I could say: “From high up in its nest, the bird jerked its head and chirped.” Or “From high up in its nest, the bird jerked its head and chirped, flaunting what I wanted, what I’d never have–home.” In the first sentence, the reader sees an ordinary bird in a tree. But in the second, the reader sees the bird not just chirping, but flaunting. Arrogant almost. They also see the ache of the character. Her hopelessness. Her longing for home. And all of that was possible just by utilizing description–by the character relating to what’s around her. To me, that’s what makes description so powerful. Any object, any setting can be a tool to add depth to your character.”
EX: Whenever Phillippe and Rose would travel, the would notice different things. When Rose was narrating, she would notice anything and everything outside while Phillippe was only focused on Rose. He had already seen everything outside, but to Rose it was all new. Also, Rose would get really nervous, so Phillippe would watch her reactions to make sure she was okay. What they noticed and chose to describe to the reader revealed their personalities.
Long, wordy, or generic descriptions take away from the plot. This one also causes problems for me. I’m a very wordy person. I struggle to be precise, so most of my descriptions take away from the plot because it removes the reader from the action. The other side of this is having large chunks of only description and nothing else. The solution for that is to describe through the action rather than separating the two. Break it up a little so your reader doesn’t get bored and start skimming (I’ll confess that I am a skimmer. I skim for dialogue, and I think that’s a big reason why I’m good at dialogue and bad at description). Use the action or dialogue to give a better image for the reader, but make sure it makes sense. Don’t describe something that isn’t relevant to the current scene. I’m still practicing this, but it works really well when done right.
EX: Instead of saying, “The fire was hot on my feet”, try, “The heat of the fire nipped at my heels as I jumped away.” See the difference? It’s also the difference between passive vs. active voices, which is my other great struggle.
Something I’ve actively worked to fix in my own writing is appealing to all 5 senses. As humans, we rely very heavily on sight so our descriptions tend to be visual. But only using sight in writing tends to come off as one dimensional. There are four other senses to use. Taste can sometimes be hard, but it can be very useful depending on the scene. Sounds can also be tricky because they are usually reserved for dialogue tones. Smell is something I’ve tried to bring in full force into my writing. It can really enhance and add depth to scenes. My characters also have distinct scents that I try to use when it’s relevant. Magic Writer said to me, “pick out salient points of the scenery to build a picture, without overwhelming…don’t overdo the standard details.”
EX: When Rose and Phillippe when to Disneyland, I dedicated like a whole paragraph just to smells, and I think it did a much better job of building the scene for the reader than if I had only used visual descriptions. It was definitely over the top and still overwhelming (see previous section about long, wordy descriptions), but was a much better start than some of my other descriptions.
I saved a whole paragraph just for “feel”s because it is so often misused in writing, especially my own. This one is huge to me, hence the title of this post. When we want to share an emotion with the reader, the character “feels” this or that. Always. I am so guilty of this. It goes back to “The fire was hot on my feet”. PASSIVE. BLAND. BAD. It doesn’t do anything for the reader. Get them to actually empathize with the characters (empathize means to actually share the feeling, rather than sympathy which is agreeing with a feeling). Instead of telling how your character felt, describe it.
EX: Why say, “Fred was furious” When you can say, “Fred resisted the urge to punch Henry in his stupid, fat nose”? Notice how I didn’t say, “Fred felt like punching Henry” because “felt” gets overused and can usually be changed to something stronger.
Strong words can make all the difference in refining a description. When you’re trying to keep to all these ridiculous rules I’m throwing out, have your thesaurus handy. Often times you can find an easier way to describe something by finding another more accurate word. I’ve got Thesaurus.com always open on my computer because inevitably, I’ll need it. Modifiers are long, and don’t do as accurate or precise of a job. Strong words can keep descriptions concise, sensory, and active.
EX: In place of “really loud” you could use, “screaming”, “blaring”, or “rowdy” to specify which kind of “loud”. “Rowdy” means something very different than “screaming”, but they could both be used in place of “loud”. Find the right word for your description. When you use a stronger word, it means something more specific to the reader.
But most importantly remember that everything can be fixed in edits! Whatever your writing weakness, description, dialogue, passive voice, the most important thing is to be at peace with your weakness while you’re writing. Worry about it in edits. It’s much easier to get something right the second, third, tenth time when you have that foundation already built to work upon.
You don’t have to be good at everything. It’s okay that I’m terrible at description. That’s why we edit and get feedback. Everyone says writing is a solitary profession, but it’s not. Because of all the amazing feedback I’ve received for Rose and Powerful, I know what needs to be fixed and how to improve it. No one gets everything right the first time around.