Description Part 3: The Secret to Good Description

I’ve already discussed the 3 Elements of Good Description and the 6 Pitfalls of Description, but I saved the best for last. What is the true secret to good description? Is there the one thing that will open the door to allow a writer to touch the reader and dive them into the wonders of a story? The answer is yes, and that one thing is word choice.

The word or words chosen to describe something can make all the difference in the world. It can influence the reader’s mood and change the entire context of a sentence, paragraph, and even the characteristics of a character.

I recently wrote a short story and gave it to a fellow writer to critique. She called me out (and rightly so) on a minor character because she thought he was too much of a stalker. It wasn’t my intention to make the character stalkerish, but I went back and saw that I actually used the world stalker to describe the character. So if I didn’t want him to be a stalker, then why use the word? In my case, it was a slip of the word, and I was in too much of a rush to go back and fix it. I wanted a different word, but failed to chose it because I was too lazy to find the appropriate word.

Is this something you find yourself doing? I find I do it quite a lot. I settle for a word when I know it isn’t the right one. I know that the word I’m using isn’t setting the right picture or mood for what I want the reader to see and feel. Sometimes finding that perfect word can be difficult (even when I actually have the time to find it), in these cases the thesaurus is my best friend.

Still not convinced that word choice is so important? Check out the examples below. You be the judge.

Okay: The clown was enjoyable.  

Definition of enjoyable: giving or capable of giving joy or pleasure. www.dictionary.com

Better: The clown was amusing.

Definition of amusing: pleasantly entertaining or diverting; causing mirth or laughter; humorously entertaining www.dictionary.com

As you can see the words enjoyable and amusing have similar meanings but amusing gives the sentence an extra punch. It says that the clown was entertaining and fun, maybe even funny. Between the two words amusing evokes a better picture of what kind of effect the clown has on the people in the story.

Okay: The sunset was a beautiful.

Better: The sunset was breath-taking.

This example shows a difference because it takes the sunset from being just plan beautiful to breath-taking. The words breath-taking gives a whole different picture. It is more descriptive because it makes the reader feel a since of wonder. The words even give the reader the reflex of taking in the breath.

(Notice the bolded word since. It should be sense. Yet, another important thing to remember when choosing the right word. Make sure it means what it’s suppose to mean. The dictionary is your second best friend.)

Don’t be afraid of words. Learn to experiment with them and get the best use out of your words to expand on a thought or idea. This is most important when describing characters. Use emotion and attributes to embellish a character and describe them. Don’t rely on the physical descriptions alone, and if you do a physical description make your words count.

Okay: Charlotte was intelligent for her age.

Better: Charlotte was a wise old soul. She understood more than most and always was quick with a solution; despite that she was barely old enough to drive.

Okay: Anthony was a handsome man. He was very athletic and it showed.

Better: Anthony’s skin felt taunt against the flesh of my hand. My eyes traveled the mountain ranges of his sculptured abs and I was afraid to meet his gaze. I knew those sapphire eyes were waiting for me to look up. His perfection made me feel small, unworthy.

Words are powerful. They have the ability to shape minds and make the reader see what you want them to see, so they must be used carefully and placed just so. Make it a practice to take the time to find the perfect word.

Description Part 2: 6 Pitfalls of Description

It has already been determined some of the positive elements of good description (see Description Part 1: 3 Elements of Good Description), but there are some pitfalls of description to be aware of as well. Here are six to keep in mind.

  1. Never use description that will serve the character, instead use description that will serve the story. That means don’t throw in description for the sake of just having it. If the description doesn’t enhance or move the story forward then cut it out. It will only serve to be a distraction.
  2. Description slows down a scene, so avoid describing a story element in the midst of an action scene unless you want a pause in the momentum. An alternative if you want description in an action scene would be to vary the sentence structure to include the details, but ultimately you should strive for shorter sentences in an action scene.
  3. Stay away from the clichés. One of the biggest clichés in description is for the author to put a character in front of a mirror and describe what he or she sees in the mirror.
  4. Be specific in your description, but not too much. Do not let the details limit the reader’s imagination. Be vague enough to let the reader paint a picture for themselves.
  5. Avoid purple prose, or overly flowery descriptive language. This sort of writing might be deemed acceptable for some types of works, or in older writings, but readers these days are looking for direct and concise writing.
  6. Unless a character’s clothing has a direct link to the characteristics or the story, it should be avoided, because it is nothing more than a distraction.

Example: The man sat across from me in the crowded diner. It was hard to ignore the gut wrenching stench coming off of him and the splattered stains on his tattered clothes. It was obvious to any as if he had a neon sign around his neck reading, “I’m homeless.”

This example shows a vague picture what the man is wearing, but it is used to describe his situation more than anything. The reader doesn’t need to know if he was wearing blue jeans or red T-shirt. It is enough to know that he has a stench about him, he has stains on his clothes, and the clothes are in tatters. The reader will use his/her imagination to fill in the blanks.

Check out the last part of this series…
Description Part 3: The Secret to Good Description

Description Part 1: 3 Elements of Good Description

Description allows the reader to visualize the people, places, settings, and objects in your story. Description is important because good, effective description paints a vivid picture that immerses the reader into your story, which allows for a deeper experience for the reader. A well written description moves the story forward and adds to characterization. There are three main elements of good description.

  1. Specific well written detail– Be specific about what you want to say. Less is more, so find the right word or words to show detail. Stay away from ambiguous descriptions like suddenly, look, like, good. These words aren’t giving you the biggest bang for your buck. (For more about words to avoid check out Grammar Guru: Words to Avoid.) Also go a little deeper and use sensory detail. The use of sensory detail detail is a key element in good description. Try to use all when writing; sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Note: Do not rely too heavily on sight itself, instead try to use some of the other four for variety and depth.

  1. Revelation of the characters inner life– A story will be more balanced and descriptive of the characters if their inner life or struggle is depicted. Go inside your character’s “head” and show the reader what’s going on, what thoughts are going on.

Note: When choosing whose point of view to write in, remember that describing something from a certain character’s point of view can change the whole feel of a story. Figure out who will make the story more lively and entertaining to read.

  1. Motivation, the impulse that drives the character– Motivation is essential to convincing the reader that they should care about your character. It is when you can reach out to the reader and show them what lies beneath.

Want to be more descriptive? Look around you at the people, places, and things in a new way. Notice not just the obvious details, but the less obvious, subconscious details. Keep a notebook of the things that stand out and you’ll be amazed at how your new look at the world will reshape the way you write.

Check out the next 2 parts of this series…

Description Part 2: 6 Pitfalls of Description
Description Part 3: The Secret to Good Description

The LY Rule

It’s a habit that the budding writer is apt to make. In fact, many writers can put years into writing without learning a very important rule of a proper writing technique I like to call the ly rule. Have you ever noticed how saturated some works can be with words  like gladly, fairly, or brightly? Sure, there needs to be more description in stories, but make sure it’s the right kind of description.

It’s usually a good idea to use less adverbs and adjectives instead of more. It’s all about being as specific as possible and showing your reader what’s going on without resorting to the ly. So that means beefing up your nouns and verbs (especially the action verbs). But ly words are sneaky little suckers, so let’s take a look at some examples to see some ways ly usage can be reduced.

EXAMPLE 1:
She cooked over a hot stove and constantly pushed her blond sweat-matted hair out of her face as she stirred the pot.

So let’s rewrite it without the ly word constantly…

She cooked over a hot stove, pushing her blond sweat-matted hair out of her face for what seemed the hundredth time, while stirring the pot.

OR

She cooked over the hot stove as sweat-matted hair obstructed her vision. Anna swiped it back cursing her blond strands, while stirring the pot.

If you notice taking out the ly constantly you add more description than if you’d left constantly in the sentence. What does constantly actually do for your sentence. Not much, constantly is an ambiguous word. It really doesn’t tell the reader much at all and leaves a lot for interpretation. This is actually the case for most ly words.

Words like quickly, darkly, considerably… How quickly? Did she run as fast as a tiger, or was she faster than a speeding bullet? Big difference right? How darkly? Was the room as dark as a full moon night, or darker than the eye of a black hole? How considerably? Did he walk as far as the mail box down the drive or walk a full marathon? Are you starting to see a pattern here? If you can be specific, do it, because it will add the extra punch to your story that will set yours above others.

Let’s do another sentence for good measure…

EXAMPLE 2:

He shook Robert’s hand and then Tanya’s.  “Mr. and Mrs. Black, I hope your trip back home was reasonably safe.”

You can write this sentence a few ways…

You can take the world reasonably out all together and say…

He shook Robert’s hand and then Tanya’s.  “Mr. and Mrs. Black, I hope your trip back home was a safe one?”

OR

You could leave it and put emphasis on the word reasonably with italics to show a sarcastic tone…

He shook Robert’s hand and then Tanya’s.  “Mr. and Mrs. Black, I hope your trip back home was reasonably safe.”

…The ly serves a purpose of bringing attention to the word, which in this case you want.

OR

He shook Robert’s hand and then Tanya’s.”I know the mountains this time of night is a dangerous place. I hope it wasn’t too perilous for you both.”

So you see there are multiple ways that you can avoid the ly words or make them work for you. It’s a matter of knowing what context you want to bring to your story. You’ll also notice that when taking out ly words you usually have to use more than one word to replace that word. So yes, it will up your word count overall to take them out, but the benefits will far outweigh this. In fact you may find that the more you write the more concise you tend to be.

It isn’t possible to take out ALL ly words, but you should try to get rid of as many as possible. I struggle with this ly rule all the time and often find myself having to go back many times to make corrections. So believe when I say, this is a rule that ALL writer’s have a problem with, but it’s a battle worth the fight. The next time you sit down to write ask yourself this. How many ly words do you think you could cut?