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Charlie Jane Anders on IO9: Writing Descriptions


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How to Write Descriptive Passages Without Boring the Reader (or yourself)

Charlie Jane Anders



Describing stuff can be the hardest part of writing prose fiction. You have a scene in your head, with all the dialogue and action, but now you have to fill in what everything looks like. There's nothing more boring to write, or read, than a long descriptive passage — but here's how to spice it up.


Descriptive passages are something I struggle with, both as a writer and as a reader. If I'm reading a book and hit a long paragraph of scene-setting, I have to struggle to keep from skimming a bit. And when I write my own fiction, I often find myself skimping on description, because I get bored doing it. How many ways can you describe a face? Or the layout of a particular building? How many ways are there to say "he had a square face and brown eyes." Probably the fact that I have a certain amount of face-blindness and no eye for décor doesn't help.


But descriptive passages are important — they make the difference between your story feeling real, and it feeling like sketchy. Stories that don't provide enough description, or vivid enough description, feel like one of those 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons where people run past endless doodley backgrounds with no differentiation. The more you can engage your reader's senses, the more they'll feel present in the scene.

So how can you create description that engages the reader instead of activating the dreaded "skim" reflex? There is no magic bullet, but here are some things that could help.


Commit to never being boring. To avoid boring descriptions, you first have to make a decision that you won't settle for blocks of dull text. And stop thinking of the descriptive passages as wallpaper. You put a lot of effort into making your dialogue zingy and quotable — do the same for your descriptive passages. This sounds obvious, but it's an important first step.


Engage all five senses. Again, starting with the obvious. Description isn't just visual and auditory, but also includes touch and smell. And maybe taste, if it's a kitchen or restaurant. Smells help a lot, especially vivid ones. Like a really pungent ammonia smell, or a dreadful musty smell. Mentioning the temperature of a room also helps sell that it's a real place. Ditto when you're describing a person — what do they smell like? What do their clothes feel like if you touch them?


Try being super terse. Description can be vivid without being lengthy — in fact, you could argue that less is more when it comes to vividness of description. You can convey a lot with a few well-chosen words. Like: "The Apple Genius Bar had a gleaming white counter lined with eager T-shirt-clad acolytes, but the odor of stale coffee and fried motherboards assaulted her nostrils as soon as she approached."


Make it dynamic rather than static. This is a huge one. Things change, and no person or place has been the same forever. Often, the best description tells a story. Like: "Judging from his bulk, he'd been a bodybuilder once, but then he'd run to seed." Or: "Someone had obviously bought a simple two-storey mock Tudor house and tried to add extra turrets to it, after which a second owner had tried to add some Japanese-style rice-paper screens to the front room." Description that takes you through the evolution of a person or thing is more memorable than a static snapshot.


Make fun of the thing you're describing. Depending on the tone of your story, of course, you can go for humor. Like in one story I published in Lightspeed while back, I describe a character thusly:

Peter had never liked looking at pictures of himself, because photos always made him look like a deformed clone of Ben Affleck. His chin was just a little too jutting and bifurcated, his brow a little too much like the bumper of a late-model Toyota Camry. His mousy hair was unevenly receding, his nose a little too knifey.

I remember being really happy about that, because for once I managed to describe a character in a way that sticks in my mind. Between "deformed Ben Affleck clone" and "late-model Camry," I have a strong impression of what this guy looks like, even if it's kind of cartoony. Obviously, use in moderation, unless you're going for a full-on gonzo tone. A self-loathing POV character can describe him- or herself with alot of vitriol, though.


Project feelings onto an inanimate object. When you're describing a person, you can give him or her some emotion, like a perpetual scowl or habitual laughter. But when you describe a thing or place, you just have to describe it, because things don't have feelings. Except that we project feelings onto them all the time. A chair might be friendly, or a particular pair of shoes might have it in for you. A building might look as though it's trying to drive you away, with its unwelcoming awnings and grim windows. Instead of a detached, factual description of the columns and arches, tell us how they're gritting their teeth at the main character. This is also good for setting a mood, and maybe a bit of foreshadowing.


Give your POV some visceral or emotional reaction. In the same vein, try showing how a particular setting or someone's appearance affects your POV character. Maybe your main character really hates a particular building, and feels her spine stiffen and her shoulders go up as she approaches it. Maybe the smell of someone's basement makes her nauseous. Maybe seeing Mr. Bullyfrog's filthy teeth and smelling his foul breath makes her recoil. Vivid description often depends on depicting a strong personal reaction to something.


Use less dialogue. If you're like me, then you're using the descriptive passages as a backdrop for your snappy dialogue — but what if your descriptions are so good, dialogue becomes unnecessary? It's worth trying, anyway — try taking a speech-heavy scene, and replacing half the dialogue with actions and descriptions of stuff that convey the same information and emotion. Maybe someone picking up a pair of binoculars that used to belong to the main character's grandfather, and holding their black leathery outer casing up to the light, can convey a whole world of stuff about grandpa. After all, the most interesting stuff in a scene is often what people don't say, and that's stuff they convey with body language, and the objects they stare at.


Use description to set up a punchline in dialogue. Again, this is assuming you're more into writing dialogue, which seems to be the case with lots of us who were raised on TV and comics. If you want to have your character say something snappy like Oscar Wilde's famous last words, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do," you'll need to make the wallpaper vivid in our minds way in advance so the line works. Sometimes you can force yourself to create vivid descriptions of surroundings by including verbal jokes that only work if the scenery is fixed in the reader's mind.


Those are some of the tricks that help to make a scene more vivid — what techniques have you found useful for writing descriptions, in your own work?

Edited by jamessavik
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I think there's a way to use description in an effective way that establishes the mood and then gets out of the way of the characters. I generally tend to use description only when the scene moves to a new place we've never been to before, to describe how the place feels, looks, and smells. I do agree that it's a good idea to engage all the senses, and that includes mood. 


Of all modern authors, I think Anne Rice is sometimes guilty of going a little overboard at this. I can recall a scene in one of her vampire novels where she took three pages to describe an abandoned house in the woods, and what the place was like as a character walked up to it and walked around inside. It was three pages until there was any dialogue. Was it effective? I think you could have accomplished the same thing in half the number of words, but the book got great reviews and made millions of dollars. 


When I first started out writing novels, Monica Wood's book Description: Elements of Fiction was a godsend to me. I think a mistake a lot of beginning writers make is to try to do far too much in dialogue, which takes up much too much space compared to description. An average day can be described in about two or three paragraphs, since you can summarize what happens, where it might take 20 pages to do the same thing in dialogue. A balance between the two is what I think you need for an effective novel, but trying to come up with that balance takes a lot of work. 

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My writing style is like baroque architecture, all curly bits and flying buttresses. but then, people tell me they get hungrey when they read about the food i write, so i likr to think i'm doing OK.


They are good tips though, and i like the one about less dialogue. i hate writing dialogue.

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I'm with Sasha here, I don't like writing dialogue - and I'm not much good at it either (contrary to Sasha). I find it very hard to make believable / realistic spoken sentences, especially for intimate scenes. (I'll have to go look for a thread on how to write good dialogue.)

Anyway the advice in the first post is even more helpful when you have to rely mainly on descriptive writing for your stories. But after reading it, I now wonder whether I write enough descriptions of the settings to flesh out the action and descriptions of what the characters think and feel. 

Anyone have some hints on how to balance the various aspects ? I like to have my first person POV characters tell what they feel or think about what is going on in between descriptions of the action and whatever dialogue there is. Scene setting descriptions sort of gets stuck in here and there whenever they seem necessary, but I think a more conscious approach as described above could be a good idea (for me).

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Anyone have some hints on how to balance the various aspects ? I like to have my first person POV characters tell what they feel or think about what is going on in between descriptions of the action and whatever dialogue there is. Scene setting descriptions sort of gets stuck in here and there whenever they seem necessary, but I think a more conscious approach as described above could be a good idea (for me).


I think every novel dictates a specific approach, and there are no rules set in stone. I think this is the kind of thing you have to do with your gut. I tend to maybe lean towards about 1/3 description and 2/3 dialogue, but there are moments in the story where that might get reversed. I also like to describe what the characters are doing during dialogue, so one might be idly kicking a rock down the road, another might be fiddling with his or her sleeve, or another person might be self-conscious about a blemish they just discovered. I also tend to describe body movements, so somebody will say a line as they lean forward, or they nod their heads to the door, or various bits of direction. Just straight dialogue to me comes across as too on the nose and too boring. (I don't dispute that there are great writers who can get away with this; I ain't one of them.)


My best advice would be to start looking at one of your favorite published novels written by a favorite author and examine the construction of the book. Look at the structure of the novel, and note how each chapter is started, how transitions in time and place are handled, and how they move from description to dialogue. Sometimes, I think you can just slam right into dialogue and let the reader figure out where it takes place; other times, I think you have to be very specific, to make sure the reader isn't momentarily confused. 


The single best tip I ever observed was to always start scenes in the middle when possible. Don't give us all the superficial stuff at the beginning -- start in the middle and hit the climax early. For example, if it's a church service, don't start with the drive to the church, parking the car, walking up the steps, finding a seat, sitting down, and waiting for the preacher to start the sermon. Bang, start right with the preacher yelling. All that other stuff gets cut out. If there's a specific need to describe the mood, the time of day, the sounds, the smells, the feel, and the place, then take your time. 


I have to say, sometimes when I read novels these days, I find myself enjoying them on two levels: I get into the story and feel the emotion of the characters, but I also nod my head in understanding how the writer has used an effective technique -- almost like a magician's trick -- to move from one place to another or put my head inside another character's. It's almost like glimpsing the machinery behind the rides at Disneyland: entertaining and colorful on the outside; technically dazzling and complicated on the inside.

Edited by The Pecman
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