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Painting with words

Great descriptions evoke a sense of something, and give the reader more than just facts.

A major element of creative writing is showing your reader the world of your story – both your characters and the things around them. Descriptions can allow your reader to experience the scene as you imagine it when you write it, and let them see, hear, feel, smell and taste the things in it. For many people this aspect of a book or story is of as much value as the plot, so it’s incredibly important to do this well.

So, when I describe something, should I talk about shapes and colour, and use adjectives to suggest how something feels or smells? Yes, all of these are useful tools. But I’d like to explore here how really good writing gives the reader something more than basic facts.

We’ve all seen descriptions that stick to the facts. Sometimes a place or a person is so key to a writer’s world that the description of it can go to great lengths – but after a few lines, it starts to read like a shopping list. Fact, after fact, after fact. Brown hair, rough coat, soft voice, sour smell.

Liven it up

We need to liven things up to give a reader a sense of what it’s like to be right there, in the scene. To me, the best descriptions – the ones that I remember, and really have an impact – are the ones that evoke a sense of something familiar.

I don’t just mean using comparisons such as similes and metaphors, although these can bring your writing to life – they give the reader a vibrant mental picture of the thing being described. When you tell your reader that the blanket was a soft as rabbit’s fur, they will imagine stroking a rabbit and gain a real sense of the extreme softness that you’re trying to evoke. You’ve helped to put them into your character’s shoes, helped them to experience the scene as your character does. When you say that the wind was a sharp blade that slashed through your character’s clothing, you’ve not only shown the force of the wind but given the impression of cruelty and violence through your choice of words. The right comparison can really convey emotion.

And I don’t just mean using personification, although this is a great technique with which you can inject real feeling by giving something human qualities. You could describe the trees as ambitious, competing to be the tallest and strongest in the forest, and this would evoke a sense of a place that is not entirely friendly; or there might be cheerful fairy lights in your character’s garden, making it a happy, carefree place.

But a really evocative description is one that steps back a little and gives the reader an overall sense of what’s being described. Try this one: ‘she looked like she was on her way to a fancy dress party with a 1970s Sci Fi theme’. Not only does that make you smile, but it gives a sense of the character’s overall look that you wouldn’t achieve with a list containing flowing white robes or hair plaited around the ears.

Or you could try: ‘the room had the spartan look of a Soviet institution.’ You could follow that with some words about the bare walls and lino-covered floors, but you’ve given the general sense first. The additional information perhaps just fills in some gaps.

How much is enough?

How much description you give is up to you – good general guide, though, is to peg the level of description to the importance of the person or thing you’re describing. It might be misleading to your reader if you give a whole page of description to a character that appears in your book only once, for example – your reader might invest a lot of interest in this person and then wonder what happened to them when they’re never to be seen again.

But that’s the fun of this creative art form, isn’t it? Only you know when you’ve achieved the effect you’re looking for. We may not be a Michelangelo or a Monet, but we can all step back from our work and consider its effect. While the great painters might ask, ‘have I captured the light and shade in the way I wanted to?’ a writer might wonder, ‘does this express what I wanted to say?’

Further Reading

This Jericho Writers piece discusses the effect of giving descriptive hints early in a scene and nudging them as the scene progresses. There’s also a useful take on the need to give specifics – but without overloading the reader with information.

This Writer’s Digest piece advises focusing on what you actually see or experience in your imagination, before trying to put that impression into words.

This Writing World piece makes some excellent points about integrating description into your writing and making it relevant. It also discusses the need to keep your descriptions to what your viewpoint character would notice, unless you’re writing with an omniscient narrator viewpoint.

This Novel Writing Help piece goes into more detail about the use of figurative language.

Originally posted 17 August 2021

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