Monday, February 10, 2014

8 Tips for Creating Great Descriptions

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Your character walks into a room, and you want your audience to be able to see every detail just like it is in your head. Readers want that, right? You often hear people talk about how they love so-and-so's writing because they feel like they're "right there."

The temptation is to have your character walk into a scene and notice all those details. The gold drapes. The rotary phone. The overflowing wastebasket. The shag carpet. The pink couch with a dead body on it.

But while description is great, big chunks of it will drag down your story. Even if you aren't writing a fast-paced thriller, pausing to describe every new setting will wear on your reader.



So how does a writer provide enough details for a reader that they feel like they're there ... without it feeling like they've pressed the pause button on the story?

1. Factor in the POV character.

Who is this person? Are they male or female? What are their interests?

Different people notice different details. If a group walked into my living room, one might first notice all the books on the shelves, another the loads of pictures of my kids, and still another might first notice the nice TV and speakers.

Another fun way to describe is to think through the POV character's insecurities. Let's go back to the pictures of my kids. A couple who has suffered from infertility might first notice the pictures of McKenna and Connor, the toys inevitably strewn about the room, and the row of kids movies in our DVD collection. Whereas another couple with kids of their own might not pay attention to that at all because their house looks similar.

2. Start with one or two unique details or an overall impression.

When you walk into a room, you don't absorb all the details at once. Instead several details will usually pop out at you. The color of the walls, a grand piano, or carpet so white you're afraid to step on it.

Another technique you can use (either by itself or with your handful of unique details) is an overall impression. It's been about five years since I read Susan May Warren's Finding Stefanie but I still remember a character walking through the house she grew up in and describing it as "accidentally retro." Just with those two words, my imagination conjures up an oven that's avocado green and mixing bowls with orange flowers on them. Which brings me to my next suggestion:

3. Don't be so bossy.

Give your reader some freedom to imagine things the way they want to. Perhaps when Susan May Warren wrote that scene and described the house decor as accidentally retro, she was imagining goldenrod shag carpet and dulled brass fixtures. But does she really need to get so particular? Does the image in her head have to match mine exactly? No.

If you want to describe a field of wildflowers, your varieties of flowers doesn't (necessarily) need to match the reader's. Readers appreciate a good description, but they also enjoy the freedom to use their imagination. (Quick side story: My grandmother is 88 and has always been a big reader. She once told me, "I don't like it when they put the men on the cover of books. They're always much better looking in my mind.")

4. Don't waste time with a lot of details that don't matter.

If this is the only time the reader is going to be in this location, don't bore them with all the details of what it looks like. Same with other characters. We don't need four lines about what the secretary looks like if we never see her again after this scene. Now, if later in the story she comes into play, then those descriptive lines are helpful.

When you go into a lot of detail about something, it says to the reader, "This is so important, I'm taking the time to describe it to you." So make sure to only give detailed descriptions when it matters.

5. Use description to plant the vase.

Jill taught me this one, actually. Say later in the scene one character is going to pick up a vase and throw it. Then that vase needs to be mentioned when you describe the room. 

Or say later in the story your character will be thrown into a pit but will escape because she happens to have a length of rope in her purse. Then earlier that day, I suggest you have your character noticing how out of control her purse has gotten. Gum wrappers, matchbox cars, and even the rope she had used last week when the latch on her trunk had broken. Otherwise it feels too convenient and contrived to your reader.

6. Use the combination of action and specific nouns.

Don't just have your character just sit on a a couch. Instead have them sink into a leather armchair.

Don't let them just scale a fence. Have them hop over a white picket fence.

Or don't send them running through the neighbor's garden. Have them trample Mrs. Hemsworth's prize lilies. 

When you pair your action with description, you're able to describe a unique detail of the storyworld without pausing to do so.

7. Use opinions to make clothing and hair/eye descriptions matter.

In my early manuscripts, I always paused to describe a character. My main character would be at school and it would look like this:
Amy spotted Jenna and crossed the room to her. Jenna was wearing a brown turtleneck sweater and jeans. She had on clunky shoes and big earrings. Her red hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her green eyes sparkled as she saw Amy approaching.
And then two lines later, Amy and Jenna would be joined by Max.
Max smiled in that crooked way of his and his blue eyes crinkled in the corners. He was wearing a hoodie and cargo pants, and his dark hair was still wet from his morning shower. 
Yawn, right? And who can even remember any of it? Those are the kinds of details that readers forget always as soon as they read them. I guarantee that a paragraph later, the reader won't remember who has dark hair and whose is red.

Plus, these aren't the details that really matter, are they? Does it matter to the reader that Jenna has on a brown turtleneck? 

If you want the detail to matter, attach an opinion to it. "As always, Jenna's outfit was woefully out of style - a brown turtleneck and too-blue jeans. If only her mother would let her buy new clothes, Max might finally notice her." The description now matters, doesn't it? We've learned something about Jenna.

8. If this is your first draft, don't obsess about getting the balance of description perfect.

Like we've talked about on here before, writers tend to be either putter-inners or taker-outers when it comes to edits. I write such bare bones first drafts that my edits involve adding a lot of description. Other writers tend to have long paragraphs of description that they need to trim and disperse. Description is something that's easiest to get right in the edits.

For you fantasy writers, you might find this article of Jill's helpful on integrating your storyworld.

Do you struggle with description or does it come easily to you?

48 comments:

  1. I'm definitely a reader who can read what everyone's wearing and what their hair color is and all and still go imagining them the same way I did before. :) Your grandmother is right! Makes it somewhat hard for the movie industry too. :) Thank you, thank you, thank you for number 8! I don't put in enough description either. Thanks for saying it's OK for now.

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru/?m=1

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  2. I'm with your grandma on this one! Keep the hero off the cover!
    Thanks for the awesome post! I've been struggling with my description lately.

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  3. I do agree with your grandmother most of the time. On the other hand, I once read a book called Flygirl with the protagonist on the cover. She is supposed to be a "colored" girl during WWII but her skin is light enough to pass for a "white." The picture helped in that case.
    Great post!
    -Samantha
    www.youngwriterscafe.wordpress.com

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    1. Yes, sometimes it's very helpful, isn't it? It's nice when publishers are considerate about what the author envisions for characters. (And most of the time, they are :)

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  4. Lately, I've been horrible at writing description...I think it's be because I haven't be able to get very deep into the POV of my characters. :( Not sure why either, I like them all. Just apparently not enough.

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    1. That can take some time. Don't be so hard on yourself :)

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  5. Your grandmother is hilarious and spot-on. :) Honestly, I've never struggled with description, but maybe that's because I don't put enough in. I find that using exact words like you mentioned in number 6 really helps. Thanks for the great post!

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    1. My Nana is a character all on her own :) I'm glad you don't struggle with description! It's great when an element of writing comes naturally, isn't it?

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  6. I'm not very good at writing description. I definitely need to work on this. I know I tend to be "bossy" from time to time. Your grandma has a good point. I really get upset when the character on the cover doesn't match the description in the book.

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    1. It's so distracting, isn't it? And being a little bossy is okay, particularly when something about our character's looks matter. Like in Harry Potter, his looks play into the story. He looks like his father but has his mother's eyes. The lightning bolt scar. Or even for Ron and Hermione, Rowling tells us what they look like and it's helpful. Because Ron looks like a Weasley, and Hermione has bushy hair and big teeth. Until she doesn't :)

      A little bossy is good. Unnecessarily bossy is bad :)

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  7. I'm not that great with descriptions, probably because I find them a little boring to write so I just skip them. But this post helped me a lot. Thanks!

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  8. Oh, thank you thank you! I've been needing this!

    - Tabby

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  9. Thank you so very much for this post, Mrs. Morrill! It was all very helpful, and point 7 especially stood out to me. :) I love description, and probably overdue it too much of the time. :) So, does all this apply to historical fiction as well?

    -Patience

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    1. I'm not an expert on writing historicals (I'm working on my first one now) but yes, as far as I can tell it applies even more. Historical fiction readers tend to enjoy learning something about the time period, but story is still king. You'll have to work hard to pick the right details to convey your time period without overdoing it. I would read a Julie Klassen book (my favorite is The Apothecary's Daughter). She's excellent at this.

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    2. Ohhh, I can't wait to see your book! I love historical fiction. :)
      I thought Mrs. White did this very well with her book Love Finds You in Annapolis Maryland. You could see everything without, how to say it?, bumping into it. ;)

      teenwordsofsteel.blogspot.com

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  10. Thanks for this awesome post! I am guilty of over describing clothes XD. I feel I have to describe every little detail, like silver dress with lace tiers and black boots or something like that. Grr, its a headache. :D I have a phobia of readers not seeing as I see my characters (they are mine, after all, and should be perfect).
    Thanks again! I'm hoping this helps :)

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    1. And it's okay to do that sometimes! My advice would be to make sure you don't hit the pause button the story for the sake of clothing description. Weave it into the action tags or something.

      Jane crossed her arms over the bodice of her silver dress and the toe of her black boot tapped impatiently. "We're going to be late."

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    2. Ah! Yes, thanks! I'll try that. I hadn't even thought of action :)

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  11. I'm definitely a putter-inner. I struggle so much with description and how to get it right, rather than dumping some info cause I feel like I need to explain something. This is really helpful for my now editting stage. A post right in time.

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  12. This is good. Though I've seen a lot of writers I've critiqued take this too far and don't have enough description. I think balance is the key. Because I've felt blind in a lot of read-overs because there wasn't enough detail. :P I like getting at least a pretty good picture of the scene plus settings can tell about the characters. Like you said how they describe but also if it's a character's dwelling it can tell about them like if it's messy or clean or what style it is you know?

    Stori Tori's Blog

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    1. I agree; it can feel like all the action is taking place on a green screen if you try to strip out too much.

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    2. Exactly. So I think under-describing is a caution too.

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  13. One and six were the ones that most made me think, there. Thanks! I can really use this... :)

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  14. This came at the right time; I was just wondering about description! I think I'm more a putter inner. :)

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  15. I love description in stories, but it's pretty tricky to master at times! I loved that little "vase" tidbit though. Earlier today I described someone eating an apple... yet two sentences ago there was no fruit anywhere in the scene. It's all about consistency too.

    By the way, LOVED the little part about your grandma. My grandma is an avid Nora Roberts fan, and is the main reason why I read her novels in the first place. I still remember giggling over the MMC in one the latest books because my grandmother loved him so much. ;-)

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    1. My grandma reads Nora Roberts too! She's a reader's dream because once she finds an author she likes, she always pre-orders their books, even the hardcovers.

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  16. Love number 5! That bugs me so much when authors forget to do that! The trouble I have with with number 4 is that sometimes I don't WANT the reader to know if the person/place is important or not. I get worried that if I spend more than a sentence on describing, say, the news reporter talking about the rogue anarchist and former journalist, readers will suspect that'll come up later. Rather, I want readers to be like, "Oh, yeah! Why did I not see this was important?!" when they find out that rogue "anarchist" is really the good guy running from a rising dictator.

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    1. That's where it falls to your judgment as the author. You don't want to spend too much time describing something unimportant, because then you'll create a false "plant" and the readers will be frustrated when there's no "payoff." But it's fine to limit the amount of description you use early on if you don't want to give too much away. You do want to make sure though that you have enough crumbs dropped so your readers can see the trail afterwards and track with you. Otherwise they'll have a hard time believing it.

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    2. Gillian said it brilliantly. No surprise... :)

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  17. I was just thinking about description the other day! I always leave a lot of description out because I'm afraid to bombard the reader!
    I loved all the points, they were all so helpful! :)
    Thanks so much!

    teenwordsofsteel.blogspot.com


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  18. I have a lot of trouble with description and I know it's partially because I don't like to read description in books. I often skip right over it just to get to the action. :p I'm trying to train myself to actually read through the descriptions so I can learn from the greats.
    Cool post!

    Alexa Skrywer
    alexaskrywer.blogspot.com

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    1. Guilty. Especially when I'm desperate to find out what happens next ... or when I'm only so-so on the book, and I'm ready to be done :)

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  19. All such great tips, Stephanie! Especially 6 and 7 ... and 4 ... and all the rest. I feel like description is one of those things that is best when its invisible. Not invisible in that you can't picture it, but invisible in that it doesn't stick out from the rest of the story. It's seamless, not jarring. It doesn't slap you across the face and demand you bask in the awesomeness of its prose--not unless that flows naturally from the character's voice. ;)

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    1. Great thought, Gillian. I completely agree.

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  20. This is such a great post, Stephanie! Unnecessary description has always bothered me, and I tend to just skim over it most of the time. The thing is, so many writers think that good writing is equivalent to detailed descriptions. Maybe it used to be "back in the old days", but definitely not anymore.

    I love the way you describe how every writer is a putter-inner or a taker-outer. I've never heard of that before, but I am definitely a putter-inner. Most of my writing gets done once the very "thin" first draft has been written. I just think it's easier to go back and put the details in once I know that the scene will not be cut out.

    Thanks for this post! =)

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm similar, Tessa, Since I don't plot out much of my books, I'm still wandering my way through the story and it's not a valuable use of my time to think through weather and what people are wearing and what the room looks like until I've decided if I get to keep that scene :)

      And this, "so many writers think that good writing is equivalent to detailed descriptions" is so well said. I think it's because great writers make us feel like we're there and we don't always know how they do that. Like Gillian said, they do it by making the description invisible.

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  21. I have read one author that had a great amount of imagination and a great story, but his descriptions were so over the top and he spent paragraphs describing people or places. I got the through the series he wrote, but it took two weeks to finish it. I normally do not have problems with descriptions because each of my stories begins with an image in my head, normally the main character, and then expands into a story. I am still glad you wrote the article. Some authors do over describe things.

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  22. Thank you so much! I love the idea of not being so bossy, as I sometimes want to stick all the details right in my reader's face and then I remember that the beauty of reading lies in the opportunity to imagine your own characters. Great tips:)

    www.alicekouzmenkowriting.blogspot.com

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  23. So good. I try not to over explain but fail at times :b

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  24. This was a great article! I noticed myself smiling while reading more than one tip. :) Thanks for sharing!

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