Friday, October 26, 2012

Writing Better Descriptions

I hate writing descriptions because I find them to be boring. When I'm reading books, if a description takes longer than two sentences, no matter how hard I try to concentrate, my eyes always glaze over.

Because of this, all my first drafts lack description. I write about the characters without taking the time to describe their appearances or the rooms they are in and fill in the details during revisions.

It took me a long time to learn that descriptions take hard work and talent to write well. It took me a long time to understand how important they are. Here are some tips to make your descriptions better:

1. Descriptions should be relevant.

Imagine a girl who is about to walk through a door.

If this is an ordinary door, like the door to her house, you shouldn't describe it. In fact, you don't even have to mention the door. You can just say that she walked into her house and the reader will automatically imagine an ordinary door in their mind with her traveling through it.

But let's say this door is special, that her father died while building it and that his blood still stains the bottom of this door, even though she's tried to scrub it out a million times. She always stops and stares at this door whenever she travels through it because it tugs at her heart and reminds her of the father she misses and the fact that his murder remains unsolved. This door should be described in detail.

Why? Because the door is relevant to the story and may even be the first clue in solving a mystery!

Cut out any description that isn't relevant to the story. Not only does it bore the readers, but you have to get in the mind of your character as well. Would he or she really take note of the details of a door if this door had no meaning for him or her?

If a normal person walks into a garden, they may notice many pretty flowers and all the colors. If a gardener walks into the garden, she would pick out each rose and carnation she sees and think about them. Write descriptions according to how relevant things are to your story and your character.

2. Descriptions aren't lists of adjectives.

She was pretty, slender, tan, blond, tall, blue-eyed, popular, friendly, crazy, immature.....

Adjectives should be used sparingly. If you use them too much, then the reader drifts off and gets bored.

"She had a warm smile" is better than "She had a warm, wide, friendly smile with dimples and white teeth."

Maybe all those things are true, but they're not all important and if they are important, then you can spread out the adjectives into other parts of the book. "She had a warm smile" can start you off and then maybe another character, her husband, comments on how much he loves her dimples later as he kisses her. Maybe she lectures the main character about brushing her teeth later and says that was the key to her having a white smile. But is always welcoming people into her house for dinner because she's friendly and loves to meet new people.

Mostly adjectives are a way to be lazy. You're telling the reader how to see the character rather than letting the reader get to know your character through the events of the story.

Don't expect your readers to know everything about your character all at once, let them get to know the character over the course of the book, just like it takes time and experience to get to know real people that aren't in books.

3. Descriptions should describe the unusual things about your character or setting.

People tend to use hair color, eye color, and skin color to describe their characters and nothing else. This is boring. Not only will most of us have a difficult time recalling the eye colors of most of our friends (because the color of one's eyes isn't important), but also, most of us notice other important details about a person that enhances their description and makes them unique if we add those kinds of details to our stories.

Like, let's say a character trembles every time she lifts a plate because she's getting parkinson's or she snorts when she laughs and wears glasses. A character might bite their fingernails regularly or constantly smooth their hair down while they speak to people. A character might pick their nose in public or cough so hard that their face turns red on occasion. Maybe she has a limp or is cross-eyed.

All those descriptions of characters make them unique and put a more vivid picture of a character's appearance in the readers' head. We're not simply a combination of hair, eye, and skin color, there's much more that makes everyone an individual than those three things. In fact, some people write descriptions that don't involve any of those three aspects of a person at all, but it doesn't make the character any less vivid in readers' minds.

4.  Descriptions should show more than just appearance.

They should also describe the personality of a character and the mood of the setting.

Here's one description:

The tombstones of the graveyard were lined up in rows. They cast shadows in the moonlight. There was green grass around them and flowers on the graves.

This is an okay description, but it could be better . . . .

The rows of tombstones seemed to stretch on forever in the moonlight. Goosebumps ran up my arms as I wondered if I should turn back. The green grass muffled my footsteps. The dead flowers on the graves told me that this wasn't a place where the living belonged, but maybe if I was quiet enough the corpses wouldn't hear them crunching beneath my feet.

The second description is better because it shows that the character is scared, it shows that the mood of the setting is that it's creepy and the main character is frightened by it. The first description doesn't show this on the other hand. It's just a list of traits that this graveyard happens to have: rows of tombstones, moonlight, grass, and flowers.

If a character has blue eyes, should you say "She had blue eyes" or "Her blue eyes gazed at me so coldly, they looked like frozen pools of ice." The second is better because it shows the character is potentially cruel and hostile. It's a better representation of not only her physical appearance, but her personality as well.

5. Don't forget to describe where in the room the characters are located.

I'm adding this because it's not something I've ever seen on one of these lists and yet it's something I've had trouble with before.

If one character is standing behind another, then state this. If a character is standing in the corner of the room, make sure to say this as well. If they're running across the room, spell it out.

I always imagine character placement in my mind, but often don't write it out. This causes a disconnect for the reader. They may be able to picture the character and they may be able to picture the setting, but they can't actually picture your character IN your setting. This is the glue that draws those things together and makes them one.

6. Don't describe your main character by having them look at themselves in the mirror.

It's cliche and has been done a million times. There are other ways to describe characters and it's usually best done during a description of an action a character is taking.

Like . . .

She charged towards the door until her broad shoulders came in contact. The door wouldn't budge. Her brown eyes narrowed in determination. He would not lock her out. She would get in there whether he liked it or not. Her brown hair flew behind her head as she slammed her body against the door again and it splintered into tiny pieces.

This describes the character as muscular with brown hair and brown eyes.

Also, if you sneak description into action like this, a reader often won't realize that they're actually reading a description because there's enough action happening to entertain them during it.


If you'd like to read more articles on writing like this, please go to my site: The New Writer's Guide To Writing, Publishing, And More.


Leigh said...

I indirectly describe my MC by describing the corpse at a funeral. Of course, the dead girl's her twin sister, so I suppose that's kind of like a mirror scene. :D

Jess said...

SUCH a timely post for me! I'm about to dig back into a first draft that will need description added (I'm kind of like you, I do that during revision) and I love these tips. I've bookmarked this post, so thank you!

Ella Gray said...

Very good tips! The issue of how much character description to use is a constantly changing opinion for me and a bit of a struggle. Some popular authors have said they like plenty of physical details, while others have said that less is better. I think it really depends on one's tastes - I have one crit partner always asking for more character description, while the other will say the same passage shows too much, LOL.

SC Author said...

3 and 4 are the big ones. You can get so much 'characterization' in your setting by following those two guidelines.I am DEFINITELY keeping this in mind as I write!

Chemist Ken said...

These are good points, but I'm so bad at writing descriptions that I often consider myself lucky if I manage to write what you listed as the bad versions.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who tends to speed through long descriptions. My first drafts end up lacking in description and I have to weave it in to a second (or third) draft. Great post.

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