Monday, June 6, 2011

Description: Part Four of Five Ingredients to a Good Story

Can you “see” the beauty, “hear” the softness of the words, and “feel” the warmth? If so, you have probably just read something described by a seasoned author. Someone who wrote, using a variety of words, and they came to life on the page capturing the scene and transporting the reader.

So far, of all the ingredients that we have studied, description is what “sets the stage.” Where dialogue may be the icing on the cake, description is the cake itself. One of a writers most important tasks will be to describe well, often and thoroughly. While we have covered some aspects of this important concept in both characterization and setting, in this post lets see if we can discover new ways to sharpen our description and better infuse our story with the spark it needs.

In the course of reading both recent and classic literature, I’ve noticed that when it comes to writing description there are two types of writers. Those who’s descriptions glitter and then some that are merely mediocre. This does not mean that those who write mediocre descriptions do not dazzle with plot, or with three dimensional characters. Describing scenes in novels is an art. With all art, it can be improved with time and effort. So while a writer may excel in one area, they may need improvement in another. I myself, consider description one of my many weaknesses in writing. Yet, with time and careful study I’ve made slow improvement, and hopefully will continue to do so. You can too. Lets find out how!

4 Tips To Create Dazzling Description

1) Read, read, and read some more. Like I said earlier, some authors just dazzle with description. One of my favorites which I read recently was MaryLou Tyndall’s “The Falcon and The Sparrow.” “The Preacher’s Bride” by Jody Helund, was another. Both these authors, with very little words, managed to add vivid sensory details to their already compelling stories. So read, and soak this up. Make notes of favorite phrases, and lines, and use these as examples for your own writing.

2) Describe Random Objects, Places, and People
Don’t just limit your descriptions to your novels. If you have a few minutes in your day, pick up a pad of paper and describe the things around you. As in anything, the more you do it, the better you’ll become.

3) Avoid clichés.
One of the worst killers in description is phrases that have been overused. We find this to be especially true when describing a character. Clichés are what usually comes to our mind first, so we should pause and realize this. Try using fresh phrases. They are a surefire way to keep your reader’s attention through a block of description.

4) Don’t ramble. The era in which we live is fast paced. Our jobs as writers is to keep our readers glued to our story. So, don’t go on about the weather, for pages on end. In one series I read, the author interspersed historical details into the story. The problem came when these details went on and on and eventually lost me. You want your readers to be hungry for the next sentence and plot twist, so narrow the description down so it fit’s the scene and gives the reader enough information without going overboard.

Classics with Amazing Description

As I was looking for excerpts for my last post on dialogue, I noticed something. A great many writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were poor writers of dialogue but wrote breathtaking description. So for me, one of the many reasons I read so much classic literature is to immerse myself in the description. I hope to share some of that with you in the following two excerpts. The first is from Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge Of Courage.”    
      A moment later the regiment went swinging off into the darkness. It was now like one of those moving monsters wending with many feet. The air was heavy, and cold with dew. A mass of wet grass, marched upon, rustled like silk.
     There was an occasional flash and glimmer of steel from the backs of all these huge crawling reptiles. From the road came creakings and grumblings as some surly guns were dragged away.
     The men stumbled along still muttering speculations. There was a subdued debate. Once a man fell down, and as he reached for his rifle a comrade, unseeing, trod upon his hand. He of the injured fingers swore bitterly, and aloud. A low, tittering laugh went among his fellows.
     Presently they passed into a roadway and marched forward with easy strides. A dark regiment moved before them, and from behind also came the tinkle of equipments on the bodies of marching men.
     The rushing yellow of the developing day went on behind their backs. When the sunrays at last struck full and mellowingly upon the earth, the youth saw that the landscape was streaked with two long, thin, black columns which disappeared on the brow of a hill in front and rearward vanished in a wood. They were like two serpents crawling from the cavern of the night.

Isn't this depiction amazing? While he is just describing a troop of soldiers, he uses excellent analogies and word pictures so you can feel the scene with all your senses.

When I first began to write this series, I promised myself I would quote from novels only once, thus giving a more broad view. But this description from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is too good to miss.


     There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
     Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb.
     At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvres, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.
     By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names.

The above descriptions are, I must admit, a bit too wordy for today’s readers. Yet, they still capture the scenes using several of the five senses, adding texture to the plot. Its good to read scenes like these to see how authors utilize words to describe. Some of the classic authors are amazing in their brilliant descriptions.

Reading one classic work a year can help us to be well rounded as writers. As I read my own descriptions, I use scenes like those above as a yardstick. Do I have too little sensory detail, or too much? Do I sound too much like the writer of an inventory (which I oftentimes do) than the author of a novel?

In all of our writing there is room for improvement. Reading technique books is also a good idea. “The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing” covers all the ingredients we have been discussing in this series.
You can refer to this to aid in the enhancement of your own work.

By the way......the above picture is the end of a dock where The Great Gatsby was filmed. A new version of this film is being released in 2012 starring Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Happy writing!!
-- Amanda 

Do you have any tips for good description? Any novel suggestions where it is used especially well? As always, I look forward to your comments.


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