Writing 101: Descriptions

If I ask you to visualize a ball, what do you see? A baseball, white with the classic stitching? Maybe a football, with its unique elongated shape and pointed ends. Maybe you see a bright orange basketball, an item that's big enough to hold with two hands. But if I ask you to visualize a ball that's hand-sized and fuzzy green, you ought to know I'm talking about tennis. The descriptions in your book are everything, and I'm never going to be able to picture anything in your story if you don't include them. Are you taking the time to write descriptions...or just a bunch of events?

 Descriptive Writing

Ever heard the expression show me, don't tell me? A favorite battle cry of writing teachers the world over, it simply means that you should describe the events you're writing about -- instead of just writing them. Here's the difference:

Kate walked into the living room, cup in hand, to tell John exactly what she thought of him. 

I just told you that Kate is entering into a scene in the living room, and John's about to get it. Now, I'm going to make you visualize it.

Kate moved briskly into the living room with quick steps, the fingers of her hand clutched so tightly around the green plastic cup the knuckles had turned white. Her brown eyes, shining with anger, immediately searched for John's familiar laughing mouth.

 Now, you've pretty much received the exact same information: Kate's totally pissed at John, and there's about to be a living room showdown. But you've received so much more information from the second version. You know that Kate's glaring at John with angry eyes, and he's probably unprepared for it because he's hanging out in the living room laughing. You know she has a weapon, after a fashion, and you even know that it's green plastic (so, not a very good weapon). You know that she's moving quickly, which suggests she's about to explode. Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to picture Kate and John and their confrontation, right?

Now, take it a step deeper. Tell the reader what the living room looks like. Show John's reaction to Kate storming into the room. Does he sit up straighter and take notice, or is he too caught up in his own thing so he remains casual and unaffected? You can tell me that John doesn't notice Kate in exactly those words, and I'll get it. But you can also tell me that John continued to stare at the TV screen with his back slumped against the blue cushions of the couch, barely glancing away from the flickering images to take note of Kate's arrival, and then I'll know it. I'll be able to see it.

Describing Your Nouns

Another rallying cry of English teachers: people, places and things. If you remember your early school years, you know I'm talking about nouns -- and you've got to describe those, too. It's a lot more fun -- and for some writers, much easier -- to describe action and verbs. But a great writer also has to describe people, places and things without being boring about it.

If readers are going to visualize their story, make sure they know what they're looking at. Describe the way your characters look, the setting they're in, even the food they're eating or the way the carpeting feels beneath their feet. Don't forget to tell me what color the carpet is, and always give me size comparisons I can relate to. "Jane was a petite woman." Well, compared to whom? Next to the right person, anyone can look petite. If you tell me instead that "Jane, from behind, could easily be mistaken for a teenage boy just entering high school" I know Jane's a pretty skinny little thing, indeed. If you tell me the pillow was big and fluffy, I can picture something -- but if you tell me the pillow was twice the size of Jane's cocker spaniel I know we've got a massive pillow on our hands. I have a point of reference, and that makes visualization easier. Are Jane's eyes green, or are they as green and dewy as the morning grass? Green and bright, like copper left too long in the rain? The fresh, new green of unfurling spring growth? There are a lot of greens out there, and you don't know which one I'm going to picture when you throw a color at me.

Turn to great writers to see really good examples of detailed, descriptive writing. Ernest Hemingway is an acknowledged master of descriptive writing. He conveyed his imagery on all five senses, describing tastes and smells along with colors and billowing smoke. Sit back and observe your scenes and watch them play out in your own mind. Then, just write them down.

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