Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose

5825834776_163ed4881c_bDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.

Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.

The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.

The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.

But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.

A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *

A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.

You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.

Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?

What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.

nyn2 2014 sml*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova

Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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  1. #1 by Porter Anderson on October 12, 2014 - 6:45 pm

    Didn’t we do this one before?

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2014 - 10:25 pm

      Evening, Porter! That last piece was about dialogue. This is description. The two problems spring from similar roots, of course – the writer is playing the sequence in their head and imagining a lot more than they put on the page, and not delving far enough into the experience. Clearly you understood it all after just one post! You are excused from reading the third in the series. 🙂

      • #3 by Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) on October 13, 2014 - 12:16 am

        Ah, right, I see the nuances now (jet lag notwithstanding, lol) and I do like your John le Carré reference very much, especially the part about doing with very little sleep! 🙂 Cheers, Roz!

  2. #4 by jennifermzeiger on October 14, 2014 - 12:44 am

    Helpful as always=) Thanks.

  3. #6 by awax1217 on October 14, 2014 - 6:52 pm

    I need a lot of help and now I need more. Just when I thought I would give this writing a shot I find I am ill equipped. I even wrote the book in long hand which shows how low tech I am. Now editing is a job and a half. And my public, now numbering three, mostly by bribes are the rejecting types who nay say me. I read your suggestions and I am about to throw the book into the hamper with the dirty laundry. Should I, or as a person who mixes up words, do I? I put the first chapter in the blog today as a gift. Let me know what you think. Even one word might encourage me.

  4. #9 by katiieflower on October 14, 2014 - 11:27 pm

    This was really helpful, thanks!

  5. #11 by bonniecrafts on October 15, 2014 - 10:49 pm

    Reblogged this on bonniecrafts's Blog and commented:
    Thanks to Riz Morris….

  6. #12 by cydmadsen on October 17, 2014 - 12:50 am

    “You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street.” Excellent advice for both novelists and screenwriters. Most of us writing scripts feel that we sit down and write the story in all its glory (ugh, alliteration), then go back and strip away all the writing. But this bit of advice is golden and something I’ll pass along to others when we sit and moan about our frustrations. Hammer. Nail. Whacked it good. Brava.

  7. #14 by Dr C on October 18, 2014 - 9:00 pm

    Reblogged this on M L Campbell and commented:
    There is a definite trend in writing to ‘show, don’t tell’ but, actually, telling is what prose is all about. Yes, you can go overboard but with due care and attention, the telling and showing will balance out and give the best, most rounded reading experience. Isn’t that what it’s all about? In this great post by Roz Morris, there are some helpful hints and tips about how to keep your focus on meaningful description. Enjoy! (I did.)

  8. #15 by Dr C on October 18, 2014 - 9:04 pm

    I enjoyed this and found it helpful too. Sometimes the image in your head and the words you put on the page don’t correlate in quite the way you want them to – this is a practical reminder about what is important and why. I have reblogged! Thank you.

  9. #17 by kitcatkittykat on October 23, 2014 - 2:15 am

    This is one of THE most helpful things I’ve read. I haven’t had time to read a lot of books lately because of school, and exhibited all of these as a result. I was wondering what was wrong. Thank you for this!

    • #18 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 26, 2014 - 8:19 am

      Thanks, Kat! I’ll be covering another aspect of this problem soon so stay tuned!

  10. #19 by quirkywritingcorner on November 30, 2014 - 4:01 am

    Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    This gave me some pointers in how to better describe things in my books. I can see the scene in my head, but have the hardest time getting it on paper.

  11. #21 by Daphne (daphodill) on January 29, 2015 - 2:43 pm

    Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen.

  12. #22 by alloftheseprompts on October 19, 2015 - 10:25 am

    This is a great post. I can see the movie influence in my own writing. I should be more careful. Thank you!

  13. #24 by KC Glennon on November 29, 2015 - 7:18 pm

    Thank you for this. Contemporary writers are often encouraged to let action carry the story, which I believe is the modern influence of movies. Great prose is a marvelous and difficult task. Especially when writing about a world that does not exist (a future, another planet, a fantasy world) you can’t just show–you have to describe. I enjoy reading novels from the past, when readers weren’t formatted to be film watchers. There is much that can be learned from writers who had to relate unfamiliar places and things to their readers.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 29, 2015 - 7:49 pm

      Thanks, KC. I was talking to a friend last night about the magic of prose. Prose is a magic all of its own. It builds pictures and experiences from your most personal associations and that’s its power. My mental image of a frightening person won’t be the same as yours, and if the writer has done their job it will be perfectly tailored to me.

  14. #26 by Paulo on February 2, 2018 - 7:51 pm

    I’ve been looking for a long time and finally found such an article so meaningful. I started a writing project and, as a newbie in this área, have been visiting many sites and reading many blogs, but none of them provided the same approach as you do. Making readers have the same vision the writers has is key and for an unknown reason matches the creation process that my intuition leads me when I write.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

  15. #28 by jmchristie66 on April 12, 2022 - 3:07 pm

    Thanks again for your common sense technical advice. Always a great read.

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