Description: Part Two

By | June 30, 2011

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the second half of my two-part post on description! Part one can be found here.

Getting back into it, let’s start with Rule Three, which I consider the most important rule: I would argue that all description (as with anything else in your story) should inherently be guided by point of view.

Sometimes using POV to guide description is obvious – don’t describe anything your narrator isn’t aware of. Don’t show the reader something they can’t see or talk about the sound of something they’ve never heard.

This sounds easy, but sometimes it sneaks up on you, as, most often in my experience, with physical descriptions of your main character. If you’re writing in a close or limited perspective – showing the thoughts and experiences of a single main character, usually in first or third person – your character should never think “Wow, my eyes are really dark and cold right now as I glare at this jerk.” They are much more likely to describe said jerk, for instance, “Ha-ha, watch him grow pale with fear and cower before my wrath!”*

But beyond that, using point of view isn’t just about not showing what your narrator physically can’t detect. Especially for a close point of view, as in most stories, what you want is to be careful to observe not only what your character can, but what your character would observe – what is your narrator experiencing, what does your narrator notice? I rarely stop in the middle of a conversation with someone and think “Goodness, this friend I’ve known for years – her eyes are really dark brown. How astonishing!” (Well, your narrator could do that, but an attentive reader is likely to assume they’re falling in love.)

Physical descriptions in general are pretty tricky. When I think about people, me personally, I rarely think about what they look like, especially if I’ve known them a long time. I think even less about what I look like, especially if I’m in the middle of something and not standing in front of a mirror.** If you really need to include your main character’s appearance, one alternate strategy is to show how others react to them, rather than describing them directly. This can be blatant, as with Harry Potter being constantly told how his green eyes are just like his mother’s, but it can also be subtle. Instead of saying that your narrator is scary or attractive, you can show everyone reacting with fear and attraction. This cuts back on characters standing around thinking about what they look like when they could be off doing things.

For describing side characters, it’s usually reasonable to give some description, although, as above, it’s a bit weird to describe in depth someone the narrator has known for years. On the other hand, maybe your main character is really shallow, and even if not, it’s pretty typical to provide physical descriptions of love interests or opponents (the difference between grappling for your life with someone half your size vs. twice your size is generally pretty important, as descriptions go). Regardless of what character you’re describing, you want to be sure the details you choose give us significant information – eye color is rarely essential to the story,*** but saying someone has hard eyes, though it tells us very little about their appearance, can tell us a lot about their character, just as having a soft voice is more meaningful than being a soprano (if neither character actually sings).

As with physical description, you can often determine what setting details to show just by thinking through your narrator’s personality. If they notice something, if it matters to the scene to know it’s there, then it should be described. If your character is busy, don’t go on about the exquisite tenderness of new leaves. If, on the other hand, your narrator fancies himself a love poet and is standing in the woods, embracing nature, a brief aside on the graceful sweep of branches cascading from the treetops is completely in character – as long as the scene isn’t meant to have any sense of urgency.

One thing I’ve found useful is to read a bunch of different authors and genres – I’ve found that traditional high fantasy tends to have the really long and elaborate descriptions, urban fantasy and hard SF have more efficient descriptions, paranormal romance will really do up the physical character descriptions… For the really poetic and intricate descriptions that still feel plausible, among other things, I’d recommend N.K. Jemisin’s books (I’d recommend them anyway, they’re wonderful). I read Megan Whalen Turner’s books to see relatively simple prose describing things subtly and elegantly. Reading what works and what doesn’t work will help you find the right voice for your story and help you see what will make your description effective.

There are little rules as well – one of the famous laws of writing is never to use an adjective where a strong noun will do, and never to use an adverb at all. And often this is true – if you’re trying to craft a description in streamlined prose, it’s far more graceful to say someone “sprinted” than that they “ran very quickly,” for instance.

These are good guidelines, but at the core of description, the rules are simple – stay in character, be specific, be vivid, and see what works for you.

So, having read all that, what do you think? How do you write description? What do you think is hard or easy about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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*Please don’t use either of these actual lines in your writing; I will not be held responsible.

**Personal pet peeve: I beg you not to ever have your character sit in front of a mirror and contemplate their appearance as a solution to the “my narrators can’t see themselves from outside” problem, unless there is a really good reason for your character to sit in front of a mirror, like they’re at the hairdresser’s getting a deeply plot-significant and life-changing haircut, or they’re so vain they can hardly tear themselves away and by the end of the story they will have turned into a flower like Narcissus. Even then, use this device sparingly. It’s not that it’s a terrible idea inherently, and it seems like a pretty natural solution to the problem. The problem is mostly that it’s just overused, so it feels like “Oh, one of those staring in the mirror scenes again,” but it’s also a bit implausible, and it never really moves the plot along because instead of doing things, your character is just sitting there.

***Let me repeat that, actually: eye color is pretty much never relevant to the story. People use eyes a lot, their characters’ vivid eye color, hard stare, twinkling gaze – and while it’s really easy and tempting to write, it’s also easy to overuse. Plus, the number of times I have actually read someone’s expression in their eyes, well, let’s just say it doesn’t happen often. So don’t totally cut it out of your writing – there are good reasons it’s used a lot – but be careful to use it because you mean to, and not to overuse it.

3 thoughts on “Description: Part Two

  1. Elena Gleason

    For me, the most challenging aspect of description is writing description that doesn’t slow the story down significantly. I always feel like stopping the action for a paragraph of description is boring. But maybe that’s just me. I tend to skim long descriptions when I’m reading. At any rate, I try to embed my description in the action, and it results in stories that are sparsely described but apparently unobjectionable (since people rarely tell me I need to add more description).

  2. Madeline Stevens

    Yes! Huge personal pet peeve–the eyes are not actually windows to the soul. They don’t show expression. Eyebrows do. Mouths, foreheads, noses, even chins. But not eyes, especially not by themselves.

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