I used to have a sort of love-hate relationship with descriptions. I loved writing them, letting my words flow into the page as though I were a masterful craftsmen, but I hated reading them. I mean, I can distinctly remember skipping whole paragraphs in books I’d read as a kid just so I could get back to the dialogue and the action – you know, the interesting stuff.
I won’t pretend I’m some great expert on this subject – heck, I’m not published yet (at the time I’m writing this at least) and I don’t even have an English degree – but I do believe I have something worth sharing here. Let’s see what you think.
- Only the absolutely necessary descriptions should be included.
Now, what is deemed as necessary can vary from author to author – as it should – but, there are a few hard and fast guidelines for this. I was skipping paragraphs in those books I read as a kid because those paragraphs were not doing anything to further the plot. I realized this one day while reading one of the earlier books in the Ranger’s Apprentice series – the paragraphs I was skipping served only to repeat the information that had already been conveyed in the dialog. I’ll make up an example of what I mean.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Joe said, looking downcast. The situation was a mystery to Joe, he couldn’t imagine how it had all come to this and that made him feel distraught.
In this example, both the dialog and the descriptive sentence that follows convey the same information – that Joe is surprised and unhappy about his situation. Having both is not only boringly repetitive, it makes the reader feel dumb – like the author needed to spell out to them just what the dialog was trying to convey because they were too stupid to figure it out for themselves. (Side tip – and this isn’t my idea – but always assume your readers are brilliant and that they’ll pick up on everything. Whoever doesn’t get it can just re-read the section. You never want a reader to feel as though they are being talked down to.)
So, this leads to the question, when should you use dialog (showing) and when should description (telling)? There is not going to be one, definitive answer on this – and honestly it probably depends, ultimately, on your style and what kind of emotive voice you’re aiming for in your work – but these are my general opinions:
- Character emotion, world building, character development, and the like should happen through showing. This means getting into the mind of your character, feeling what they feel and being the conduit to record what they would say and how they say it. It’s boring to get a description of “Joe is a nervous, impatient type”, I’d rather experience that character trait with Joe as he lives it.
- Setting and the like should be told – and this is where crafting evocative descriptions becomes very important.
2. Describe everything through your character’s eyes.
There are two different mindsets a writer can have when approaching the description of a scene: to look at the setting as though they were watching a movie and record the details, or get inside the head of their character and filter the world through that character’s perception. The latter here is a far more engaging and evocative way to describe things. It’s so easy in this modern era – when we see so many movies and TV shows – to fall into the habit of describing things as though we were watching them. Let me see if I can make an example of this:
The mountain was tall and show-capped, with the rising sun behind it casting a black shadow onto the leafy, green forest below. Leaves covered the forest floor like a blanket, hiding many a stick and rock from view. Joe was walking in the forest, seeing all of this. It was cold that morning, and he had taken this shortcut because he just wanted to get home quickly.
Joe wandered his way through the forest, shoving his hands into his pockets as the cool breeze sent a shiver down his spine. He glanced up at the mountain above him, squinting against the rising sun that glared down from behind the snow-capped peak. Before too long that warm light might reach the tips of the tall, leafy trees around him – and maybe then his side of the mountain would no longer be in this chilly shadow.
“Ouch!” Joe muttered as he stumbled forward, his foot catching on a stick hidden beneath the fallen leaves. “Stupid short cut – I should be home by now.”
As you can see, both versions convey the same information about the terrain, Joe, and what he is doing there, but the second version is just more interesting to read. The first version is like a statement of fact – like if you were to try and describe a TV show frame-by-frame. The second version, we experience the world through Joe’s eyes – we’re not watching Joe from a distance, we are Joe.
This fundamental idea – that of the reader becoming the character – is, I think, the key to crafting evocative descriptions.
3. Practice describing things you see in real life.
This might sound kind of trite, but hear me out. It’s WAY easier to describe something you can see and feel in front of you than something you’re making up in your head – anyone who’s tried to draw something from memory verses from a picture of the thing can attest to this. I truly believe it is the little, subtle details that make-or-break a description, and it’s those little details that are easy to miss when you’re making it up.
So, describe random things you see. Practice working those details into your descriptions without making them overly complicated or convoluted. Look for the details that you really need to understand that unique thing, and remember them for when you describe things like that from your imagination.
And, when you are writing about things you make up, don’t be too proud to look up reference pictures. My main character, Kura, starts out in a deciduous forest – I’ve grown up in Appalachian mountains, I know exactly how to describe leafy, tree-covered and mountainous terrain right off the top of my head. Towards the middle of the book, however, she ends up in the plains, and I found myself struggling to picture just what that should look like. So, I looked it up, and I started a world building Pinterest board that’s now become indispensable for me when I’m setting the scene.
Alright, so those are my thoughts on crafting evocative descriptions. This absolutely is one of those things that is easier said than done, but I firmly believe a good writer has to consistently train him or herself to think properly about writing, and this is one of those key places. Train yourself to see your story through your character’s eyes, not your own, omniscient author’s gaze. Well, what do you think about my bits of advice? How do you create evocative descriptions in your work? Join the conversation in the comments below!