Thursday, October 18, 2012

In Defense of Description

by Rachel Coker

Rachel Coker is a homeschool student who lives in Virginia with her parents and two sisters. She has a passion for great books and has been surrounded by them all her life. When she is not writing or playing the piano, Rachel enjoys spending time with her family and friends. Interrupted is her first novel.


You've all heard the old adage. "Show, don't tell." And as a reader, I totally get where this is coming from. Nothing annoys me more than reading a great book and getting to an extremely boring (and usually obnoxiously lengthy) section of pure narrative. The sarcastic voice in my head immediately questions why on earth the author thought it was important for me to know that the main character had "huge, doe-shaped eyes" or "long, tangled flaming auburn curls". The words "large eyes" and "red hair" would be more than enough to satisfy me in most instances.

Same goes with authors who have to specify that their characters "shouted angrily", as if I might for some reason imagine they were shouting delicately. It just blows my mind sometimes.

HOWEVER, there has been a recent trend in writing that is really, really disturbing me. And that is the idea that descriptions don't matter.

That the soul of the book should rely purely on dialog and abrupt, short pacing. I picked up a book the other day and found one page to be almost nothing but back and forth dialog, with few speech tags, and virtually no descriptions of what was going on between the characters. I may be one of the few authors still saying this these days, but descriptions can be very important. But they must be used properly.

If you're anything like me, you may be a very visual person. A lot of people find that hard to believe, since I'm obviously a writer and can express what I'm feeling pretty well through my words. But, believe it or not, I don't love a lot of dialog in a book. I'm one of the few writers that thinks that more can be expressed in a short description of a glance, or a tiny gesture, than a conversation.

I tend to pick up motions and movements more in real life than I do words. I read a lot into the way someone looks about something, and I tend to lean toward making judgments based on first impressions. More authors need to learn how to use descriptions, and how to use them properly. While I don't want you to go add an extra ten thousand words of pointless descriptive narrative to your books, I would encourage you to think outside the box a bit and add a few enhancing descriptions when necessary. Here are a few ideas:
  • Describe your character's bedroom
This is a short, interesting description that a lot of writers tend to leave out. But think about it. What can a person's bedroom really say about who they are. Adding something like, "My mom refused to come inside and see the mounds of old VBS shirts and dog-eared paperback novels lying on the ground," might show that your character is sentimental but messy. While something like, "I neatly folded my cardigan and placed it on my closet shelf. All my sweaters sat neatly in a large stack, arranged in order of color. Little things like that just kept me happy," would show that your character is a bit obsessive, but cheerful. See what an influence a small description like a bedroom can have to a story?
  • Describe body language during a discussion
Have you ever noticed how sometimes, even when you and your friend are having a casual discussion about something totally meaningless, you can just sense that something's wrong. Like how he may be saying, "Yeah, I'm sure my parents will be okay with that. It won't be a problem," but he's scratching the back of his neck and glancing at the clock on the wall above your head every two seconds? Or how your best friend can say, "Yeah, I love that sweater. It's totally your color," while pressing her lips together and biting the inside of her cheek. Little things like that can be much bigger indicators to what someone is feeling than the words that actually come out of their mouths.
  • Describe smells, both good and bad
Some books only ever mention scents if they're as obvious as a baking pie or rotting corpse. I beg you to help me break the mold on that. Our noses never turn off, so you shouldn't just ignore that sense in your characters. Think about the smells that we often take for granted that could be noted in your book. The earthy scent of fresh-cut grass, the musty leaves after a soaking rain, the gassy fumes of an old pick-up truck driving by... Just noting one of these things every now and then will help ground the reader into the scene and make him feel like he's really there, experiencing it with every one of his senses.
  • Describe someone's voice
And don't use the words "tough", "whiney," or "soft". Those are overused. (I'm mostly saying that to keep everyone else from using them, so I can keep them all to myself.) Try thinking outside of the box. Maybe someone's voice could be described as "gravely," or "lilting", or "breathy". I love getting a sense for how a character sounds, because it really helps me as the reader hear it in my head. Make sense?

So there you have it folks. Don't go complaining that you can't think of any ways to add descriptions to your books, because I've just given you four idea starters!

Now it's your turn. How are you going to add descriptions sparsely but creatively, and help enhance your stories and characters? Good luck!

As always, please check out my blog, and like me on Facebook! I promise to do my best to remain helpful, interesting, and semi-sarcastic. ;)

28 comments:

  1. Yay! I've been waiting for another Rachel Coker post! :)
    As much as I absolutely love dialogue that can subtly tell you a ton of stuff about a character's personality, it's often the descriptions of the little things that drag me into the story world and don't let me come out until I've finished reading the entire novel.

    It's hard for me to describe things in unique ways, but it's also one of the most fun parts of crafting a story.I'm working on a 2nd draft right now, so I'll definitely remember this list!

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    1. Aw, you are too sweet! ;) You're definitely right about the dialog--it's a great way to subtly enhance a character!

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  2. Thanks Rachel!
    I love description! It's one thing I'm actually fairly good at. I love using words that aren't your typical go-to. It makes it sound so cool. I do need to add some in my story though. I wrote it a few years ago, before I had the knack for it.

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  3. This was so helpful! I'm the type of reader that likes descriptions, but not in huge chunks. I like to get to know characters and I have a hard time expressing that sometimes. I've noticed that about books too. They're lacking in details and it doesn't make a story satisfying. It's like reading an advertisement or something.

    One of my characters eats a lot of food, but he's not fat. He's that best friend and I've described his sent as a fresh baked chocolate cake or his laugh, it's like a sputtering motor boat when he's really cracking up. His fingertips even are stained a light orange color from eating Doritos.

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    1. I love the orange fingertips touch. ;)It really gives me a feel for the character.

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    2. I totally agree with you--descriptions are best in small doses. And I love your characters!!! Such great ideas! :)

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  4. Great post, Rachel! :) Thanks a lot -- I'm working on editing right now and I've got an itch to add some more description...

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  5. One of my favorite posts yet! Thanks Rachel.

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  6. I'm not very fond of dialog myself, and I tend to use descriptions, but my stores seem to go by very quickly. I'm just wondering if you have any tips tto writing better descriptions to slow things down?

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    1. Great questino, Indie! Descriptions are definitely a great way to slow things down and make your books flow at a smoother pace. I would encourage you go to back and evaluate all your key scenes, asking these questions: What does the mc (main character) see? What does she smell? What might she feel? Is any part of her touching something (her fingers, her elbow, etc.)? Is anything moving that might catch her attention? Noting and adding two or three of these things to every key scene will help strengthen your writing and make your book move at a smoother pace!
      Hope this helps! :)

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  7. I agree with you about description - I don't think long, in-depth paragraphs full of frilly adjectives are necessary, but including relevant, descriptive details can really help to ground a story and its characters. I especially love your examples for describing a character's bedroom, because I think that method of almost sneaking in description can be a great way to give the reader a sense of the setting (and, as you said, the character's mentality) without boring said reader. That's usually how I try to work in the description in my novel, anyway... ;) GREAT post, I love it!

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  8. THANK YOU! It's terrible that people are trying to get rid of description...what's a story without description? The readers need a little help imagining, here! :) I'm still working on weaving the description in, but I think I'm improving! Thanks again.

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  9. Description. Ah, description. I, like you, LOVE description. I have found myself on the point of tears several times when reading books that refused to show me who and where their characters were. The setting was vague, the body language nonexistent, and I couldn't place myself with the characters, even though the dialogue was face-paced and intriguing.
    I agree there can be too much description. But brief colorful pictures add a lot to a story, short or long. And reappearing traits in a character add a lot to identity.
    So thank you for defending poor, misused description.

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  10. Thanks so much for this post! This is something I've been trying to work on lately, so this is perfectly timed. I usually either have too much dialogue or get bogged down by endless descriptions. The examples that you have seem like a good balance, so I'll try to to something similar. Thanks!

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  11. Love this post, Rachel. And guess what. This week... I read "Interrupted" and LOOOOVED it! Sam was pretty cool. I like him. So pumped for your next book to come out.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Sam makes me sad because he doesn't exist in real life ;)

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    3. Aw, you guys are so cute! I wish Sam existed in real life myself. ;)

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  12. This is brilliant! I'm going to be doing an other edit sweep-through of my book soon and I need lists like these. Description is my failing, but I see where it needs to be. It just because, as a reader, I have a hard time focusing on pages and pages of narrative. I love the kind of description that pops. Short. Poignant. Sweet. It's just a struggle to find the right words to, er...POP it.

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    1. So glad it was helpful, Cait! Good luck with your revisions and I really hope this helps you with your descriptions! :)

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  13. This is a great post!
    I find that too often books nowadays don't describe things enough - the main character's appearance is one of the things that seems to be forgotten a lot.
    It can be hard to work it naturally into the story, but it's so important!
    Describing looks helps me form a picture in my head - without it, I get moments when I go 'Wait, she looks like THAT?! But - but - the picture in my head is all different!'

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    1. Hmmm... I agree with you, Kate. The author should always describe the character right off the bat within the first few pages (or sentences, for a supporting character) or else not describe her at all. No one wants their view changed halfway into the book!

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  14. I absolutely love this post! And I am sure Anne Shirley would agree!
    Whenever someone goes on and on about how boring description is, I really take it personal because description is just something I have always loved in a book. And my stories and journals go to show that.
    Another thing that really knocks my writer's confidence is how so many people are about "showing, not telling." I personally am more of a show girl rather than a tell but I do love telling as well and do use it an awful lot. I think these two things bug me so much is because I don't get what people mean when they say them. And feel that because I don't, I am not a good judge when it comes to writing. Which makes me question my abilities. You know? ♥

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  15. I was so glad to read this post! Just today I was going thru some old mags and found some articles about body language, and lots of beautiful home and garden shots. At first I wasn't sure what I was going to do with all these pix ... now I do!
    What a great post.
    Thanks for all the helpful advice.

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  16. Great post! I like this idea of the balance between description and action, rather than the whole "Description is evil!" thing that seems to be going around. Thanks for you ideas on how to incorporate it. =)

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  17. As a newbie, I'm very cautious of trying not to break the rules. I can't use the words was, it, or that unless absolutely necessary. I have to show, not tell, I have to develop the characters voice without spending too much time in their head instead of the real world.
    I feel like I put in a lot of description the first draft, throw it all out the second time through, and then put about half of it back in with my 3rd draft.
    Great post. Thanks Rachel!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  18. Rachel, as always, a helpful, informative post that I wholeheartedly agree with. I too dislike pages of back-and-forth for much the same reason I dislike tennis matches. ;)

    Thanks for the tips! I've used the bedroom description before (laughed at how much your sweater one sounds like me!) but those new adjectives for a character's voice I'll keep in mind.

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