Skillful Description Readers Won't Skip

I talked about description at WriterCon in the midst of a talk titled “Five Super-Secret Steps to Superior Fiction.” Obviously, I chose this title primarily due to my addiction to alliteration, but also because the elements of great session topics are, first, numbered lists, and second, the suggestion that you’re revealing secrets. The problem, of course, was that having devised this brilliant title, I needed to come up with an equally brilliant list of super-secrets.

Well, I don’t know how brilliant the talk was, but I did come up with a list. And one of the super-secret steps related to description, which I felt somewhat obligatory since I am already long overdue on the next Red Sneaker book, which is purportedly about description. (I will get back to that, promise.) I talked for maybe ten minutes about description, but I didn’t notice the audience looking as I’d revealed the arcane secrets of the ancients. Less is more, I said, and they nodded in agreement. One insightful sentence is better that a long-winded paragraph. Sure, Bill, what else is new? But I finally saw eyes widen when I said:

You have five senses. Use them. 

What did that mean? 

 I have noticed two recurring patterns in my small-group writing workshops. First: when early writers start describing, they typically describe how something looks. In other words, the use only one sense—sight. This is understandable. Sight is the sense we use most often. When people think about description, they typically think about how something looks. I’ve even attended workshops where speakers told readers to “Imagine your scene on a television screen. Write what you see.”

 This is horrible advice. Limiting yourself to one sense is like typing with one finger. Why do that? Typically, describing only appearances leads to the most superficial and least impactful descriptions. You’re basically telling readers what they conjured in their minds’ eyes the instant you said “courtroom” or “blanket” or “sunset.” And if they already have a mental image of the scene, no visual description from you is likely to dislodge it.

Second: early writers tend toward pleasant, lovely descriptions—lots of sunsets and wind-whipped ocean views—even when the book is a mystery or thriller. Regardless of your genre, you want your story to have tension, to give readers the unsettling feeling that all is not as it should be. That’s how you keep readers turning pages. You can’t do that with rambling portraits of beautiful landscapes. You use skillful description to bring a scene to life, and you can also use it to inject tension—by using all of your senses in close collaboration.

Let me take you through an example, totally cribbed from my friend David Morrell. 

He sat on the blanket.

Not a terribly exciting sentence, is it? Let’s dress it up with some description.

He sat on the gray blanket.

Oh, good work, Bill. Much better. You added an adjective. You took something that should be warm and comforting—a blanket—and turned it into something dull and uninteresting—gray. Surely we can do better—without interrupting the pace of this obviously breathtaking story.

He sat on the blanket.  It reeked of sweat.

Okay…this is a little better. One strong word is better than a dozen weak ones, and “reeked” is a strong word that immediately conjures a powerful mental image. You can almost smell the stink. Plus, the blanket is sweaty, which means it feels wet and icky. So now we’ve activated three senses—sight, touch, smell. I’m not going to make the guy taste the sweaty blanket, but we could still plus this a little…

He sat on a gray scratchy blanket that reeked of sweat.

You can decide for yourself whether you prefer two short sentences or one slightly longer one. To some extent, the best choice depends upon the pace you’re creating. If this is a tense, suspenseful, scary scene, go with the short sentences. A longer sentence does create a somewhat more relaxed, leisurely pace. 

The big addition here is the word “scratchy.” This adds another unpleasant suggestion about how the blanket feels—and perhaps a sound cue as well. Scratchy blankets make noise, so the overall takeaway is irritating, off-putting. To create tension in your scene, you’ve inserted a blanket, something that we normally think of as comforting, and instead made it just the opposite, by employing a few, brief, descriptive elements. It’s gray. Blah. Reeks. Ick. Sweaty. Gross. And scratchy. Something you want to get rid of, not wrap around yourself. You’ve only used a few words, but you’ve created a vivid word picture that will have far more impact on the reader than a long-winded description based solely upon sight.

A good approach to every scene—including the descriptive parts—is to remind yourself what emotional tone you’re striving to achieve before you start to write it. Is this scene romantic? Suspenseful? Humorous? Heart-breaking? If you have a clear idea what you’re striving for, you’re far more likely to achieve it. The old woman on the park bench could evoke pathos--or joy--depending upon how the description is written. The single man with a neatly folded handkerchief could suggest loneliness--or an orderly mind. What emotions you evoke depend upon how well you describe it. Remember that you have five senses and use them all. In most cases, the reader can adequately supply the visual image. You supply the rest.

Want to make sure you don’t miss out on my next spectacular session title? The WriterCon Cruise departs on February 2, 2020. Why not join us?