Writing description is a delicate balancing act.
Too little, and your readers are left hungering for character and setting details that would bring the story to life in their imaginations.
Too much, and the action slows to a crawl. Worse, you might be accused of writing “purple prose.”
Too late, and by the time you reveal the important details, readers will have made up their own. And believe me, when they discover the image they’ve locked in on doesn’t match your description, they’ll be completely thrown—maybe even mad enough to throw the book aside!
It takes practice and skill to know when description will enhance the story, what kind of description fits this particular scene, and how much you need to draw the reader in.
The Five Senses are the basic building blocks of description, so let’s take a closer look at each one. (And just because I can, I’m going to indulge in some shameless self-promotion with brief examples from Castles in the Clouds, book 2 in my Flowers of Eden series, now available for pre-order and scheduled for release next August.)
1. Sight. This one’s the most obvious. We take in vast amounts of information just by what we see around us, so it’s important not only to effectively describe the appearance of our story characters but also to place them in very specific settings: a café, a forest, an art gallery, the beach. Here’s how Larkspur Linwood describes her literature professor:
He would look so fine today, dark hair slicked back and shiny, broad shoulders tugging against the fabric of his starched white shirt.
And here’s an example of a visual description as Lark’s younger sister sees a dust storm approaching.
“Oh, no. No, no, no!” Standing in the middle of the cotton field, Rose Linwood looked west toward the darkening sky.
Not rain clouds, which would have been bad enough this close to the cotton harvest. Not clouds at all, but a roiling reddish-brown mass of topsoil blown in from the drought-parched farmlands of Texas and Oklahoma.
2. Sound. In analyzing our surroundings, the sounds we hear are right up there with what we’re seeing. Voice tone and cadence give us vital clues to a speaker’s meaning. A noisy neighborhood lawnmower can drive us to distraction. A wailing siren warns of danger. In this brief example, Lark and her family have just enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with new friends.
As the ladies served dessert following the simple but delicious meal, a pattering on the roof alerted them to the light rain beginning to fall.
3. Smell. It’s a proven fact that our memories are tied very closely to the sense of smell. I’ve even heard real estate agents suggest that their clients bake cookies right before a house showing to create a homey and welcoming ambiance. Here’s what Lark experiences when friends welcome her with a home-cooked meal:
The mouthwatering aroma of roast beef filled the kitchen. Lark and her family hadn’t had to tighten their belts quite so much at the farm in recent months, but even so, she hadn’t smelled anything so good in ages. Her stomach growled in response.
4. Touch. Temperature, texture, dryness or dampness—all these play into our sense of touch. In this snippet, Anson, the story hero, comforts Lark during a difficult time.
She felt so good in his arms, so perfectly right. If only the circumstances were different. If only it hadn’t taken a moment of need for her to let him hold her this way. He tipped her head back, cradling her messy bun and wishing he had the right to loosen the pins and lose himself in those silky golden tresses.
5. Taste. When it comes to description, taste is probably the most underused of the five senses, but it can be a valuable tool. Here’s how taste is used in a scene where Rose Linwood must deal with the aftereffects of the dust storm described above.
How many meals had they eaten that grated between their teeth and left their mouths tasting like a sandy creek bed?
And for something a bit more romantic, here’s Anson imagining a kiss with Lark.
Could he bear to be near her every day and keep things strictly platonic, when there were moments—too many of them lately—when all he could think about was how her lips would taste beneath his kisses?
Are you taking full advantage of all five senses in your story description? One way to do a quick spot-check is to gather five different colors of highlighters or colored pencils, then print out several pages of your manuscript. Assigning a different color to each sense, mark descriptive words or phrases with the appropriate color for whichever sense was used. A visual survey will tell you very quickly which senses you rely on most often, as well as which ones you haven’t used much and might want to consider working in.
|When using description, be specific. Choose the most accurate words.|
More tips for using description effectively:
- Describe only what your viewpoint character is consciously and logically aware of in the scene.
- Use concrete nouns and active verbs, avoiding adjectives and adverbs except as necessary to flesh out the image.
- Don’t go crazy with your thesaurus. Use it wisely to find the best and most accurate descriptors.
- Especially don’t go hog-wild finding unique words to substitute for “said” in dialogue tags. Better yet, skip the “said” phrase and instead use a beat (character action) to identify the speaker.
- Be selective. Decide what description really matters in any given scene. Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
- Work description smoothly into the forward-moving action; don’t do a “description dump,” especially not in your opening scene!
- When describing your viewpoint character, try to be a little more creative than having her looking in a mirror or other reflective surface.
What other tips would you offer about writing effective description? If you’re brave, share a line or two from your wip where you’ve used one or more of the five senses.
Join the conversation for a chance to win your choice of one of Myra’s published books (including The Sweetest Rain, Flowers of Eden, book 1), OR a copy of Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan
Award-winning author Myra Johnson writes emotionally gripping stories about love, life, and faith. Myra is a two-time finalist for the prestigious ACFW Carol Awards, and her Heartsong Presents romance Autumn Rains (November 2009) won RWA’s 2005 Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Romance Manuscript. Myra and her husband are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters who, along with their godly husbands, have huge hearts for ministry. Seven grandchildren take up another big chunk of Myra’s heart. Originally from Texas, the Johnsons moved to the Carolinas in 2011. They love the climate and scenery, but they may never get used to the pulled pork Carolinians call “barbecue”! The Johnsons share their home with two very pampered doggies who don’t always understand the meaning of “Mom’s trying to write.”
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