What’s description for? I’ve been working with an author and one of her issues was her use of description.
Is the purpose of description to show the reader what something looks like? The setting, for instance?
Yes, partly. But there’s a lot more it can do.
My author wrote detailed paragraphs about a cafe the characters visited, the food they ordered. When the characters went for a bike ride in the country, there were long paragraphs about the scenery. We were definitely ‘there’ – a guidebook couldn’t have done it better. But the descriptions were flat. Something was missing.
The reader of a novel doesn’t want a guidebook. In a novel, description can perform another important function, besides showing us around. A novel is an experience, usually through a character’s consciousness, and description is one of the ways to involve us in their internal world.
Good description isn’t simply a list of stuff. It’s things the viewpoint character is noticing because they are important in the moment, things that echo a character’s mood or anxieties or the problems they’re grappling with.
Here’s an important question to ask when writing description. What do your viewpoint characters notice and why?
Sitting in my study, right now, I notice the bookshelves need dusting. That’s annoying, but every time I consider dusting, I think of the manuscript I should be writing, or research I should do. I’m telling you there’s dust (oh boy, is there dust), and I’m also telling you why I tolerate it (it’s only dust and I have bigger priorities).
Description is also a fantastic tool for the writer to suggest themes. If my theme is the passing of time, I’ll tell you about the dead Kindle I use as a coaster for my tea mug, which still has the screen saver from the day in 2013 when Husband Dave accidentally shut the car boot on it. You can subtly direct the reader to notice ideas, suggested by the character’s thoughts in the moment (entropy, advancing technology). The dead Kindle also shows something about my personality – I hate throwing things away. And I’m creative – I use things for their unintended purpose.
Purpose. Let’s linger on that word. In good writing, every idea has a purpose. The writer knows how they’re handling the reader’s senses and emotions. It’s an experience that is precisely directed, like a stage illusion. The writer knows what they want you to look at, to think about, to feel. They also know what’s irrelevant and distracting.
Emotion gets our attention – and it’s memorable. We’re hard wired for it – as are most social animals. Ask anyone who trains dogs or horses.
This means you can use emotion to teach the reader about the character and whatever situation they’re in. You can also use a character’s emotional reactions to help the reader remember a detail that will be important later. If a man with a missing finger will be a big aha, the reader needs to notice him, but not too much. So draw our attention to the missing digit, and tie it to a feeling that seems relevant and significant at the time. Then reveal him again later, with writerly sleight of hand.
Description of characters’ physicality is often underused. Again, the missing piece is often the viewpoint character’s reaction or feeling. If you tell us about a character’s hairstyle or build, could you also use it to let us know what it’s like to be in the room with them?
‘He had close-cropped hair that looked military. He was tall. Elliot could imagine him shepherding a normal-sized person easily through a crowd, walking behind them like a protective exoskeleton, parting the masses with his arms. A belly swelled over his waistband. This did not make him look soft. Quite the opposite.’ (From Ever Rest)
While we’re talking about description, here’s an element you mustn’t miss out. At the start of a scene, the reader needs several Ws –
Who is there.
What they are doing.
When the scene is taking place – night, day, a rough idea of the time of year.
Where they are.
It’s surprising how many writers leave this out. The reader is actually blindfolded when they enter a scene, with only your voice to guide them. So you need to load this information fast – in the opening paragraphs, unless there’s a deliberate reason to keep it a mystery. (Usually there isn’t.)
I’ve read so many manuscripts where I was bumbling around confused because people were appearing suddenly and talking, and I didn’t know they were there. Or I’m unsure what the surroundings are. Someone puts a cup of coffee on the table, but is the table in a café, an office, on a mountainside or in somebody’s home? And where are they, geographically? Often writers will supply the place-names, hoping they will do all the descriptive work, but, my dear, there are several Birminghams and lots of Olympic parks. Readers like to know which country they’re in.
Also, they want to know what the place means to the character. Is it home? Is it a place the character might move to? Is it a place they never wanted to see again? Each feels different. Emotion gives vital context.
So if you want to pep up your descriptions, look for the details you can pin an emotion onto.
Go for the feels.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.