Fundamentals of Descriptive Writing You Can’t Afford To Ignore
By Leigh Holland.
Descriptive writing. For many of us, it’s the most difficult aspect of writing to wrap our heads around. I recommend keeping an imagery notebook to jot down ideas in. As this grows, you’ll have a bank of descriptions to work from in your writing.
First, let’s refresh our minds with some basics.
Why is Descriptive Writing important? Shouldn’t I trust the reader?
Absolutely trust your readers to infer things from your writing. However, people want to have an experience when they read your stories. They want to feel, think, and connect with your characters and world. To do that requires imagination. The purpose of descriptive writing is to inspire imagination within your readers.
A Few Terms
Caricature- A device used in descriptive writing and portrait art where traits of a subject are exaggerated to produce a comic effect.
Simile- Making a comparison using the words “like” or “as”. Example: She’s as pretty as a picture. He prances like a pony.
Metaphor- Figure of speech which makes an implicit or implied between two things that are unrelated but share some common characteristic. Example: She’s the black sheep of the family.
Analogy- Making a comparison between two ideas or things which may be quite different. Metaphor and simile are tools used to form analogies. Example: Just as the sword is the weapon of the warrior, the pen is the weapon of the writer.
Symbolism- Usage of symbols to express ideas and qualities by giving them meanings that are different from their literal sense. Examples of symbols in daily life include red roses for romantic love, the color black for death, mirrors for introspection, and doves for peace.
Diction- The writer’s choice of words, which change based on context or setting, creating and conveying mood, tone, atmosphere, and how the writer feels about his own work.
Avoid using weather to match the mood of the character. Stay away from boring, normal weather. Weather imagery should be used to create atmosphere and build intensity. Extreme weather is the best type because it brings out emotions in the characters. Think about how irate people are in the heat without relief, how they snap easily at each other. Others don’t get irate but might lay back and lounge, refusing to do a thing until the heat passes or the air conditioning gets fixed. What about people snowed in on a mountain for weeks? Will they succumb to cabin fever?
Make sure when using the weather throughout a novel to keep it consistent with the changing of the seasons, the clothing worn, the storefront decorations, the foods eaten, and the general social moods. If the scene is outside, remember that the weather affects everything in the scene.
Colors go beyond ROYGBIV. Avoid cliches like ‘rose red’ or ‘white as the driven snow’. But add detail to your color descriptions where appropriate. Here are some off the cuff examples:
Black as asphalt in a storm
Red as my commemorative “Office Space” Swingline stapler
Pom-Pom Rah-Rah red
Oak Bark Brown
Tan as slightly overdone toast
Metal Desk Gray
Karner butterfly blue
Exercise: Carry a notebook, journal, or just pull up a document on your phone. Write ROYGBIV, a line for each color. Write the things you see throughout the day that fall under that color. Later, spend a little time creating a database of new ways to describe colors.
Shadows and Light
What mood do you want to evoke? Creepy? Noir? Sad? Nostalgic? Shadows and light can set the mood of your scene. What is the source of the light in the scene? Moonlight? Candles? Strobe lights and a disco ball? The hot glare of the noon day sun? A flashlight? How does the light fall on the setting and what effect does it have on the characters? When describing outdoor light, does it glint or gleam off nearby objects?
When describing light and shadow, use powerful verbs and adjectives. Is the light cool or warm? Is it harsh or soft? Does it tumble through the window and drop across the gunmetal gray floor? Does it create tiny triangles across the quilted bed, fading in and out as the dandelion white curtain flutters gently in the cool breeze?
Make sure when using this technique repeatedly to vary your descriptions.
Exercise: Throughout the day, make a note of the light and shadows in your own setting. Try to vary between outdoors, indoors, day, and night.
Add detail to your descriptions. Which is more interesting?
“He walked down the street surrounded by trees.”
“He walked down the asphalt road surrounded by weeping willows.”
Word choices make a world of difference as well. Using powerful verbs and adjectives paints a fuller image.
“He strolled down the onyx asphalt road, surrounded on either side by voluminous weeping willows.”
Additionally, when writing in Deep POV, describe what the character sees and experiences. Limit the manner in which you describe things to his or her perceptions.
Exercise: Go back to a scene you’ve written. Find and circle the verbs is, was, are, or were. Can you find a stronger verb for these sentences?
While telling the reader “It was the next day when…” imparts what they need to know, it’s not exactly exciting. Show them with description how much time has passed. If it’s later in the same day, show how the shadows and light have changed, the sun’s position overhead, or have the character take a simple action such as turning on (or off) the lights. If it’s a few days later, show the change in weather, or progress in work. If it’s months later, changes in temperature, weather, clothing styles, holidays, and shop sales are all wonderful ways to show the time that has passed.
We take in a vast amount of information through our senses every moment, albeit subconsciously. Our minds sort the data and decide which data are the most important bits to consciously experience and commit to memory. Can we add too much description to a scene? Yes, we can always add too little or too much. Description is like the flavor of the writing recipe, the dish will be vastly different depending on which combination of spices you add and in what amounts. Too little, and the characters are roaming around in the green screen of the reader’s mind. Too much, and you leave nothing to the imagination. How do we decide which bits to write about?
One of the most powerful and concise methods is to describe the smells a character experiences upon entering a scene. Think about it- we smell things continuously but only really notice and react to powerful scents. This can quickly set the mood and setting for the scene. Use this in an appropriate manner and don’t overuse the technique from scene to scene.
Another way to paint a more vibrant image is to describe background noises. Don’t list them, find concise ways to describe them. Example: The eagle, titan among birds, emitted a series of monotone, high-pitched screeches in periodic cycles. The occasional car hummed its way through the suburb.
Rachel Poli has an article covering the senses at How To Use The 5 Senses In Creative Writing.
Scene Type and Description
The Action Scene
- If at all possible, describe the setting for the action scene in an earlier scene. Description can interfere with action if not inserted carefully. By employing “pre-emptive imagery”, you can write the action scene without halting the action for setting description.
- Select a setting that has objects or items that can be used as weaponry, obstacles, or hidey-holes. This allows you to insert description into the action subtly as characters interact with their environment.
- Use strong, potent verb choices and short to medium length sentences. The goal is to keep up the reader’s sense of fast-paced excitement.
The Love Scene
- The best love scenes evoke deep emotions in the reader. The reader feels the characters’ yearning, desire, passion, and pain. Readers will never forget a scene that touched their hearts.
- Settings and circumstances can often force two people together who otherwise may have remained apart. For example, if your characters have chemistry but are at each other’s throats, perhaps they get separated from the group, a storm appears, they’re lost, she hurts her leg, and they have to fight for survival until rescue comes. Maybe the characters have never met and are forced together through circumstance, such as in the film Speed. These dangerous circumstances would cause them to forge an immediate bond. In Speed, they literally met earlier that day.
The Chase Scene
- Use high action verbs, such as dart, veer, flash, streak, panther-quick.
- Write about the sweat glistening on your character’s brow, his heart pounding, his breath panting. Get inside his skin and identify with him. Let us feel his determination, fear, anger, drive.
- Like the action scene, keep sentences shorter and use high powered verbs. Cut the adverbs.
- Place obstacles in his way. The setting should be interactive. Bring him close to death’s door. Alternate with hair-raising momentary escapes, keep up the suspense.
- Check out these scenes from The French Connection and Bullitt for inspiration.
- Don’t worry as much about description in your rough draft. You want to be patient and create vivid descriptions during the editing process.
- Is it relevant? If you don’t need the description, no matter how pretty it is, cut it.
- Don’t drive yourself crazy worrying about finding the perfect word. Remember, simpler is often better.
- Happy Writing!