My son is studying descriptive writing at high school. For homework he was asked to write a paragraph on the view from his window. It’s a tough call when there’s not much going on out there. But that, of course, is the whole point of the exercise – to note what generally goes unnoticed, and to convey a complete and original picture of the view from the window, using all of the senses. It’s amazing what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel when you put your mind to it.
As a writer I do that all the time. But it’s a skill I’ve had to develop, too. (And I’m still working on it.)
I started my career as a television news reporter. Being a news reporter means turning a lot of complicated information into a short package so the audience can easily understand what is going on. In television, the pictures help tell the story. The words back up the television footage.
Writing fiction works the other way round – you need to use words to describe the images in your head. Good description helps to draw in the reader and helps to make the story more exciting.
These are some of the things I find important.
1. Always start by brainstorming ideas
Dump down every word that comes to mind related to the scene you are describing. If you put down a noun (e.g. river) put down as many adjectives as you can think of to go with that noun. (e.g. gentle, raging, clear – depending on the type of river). From there you could develop metaphors and similes to go with the nouns.
2. Use all of your senses in the description
Mostly, we rely on our sight, but other senses help to build up a complete picture of what is going on. Draw in your readers by telling them what you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and how it makes you feel. The reader should know something about you as well as the scene by your choice of words.
Here’s an example from one of my books.
I’m thinking of money, not dangerous animals. That’s why I put my foot in the long grass without thinking at all. There’s a rustle just in front of my foot. I hear it before I see it. I scramble backwards. A long black body slithers out of the grass. It’s right in front of me. A tongue flickers. Then there’s a flash of red. ‘SNAKE!’ I scream. ‘Red-belly black snake!’
3. Make your description as specific as possible
There are lots of adjectives that sound cool to use, but they don’t always add meaning to your story. Your house might be in “chaos”, but does that mean there are a few clothes scattered on your bedroom floor or does it mean aliens have invaded and set up camp in your kitchen? Make sure you don’t leave the reader to guess what you might mean.
How about a man with a “creepy face”? What is it about his face that scares you?
Here’s another example.
An ugly thing with a human body, ears like a rabbit and a face so grotesque it would make gladiators wet their pants, leaps off the roof of the houseboat.
4. Use details that are relevant to the story
If you are writing a book, rather than just a paragraph for class, you need to choose which scenes to describe in detail and which details are needed. Rich detail adds to a story but irrelevant detail slows down the pacing. Make sure all the relevant details come out early in the story. Don’t surprise the reader in the climax by revealing your main character has supersonic vision. The reader will feel cheated. And be consistent. If your character has a broken leg at the beginning of the story, he won’t be carrying everyone to safety at the end of the story.
Here’s another snippet.
I made a deal with sharks. I don’t swim near them and they don’t play cricket. It may be a little unfair. I can swim, whereas they haven’t got a hope of hitting a six.
4. Use description as part of the story
Good detail advances the story. It doesn’t slow it down. In this scene, the description is part of the story.
Something wet hits me in the face. Cold, slimy fingers grab at my neck. I can feel them, even through the balaclava. Sharp talons scratch at my cheeks. I fight to get free. But I get more tangled. I gasp for breath. I’m going to be choked to death.
5. Detail should be original but resonate with the reader
No one wants to read a cliché (especially not your English teacher or publisher), so descriptions need to be original. Detail should offer a fresh view on something well known.
When it comes to describing something unusual, metaphors and similes are a good way to compare something unknown to the reader with something they do know.
This is a description of a ghost bat (which most readers wouldn’t be familiar with). I compare it to a character from Star Wars.
It has long ears and what looks like a piece of salad on the end of its nose. I’m being attacked by Master Yoda with wings! I’m in the middle of a Star Wars battle zone.
I felt confident my readers would know Master Yoda, but it’s essential to avoid using similes and metaphors that add confusion not clarification.
Here’s an example: Jodie was as lazy as my Aunty Hilly.
If the reader doesn’t know Aunty Hilly, then the simile doesn’t add anything to our understanding of Jodie.
6. Use detail to reveal how the character feels
This is the one that often gets forgotten. Descriptive writing should tell us something about the character so we get to know them better and have a chance to identify with
One of my characters is forced to go into the water, where he thinks there might be sharks.
Panic rises inside me, like a battalion of hairy caterpillars, marching through my chest.
Hopefully from this, the reader knows he is terrified of sharks. The information is revealed rather than directly stated. This is what some people call showing – not – telling.
Good luck with adding detail to your next story.