Description is one of my least favorite things to write–it feels like such a catalog of objects, colors, and sensations–but it’s a necessary evil. Action can’t happen in a vacuum; readers need some sense of where a character is, even if its only very general.
Some authors have gotten away with very little description. Jane Austen, for example, is downright sparse in her details, most of the time, yet even she takes time out from her narrative to go into detail when, for example, Elizabeth is looking at Mr. Darcy’s picture or going over the grounds of Pemberley or Rosings Park.
So how do you write effective description? It starts with the powers of observation.
Today, it often seems like we’re better at zoning out than zoning in, better at ignoring things than noticing them. So here a few suggestions on how you can get your sense of observation working. I’ve used all of them throughout my writing career and can attest that they do work.
- Write Poetry. This doesn’t mean you have to turn poet, but you can play around with more poetic ways of describing something, just to explore your options. Try alliteration (using the same letter as the initial letter of a number of words: “the rustic, regal, rugged rocks”) or assonance (hiding a vowel within the words, rather than having it start every word: “in my mind, I find ineptitude to be insipid” flows because of all the “i” sounds tucked in and around the words), or even consonance (assonance’s cousin, using the same form but with consonants instead of vowels).
- Really Listen. Go to a particular location, even if it isn’t what you’re writing about, and focus on your surroundings. Say what you’re seeing and feeling (by speaking out loud, or even whispering, you will get your mind to “turn off”). It doesn’t have to be a “fun” place, like the beach. It can be in the middle of a bus or subway (though you might want to speak very quietly so those around you don’t think you’re out of your mind). Exercises like this can help you get used to the various sights and sounds that are available–what a place really feels like–and this can help strengthen your descriptions.
- Read Descriptive Writers. Whether this means a poet like Shakespeare or a master of setting mood like Dickens, find writers who write description that you found enjoyable…or at very least, didn’t skip, and examine how they achieved their results. What was it about their writing that made it interesting? Did they use a particular point of view? Humor? A type of concrete details? What works for you will likely work for other readers as well.
What about you? Do you include a great deal of description in your books, or have you found a way around it?
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photos by myself, cfourcalvin, and pippalou, Creative Commons