Beginning Writer's Craft
Description: The Core Essence© Will Greenway 2000
Describing the world of your story is one of the most important tasks a writer has before him or her when they sit down to compose their narrative. I see questions all the time about the "best" or "most effective" or "most evocative" ways to describe.
Earmarks of good description:
So, the quick summary, optimal description is :
Earmarks of good description:
There are many effective describing techniques depending on what you are describing.
The Inverted Pyramid
Mechanically speaking, the first (and most common) is the inverted pyramid scheme. The basic idea is that you start with a broad visual, then narrow down to increasingly more specific details. The broad part of the description usually serves as a transition into a descriptive passage and is an introduction to the framework of the description itself. The inverted pyramid is usually used for descriptions of places, though it works for people and objects too.
[ Note: This would normally be all in one paragraph but for purposes of illustration and discussion I put each sentence on a separate line.]
(1) Swinging her bucket, Jane stepped out into the bright afternoon light feeling the warmth of spring on her face.
(2) A cool breeze thick with smell of pine sighed in her face.
(3) Tufts of cirrus made streaks overhead like fine strokes from a painter's brush.
(4) Jane's feet crunched on the sandy trail as she followed it down to where the stream gurgled through the rocks.
(5) Crouching to dip the bucket in the water, she paused to enjoy the chorus of chirping birds flitting through the boughs of the trees that leaned over the clearing.
(6) With the bucket full, she was rising to turn back to the house when she caught sight of threads of dark smoke rising up from the stubble of hills across the valley.
(7) Jane felt a twist of unease in her stomach.
(8) It had been months since strangers were in the valley, she hoped they weren't bandits.
This is a fairly elaborate description which would be a reinforcing scene setting up the environs of where the character, Jane lives. It starts with a broad introducing passage and ends with hook to tie in to the narrative. The "point" of the pyramid is the detail of the smoke rising in the hills.
-1- The broad introduction, it provides the bucket as a visual prop and gives us the time and the season when this event is occurring.
-2- Two coordinating sensory details (smell and touch)
-3- A decorative joining passage.
-4- Here we move the character in the scene and add another detail (the stream)
-5- The character acts again and we add a third sensory detail (sound)
-6- Action, detail, and a story bridging detail.
-7- Foreshadowing with a physical register
-8- Coordinating internal narrative that moves the story forward
The Series of Three
The series of three is a "quicky" one-liner type of description that can be surprisingly effective. The idea of this kind of description is to capture a snapshot of something and leave the bulk of the details to be filled in later. It's useful for ancillary walk-on characters, trivial locations and objects.
George was the epitome of a geeky loser, short, round, and bald.
NOTE: With people, the "setup" before the three details is key to the success of this method.
The Broad Stroke (The "kind" who)
This is another kind of one-liner description used for people. This is a "nutshell" description to capture the essence of a character's personality. It has a simple format "(He/She) was the kind of person who ..." The creative part is nutshell detail given.
She was the type of girl who cried at weddings and funerals, loved puppies and children, and would have died before violating her oath of service.
Another mechanism for snapshots of people, this technique uses a simile to give a quick descriptive "kick".
Hugh was a knuckle-dragging ape of a man built like a fire-plug. He had a square face with the lifeless eyes of a shark and the sallow-gray skin of vampire.
Here the writer usually uses an already established character as a foil, usually describing how the two people are alike / unalike. This can be particularly effective in-character with a protagonist making a comparison to another. It is most often done is narrative exposition however.
Unlike busty blonde Sally, Rita was dark-haired and petite, with I-dare-you blue eyes.
THE KNACK OF DESCRIPTION
We went through 5 mechanisms and these examples (or combinations thereof) pretty much cover most of the types of description you may do as writer. The key thing is not the descriptions themselves—but making them work in the framework of your story. Description is a means to an end—not an end in itself. The descriptions are there to bridge the gap between you the writer and your audience. Too much description and the story bogs down—too little and the story seems empty and flat.
A rule of thumb is that every new scene should have some setting details, even if it's a place the reader has seen before—if it's a third or forth viewing the onus is on the writer to provide new details that are still relevant. The same goes for characters. Reinforcement is key. It's okay to remind us once in a while that Beatrice has flame red hair, or that Hugh has cold "dead" eyes. They are tags that separate and identify those characters.
An immersive story revolves around a strong sense of place. Not only that, but a strong sense of being in that place. If it's hot, cold, wet, dry... these are all details we should know. Is it loud, does it stink... any sensory detail that helps the reader walk a mile in viewpoint character's shoes. The reader should be frequently "pinged" with this information reminding us of the viewpoint's physical and emotional registers in response to his/her changing environment.
Each scene should have a descriptive agenda:
Whenever composing a scene, look for the above elements to see if the scene is truly complete.
Description is a writer's bread and butter, it is the framework upon which stories are built. The efficiency and immersiveness of the description are highlights which can carry an otherwise weak story, and make a strong story into a page turning master-piece. In the following sections, we'll build upon the material we just discussed.