Descriptive writing is the craft of portraying people, places, events, situations, thoughts, and feelings in such a manner that readers visualize what is happening and experience the scene. The skillful use of description can bring a flat, uninteresting sentence to life.
Consider this excerpt about tea from a Houston Chronicle article by Jessica Danes.
It tastes like the earth. Pungent and loamy and more real than anything you’ve ever tasted in a while. A sip and the daydreaming starts—of high-peaked mountains and the tender plants that prized leaves were plucked from. Tea can do that to you.
She could have saved a lot of verbiage and said it this way:
One of the world’s oldest beverages, tea is also one of the most enticing.
But it wouldn’t have been as interesting or as engaging. Good descriptive writing uses well-chosen words and an artful ordering of the words.
The Five Senses
Since the five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) play a key role in how human beings understand the world around them, it makes sense for a writer to use them to increase the feeling of authenticity in a story. Incorporating the five senses into the narrative draws readers into the story and allows them to experience the same sensations the characters are experiencing. When writing descriptions, you may find it helps to form a mental picture first, putting yourself in the scene, and then describing what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt.
For you baby boomers out there, my favorite example is from an old I Love Lucy episode when Lucy tries to describe to Ethel what Charles Boyer looks like. “It’s like he just walked into a room where a big pot of cauliflower is cooking,” she said. Say no more.
For my younger audience, Patrick Suskind focuses on a character who has a very acute sense of smell in his novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.
With more than 40 novels and countless poems and short stories published, Joyce Carol Oates has a reputation for her mastery of descriptive writing, often appealing to the senses. In the following excerpt (originally published in Washington Post Book World and reprinted in Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art [HarperCollins, 2003]), Oates describes the one-room schoolhouse she attended in grade school.
Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie, the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by ceiling lights. We squinted at the blackboard, that seemed far away since it was on a small platform, where Mrs. Dietz's desk was also positioned, at the front, left of the room. We sat in rows of seats, smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse chestnuts. The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship.
The lack of one or more of the senses can also be used in descriptive writing—for example, describing how others perceive someone with a hearing loss can add depth to a scene, as in this excerpt from Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
People felt themselves watching him even before they knew that there was anything different about him. His eyes made a person think that he heard things that no one else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.
Using the five senses in descriptive writing helps readers develop a better understanding of the fictional world that the author has created by allowing them to imagine the world as experienced by the characters.
Choosing the right descriptive words will help to capture the reader’s attention and emotions and create a picture in the reader’s mind by adding life to characters, places, objects, actions, and setting. news story
Flat: Stella liked her new home.
Descriptive: Stella treasured her new country cottage.
Flat: The man ran quickly through the crowd.
Descriptive: The thief slithered his way through the tangle of holiday revelers.
Flat: She listened to them talking about their plans.
Descriptive: She eavesdropped on the coterie of tattoo-covered teens as they one-upped each other with chilling plans.
Flat: Ben walked through the mud to get to his damaged car.
Descriptive: Ben trudged through the mud to reach the pile of metal that had previously been his car.
Flat: She saw a large rock fell on his head.
Descriptive: She watched in horror as a boulder bashed in his head.
A thesaurus can be a valuable tool for finding the right word, but you need to use it with caution. Just because the thesaurus says a word is a synonym for another word doesn’t mean it is a good replacement, so check the definition in the dictionary to make sure it’s the right word for the meaning of the sentence.
A thesaurus is also a place where you can find big words—be careful about using big words when shorter, more common ones will suffice.
The organization and order of words matters. It is important to arrange words within sentences and sentences within scenes in chronological order, i.e., in the order in which things actually happen. Without a clear organizational pattern, important detail can be lost, and then your readers can become confused and eventually lose interest.
Words written in a confusing chronological order make the meaning of the following sentence ambiguous.
Police arrested a twenty-five-year-old man from Littlefield, Colorado, stopped by police the previous year on suspicion of drunk driving and had charges against him dropped due to lack of probable cause for the arrest when no objective, factual evidence was presented in court.
This is confusing. When had the charges been dropped—in the previous year or now? By putting the verb closer to the subject, the sentence has obvious meaning.
Police arrested a twenty-five-year-old man from Littlefield, Colorado, the charges against him dropped due to lack of probable cause for the arrest when no objective, factual evidence was presented in court. The man had been stopped by police the previous year on suspicion of drunk driving.
In this excerpt from Vonda Sinclair’s My Rebel Highlander, the author does a good job keeping things in chronological order.
Rebbie stepped closer, tipped her chin up and stroked his fingers along her cheek. With fathomless eyes, he watched her beneath lowered black lashes. With a simple touch and a look, he could strip away her resistance… not that she’d ever had much where he was concerned. Nay, the first time she’d seen him, she’d set out to seduce him. Though she’d been terrified at the time, it had turned into the most enjoyable task of her life.
When he leaned down and brushed his lips across hers, she drew in a sharp breath of his delectable scent—clean soap and man—and kissed him back. All the nerve endings in her body tingled and yearned for him. There was no way in Hades she could resist him. Her body was so sensitized to his kiss, his touch, she already ached for him.
The kiss deepened and she opened for him, savoring the spicy, mulled wine flavor of his kiss. Eager for more, she wound her arms around his neck. His moan vibrated against her lips.
Writing with spatial order—where the words used to describe a subject are arranged in the same order as the subject’s physical location—can also help readers better visualize the subject matter. This can be especially important in mystery writing, in which the order of items located in a crime scene are critical evidence in the story. On which side of the right-handed corpse the revolver was found, for example, could be important.
Sometimes the pace of a scene will dictate how much detail to include. If it’s a fast-paced scene, too much detail will bog it down—no one wants to be bothered with little details when there’s action going on. For example, you probably wouldn't want to write about the gorgeous sunset on the western horizon while the off-duty policeman is chasing an armed robber down a dark alley. You could save that detail for the scene where the policeman’s wife is sitting on their back porch, sipping a glass of wine, wondering why her husband isn't home yet from his trip to the 7-Eleven for a carton of milk.
Historical fiction may be the exception as it usually requires more detail than other types of fiction in order to educate (or remind) readers of what was going on in that time period. Let’s say a novel set in 1950 contains a scene in which a character talking on the phone suspects someone is listening in on the “party line.” If you don't explain what a party line is, readers born after 1955 may say, “Huh?” In this case, more detail would be helpful, perhaps with dialogue, such as, “Hello? Is there someone listening in on this line?”
The Urge to Explain
Renni Browne and Dave King coined the phrase “Resist the urge to explain” (R.U.E.) in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Simply stated, it means don’t overexplain things.
New writers in particular are often tempted to explain every detail of the story on the assumption that the reader needs them to understand what’s going on. But this underestimates readers who are generally smart and catch on quickly. Not only can readers figure things out for themselves, they want to figure out things for themselves. In short, if you need to explain something instead of allowing the action to speak for itself, you likely haven’t done a good enough job showing the action. Now, reread the last sentence—it’s that important.
Here are three examples of R.U.E. issues.
Example 1: The narrow end of a baseball bat sticking out from beneath the bed caught Emily’s attention. She picked it up and cringed at the red stain on the other end. Could it be blood? She’d seen dried blood before, and it had been similar in color.
In this example, the last two sentences are unnecessary—readers do not need to have the red stain explained to them.
Example 2: Bernard sat across the restaurant table opposite his blind date, praying the beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead wouldn’t run down his face. He read aloud items from the menu and watched her face for some sign of interest—first the appetizers, then the main courses, and finally the desserts. When he saw no change in her facial expression, he returned to the appetizers. Maybe she didn’t want him to choose what they ate, he thought. Maybe she wanted to choose for herself. Being it was their first date, he wanted to do the right thing, follow the right protocol, make her think he knew what he was doing. The stress was killing him. “I think I’ll have the cod. Do you see anything you like?” he finally asked her.
The fact that it’s a blind date and there are beads of sweat forming on his forehead says a lot, so there is no need to explain his nervousness further. Nor is it necessary to describe the menu sections, as most readers are familiar with menus. Here is a better paragraph.
Bernard sat across the restaurant table opposite his blind date, praying the beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead wouldn’t run down his face. He read aloud items from the menu and watched her face for some sign of interest. When he received no indication from her as to what she would like to eat, and wanting to make her think he knew what he was doing, he said, “I think I’ll have the cod. Do you see anything you like?”
Example 3: She ran to her room to retrieve her gun from the nightstand, so she could confront the intruder.
Readers don’t need to know where she kept her gun, and why else would she retrieve it but to confront the intruder? In this example, the sentence could end with the word gun and still provide all the information needed.
To avoid excessive explanations in your manuscript, be on the lookout for the following:
· Sections that make use of narrative summary, where the narrator tells the reader what happened in a condensed form.
· Long stretches of narrative that contain no dialogue or action.
· Backstory that could be weaved into the present.
As part of your editing process, review each sentence for the right amount of description. For example, it may add to the story if the reader was told the character grew up in a twenty-room mansion in Beverly Hills rather than merely a house in southern California, or drank a tankard of Dortmunder rather than a can of beer, or drove a 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster convertible, dark blue with a tan interior rather than an older, classic car. Still, if it doesn’t add to the story, if it doesn’t move it forward in some manner, leave it out.
Adding the right amount of description is a balancing act, and everyone has a different opinion as to what is the right balance. And what complicates the matter is that different readers want different levels of detail—what will satisfy one reader’s need for extensive detail will annoy another. You’ll have to decide this for yourself—as you know the most about the characters and the story—and rely on your editor for help. Just keep in mind, though, that editors are also human, so they will have differing opinions as well. It’s a matter of taste, and as we all know, you can’t please everyone.
All that said, eliminating details doesn't mean the narrator should forget what they are—his or her knowing all the details and backstory is helpful in creating what is important in conveying the rest of the story to the readers.