Writing Description: A Workshop
Writing description is often one of the things that first draws people into writing. It's beautiful, it's pleasant, it's poetry.
But it can also be really hard to do effectively in a novel.
I blame schools, personally. I teach at one, so I should know. We encourage students to write pages of it with little to no narrative for a multitude of reasons that don't translate well to writing outside of a classroom.
When you're writing a story, plot and character is the most important thing, and good description can often get in the way of that.
I once heard someone complaining that they'd been given the advice to cut back on description. They argued that several of "the greats" like Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Hardy, Dickens etc are known for using great chunks of description, so why should they be different?
Firstly, these people really, really, really know what they’re doing. If Picasso had started his career selling his later work, people would have thought it mad. He mastered the craft before subverting it.
(I also maintain that Tolkien would NEVER be published in today's market, but that’s a rant for another time)
The person said they liked to include lots of description to “draw the reader in.” Lots of description actually has the opposite effect. It muddles and confuses readers. Avoid writing anything to “draw a reader in”. Ask yourself what should they be drawn to.
What’s actually important in this scene you’re setting? What feeling do you want the reader to come away with? Remember, it’s not about how what the reader can see, but how they feel.
To this end, focus on scent and texture over visual cues, although colour can also be useful. “The market place seemed covered with a thin film of grey, and smelled strongly of fish and vinegar” gives an incredibly clear picture in just a few words, and is completely opposite, "the dense, heavy smell of spices covered the air, between the baking sun and the bright awnings."
No one will be interested in the story if they have to wade through piles of description to get there.
Less is often more. If I look back at the stuff I was writing ten years ago, there was so much description and so much of it was largely unnecessary. The problem is once you've written it, you can become attached to it. That simile you just used is excellent, after all. But it also adds nothing to the picture you're trying to create.
Here is something I wrote ten years ago:
Out of the trees stood a castle crested in crimson hills, smoke billowing from towers, stone crumbling like biscuit into the mire. The banks along the moat were cracked like broken skin, blood and dirt pooling into the dry riverbed like pus.
Individually, there's some good words here. I like crested, crimson, billowing, crumbling. I like the two similes. Unfortunately, the two similes back-to-back completely ruin to the flow, and the opening is too slow. It's the start of an action scene. It needs to be punchier. And "out of the trees stood" doesn't actually make any sense.
Here is the revised section:
A castle rose up between crimson hills, smoke billowing from its towers. The banks along the moat cracked like broken skin, blood and dirt pooling into the dry riverbed beneath.
I added action to the start in the from of the castle "rising". I had to get rid of the word "crested" because it simply didn't work. I axed the first simile and removed the passive voice to try and make the whole thing speedier. Our MC isn't looking at a still life; she's watching something fall. The description needs to be moving, not static, hence the use of verbs over flowery language. The simile that I kept offers violent imagery, rather than the one about biscuits.
You don't need any more description of the castle. You can see clearly that it's under attack. Any other details are peppered throughout the action.
So, here's what you need to think about when writing description:
Ask yourself: what details does the reader really need? Do they need to know what kind of castle it is, or just the extent of the damage?
Ask yourself: what feeling/pace are you going for? What words are you using to achieve that? (e.g. adjectives to slow pace, verbs to speed it up)
What is the minimum description you can get away with using?
What does that simile actually add or do? Constantly ask yourself the effect of your words.
Minimise senses, but utilise smell and texture to write more with less.
Remember, for your description to be immersive, it shouldn't be dominant. Weave it through the action of scene or story.
I think that's it! Have you got any tips on writing better description? Let's see them below!