By Katharina Gerlach
How To Write Great Descriptions
I’m a bilingual author from Germany and I learned many things the hard way. One of my biggest obstacles was (and still is to some extent) my tendency to write lean. I do not much care for lush descriptions. Why use 20 words if 5 will suffice? The reason is quite simple:
Reading is the only known way of thought transfer. Sure, it’s a buggy process but it works if (yes, if) the author knows the difference between show and tell, and description plays a major role there.
As a child, I loved the books of an author who lived in the middle of the 19th century. His stories were adventurous and had deep meaning. However, I skipped whole pages due to big blocks of descriptions. I wanted the action to keep moving. So when I began writing in earnest, I left out descriptions wherever possible. Either extreme is wrong.
In a blogpost on this site in October, Rayne Hall has already given you some pointers at how you can make your descriptions more engaging. Use your scene character’s POV to your advantage. You can reveal or hide facts you’ll need in later chapters by mixing them into well thought out descriptions. You can also use description to characterize your POV character or characters the POV character interacts with.
Example: “How I hated the smell of his car. The scent of cold cigarettes, french fries, and stale beer made me gag, but I had no choice. If I wanted life to continue, I had to sit in his grimy VW bug where a mass of mingled rubbish had overtaken the backseat. There were scientific papers, sheet music, food, empty beer bottles, some records and even a guitar with ripped strings and a coating that must surely be a century’s worth of grime.”
Right here, the description is only there to set the scene, the reader thinks. But later on, when the young detective discovers that all murder victims have been strangled with a guitar string, this scene gets a whole new layer of importance.
The key to great description is the use of specific details. Rayne Hall has already shown how different the perceptions of your characters should be, depending on their jobs, their hobbies, and life experiences. But even with that foundation, the choice of detail is crucial.
Why does the architect notice this house rather than the one next to it? Does he really notice the whole house or is it the contrast of the blooming geranium in the cracked pot against the once yellow sandstone that symbolizes the district's downfall to him?
It is also important to keep in mind, what the POV character is doing in the scene you’re trying to describe. Naturally, a thief fleeing from the police will not notice how lovingly cared for the garden looks that he’s passing through. He’ll only be on the lookout for the gate or a place where he can jump the fence or a hiding place. While an old widow visiting her late husband’s grave might point out to him in minute detail what has changed on the neighboring graves since her last visit.
Description should also use all senses if possible. Our normal modus operandi is sight, which is why most of our descriptions center around things we see. But we’ve also got smell, hearing, feel, and taste (which is pretty hard to put into story but not impossible). And some people claim to have a sixth sense, perception.
A final consideration is your genre. Description can be used very well to set the tone of your novel. Description in a gritty detective story will focus on different elements in the scenes and a different, more chopped up writing style than a chick-lit story with its fluffy, feel-good descriptions. The genre also determines the amount of descriptions you need.
Readers of Romance expect a lot of sensual descriptions mingled with strong emotions whereas Horror works with the unseen in complex settings. A heavily tech-oriented SciFi story will need more expository description (beware the pitfall here) than a coming of age story set in the real world.
Make your descriptions as varied as you can, because description is what makes your stories become a movie in the readers’ minds. Skimp on it, and your stories will fall flat no matter how engaging the characters and how intriguing the plot. Put in too much, and the reader will skip paragraphs or even whole pages.
Describe your room twice. The first time, pretend to be a mother fetching laundry from her son’s/daughter’s room. And second, pretend to be an alien that crashed through the window of this room, so this is the first glimpse of humanity it gets. Keep it under 100 words.
Feel free to post, and I’ll do my best to comment.
Katharina Gerlach is a bilingual author from Germany, married to the best man on earth, mother of three, grandmother of one and proud owner of a Husky-Australian Sheppard mix. She writes Fantasy (Fairy Tale Retellings, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, and more) and history-centric stories of varying lengths with the occasional Real World (TM) short story thrown in. Recently, her story “Winter Days” was accepted for the ISWSG anthology “Voyagers - The Third Ghost”. It tells one of the adventures she had when visiting East Germany with her family as a child.