Adding description to a story is an art. Too much, and readers skip over it. Too little, and the sense of place and mood aren’t adequately drawn. What techniques do you use, and please provide examples from your work.
Before I talk about description, I should mention what I believe is the cardinal rule of writing fiction, and that is the creation of the world of the story around your reader – what I call the bubble of unreality.
It’s a writer’s job to transport the reader from the real world into the world of your story, and to keep them there for the duration of your book. This isn’t an easy task – especially over the course of four hundred odd pages – but when people say they found a book ‘unputdownable’ or that they ‘raced through it’, it’s because they’ve been caught up in this bubble of unreality which the writer has created.
I drew this myself
Key to that bubble are – authenticity, momentum, empathy. Your story should flow so the reader is surrounded by it. Anything that strengthens that bubble is a good thing. Conversely, anything that detracts from, or jars, or takes the reader out of that bubble, is the writer failing to do their job. Factors which strengthen that bubble include a gripping plot, well drawn and sympathetic characters, pace, tension and all the other good things we’re taught about in every creative writing class or book ever published.
Things that take the reader out of your imaginary world include anything that they can’t believe, such as plot twists that stretch credulity; anachronisms; poor dialogue; lazy writing; and also things that bore them. In my opinion, poor or bland description falls into this last category.
When it comes to description, I’d say:
The best descriptions don’t just describe – they conjure up a mood. They remind us of something we’ve experienced ourselves. Use smells, sounds, feelings.
James yesterday mentioned imbuing animals with more human traits – this is great advice. You can also go further. Some of the most memorable descriptions/turns of phrases I’ve read are where inanimate objects are described with adjectives normally reserved for humans. It works the other way too – use adjectives generally reserved for inanimate objects to describe animate ones. What you want is language that pops but isn’t over the top. It’s a hard balance, but authors like James Ziskin are the masters of it.
A short, one line of description that pops is better than a bland paragraph that doesn’t grab the reader – use fewer, better words;
Description needs to be tuned to the relevance of a place or a setting or a character. If it’s one person or a room we’re only going to see once, the level of description should be shorter and relevant – don’t sacrifice momentum
I always find a good dose of humour, especially dark humour, helps to keep the reader in the world of the story as it often stops any boredom setting in. This is just as applicable to description as it is to dialogue.
Here’s an extract from my first novel, “A Rising Man”, which I hope gives you an insight into describing people without using physical description:
“The place was owned by a battleship of a woman called Mrs Tebbit, the wife of a Colonel Tebbit of the Indian Army (retired). She and the Colonel ran a tight ship. Breakfast was served between six thirty and seven thirty sharp, and dinner in the evenings between seven and eight thirty. The food itself made army rations taste like dinner at the Savoy Grill, and sat in the stomach like a sack of stones.”
Here we have no real physical description of Mrs Tebbit at all. The only phrase I use to describe her is ‘a battleship of a woman’ – but I think this describes her better than ten lines of detail on her build, her expression, her clothes etc. It paints a picture of an austere, grey, redoubtable woman – not exactly the easiest to get along with. We’ve all met someone like Mrs Tebbit. (If you haven’t – you’re lucky!)
The timings of the meals – the use of the word ‘sharp’ – also gives you a flavour for her fastidiousness.
As for her cooking – we can get a taste for it (pardon the pun) from the fact that it ‘sat in the stomach like a sack of stones’. As well as being slightly humorous, I feel it’s also the sort of cooking we can expect from HMS Tebbit.
It’s interesting how well you can describe a person without any physical detail at all.
Another extract from “A Rising Man”, this time showing how little description is required to paint a picture of a room:
“I went straight up to my room. It was small and spartan, like a monk’s cell without the proximity to God.”
I think this is more interesting than setting out the physical dimensions of the room. We all know what a monk’s cell looks (and more importantly feels like). It’s more interesting than describing the room’s walls or it’s furniture – and the throwaway comment about the lack of proximity to God is both a little black humour and speaks to the narrator’s mindset at the time.
Here’s an extract from my fifth novel, “The Shadows of Men” describing my protagonist Sam Wyndham’s journey to the Calcutta suburb of Budge Budge in search of his colleague and co-narrator, Suren Banerjee:
“The suburb of Budge Budge was about as picturesque as a frontline trench, and for a policeman, almost as dangerous. Not for the first time was I grateful for a fast car, a diligent driver and the cover of darkness. As the Wolseley sped past derelict mills and hollowed-out wharves, I wondered just what it was Suren thought he was doing, hanging around in a place like this, and, rather more importantly, why he’d felt the need to get himself arrested for killing someone.
The police station was a beleaguered-looking redoubt, the shutters over its barred windows scorched and pitted, and the wood of its doors cladded and stiffened with iron. The car pulled up and I got out to the sound of glass cracking in the dirt beneath my boot. The street seemed deserted save for a grizzled pie-dog who sat in front of the station, gnawing on the shin bone of some beast that probably didn’t need it any more, and who growled defensively as I passed.
The doors were shut fast, which made sense. There was probably little point in reinforcing the damn things if you then left them wide open, and anyway, this didn’t look like the sort of neighbourhood where the locals made a habit of popping into the station to hand in a lost wallet.”
Here we have a bit more of a conventional description, at least of the police station. We learn of its wooden doors stiffened with iron and it’s scorched and pitted and barred windows. But we also have more general descriptions which help set the mood. Budge Budge is ‘as picturesque as a frontline trench‘. There’s black humour here, as well as emotive language. What’s more, Sam is a veteran of the Great War, so the imagery is apt and helps build the realism of our bubble.
Then there’s the general edginess of the place – the broken glass, the mongrel dog chewing on a shin bone, the growling – I hope it all helps to add to the sense of menace.
So there you go. Description for me is about mood and momentum and building that bubble of unreality around your reader. A lot of the fun of writing a novel is coming up with new and interesting ways of doing or describing things, so have fun with your descriptions.
6 May 2022