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Description is important to any style of writing, but when you're working in a non-realistic genre like science fiction or fantasy it's crucial to have good description. In a world that no one has ever seen, you—the author—must do better and more to make it come alive for the reader.
Consider the movie 'The Matrix'* where humans live in a world designed and fed to them by machines: If you're a machine, and your job is to feed different people images of their world, you can't be sloppy at it. If you program 'a building' without describing it (is it brick or wood or metal? Is it a skyscraper or a hovel? Are there birds on the roof?), eventually someone is going to look askance at it and say, 'Wait. This is fake,' and the next thing you know, a revolution starts.
It's just like writing. If your description is too vague or patchy, your readers will close the book. If your description is stilted and wordy, they won't want to read it and shut down the page. If your description is unoriginal and bland, they'll see through all your delicate and varied characters and realize what they have on their hands is one elaborate lie, and not a very good one.
What you want description to do is create the scene for the reader and make them believe it might be real. The reader can't observe the world you're writing in or the characters you've put there, so they may need prodding to imagine in the right direction. Plus, your description has to carry the emotional weight of the characters-you aren't just transcribing. The words you choose need to point your readers to a mood, a tone. What does your character think or feel about her situation?
The Mayhem of Modifiers
The easiest way to describe something is to add a modifier, like an adjective or an adverb. It is also the most dangerous for a variety of reasons.
Modifiers are weak. It's better to use a noun or verb that includes the modifier than to use the adjective/ adverb.
EXAMPLE: She walked slowly.
She shuffled. She ambled. She paced. She sauntered.
The verbs carry more with them than 'walked slowly' ever could, plus your prose (descriptive passages) won't be as cluttered. Keep a Thesaurus close at hand.
Modifiers overload easily. Don't cram too many together. I'm sure everyone has had the experience of reading a story overloaded with adjectives
EXAMPLE: He leaned against the rough, red, hot stone wall and smiled wickedly with his small white teeth.
It's specific, but it's tiresome, and when you read it, you will be very aware that this is someone's writing.
9 times out of 10, invisible modifiers aren't worth it. Words like beautiful, interesting, exciting, nice, and really don't have much meaning, and they usually slip by without notice.
Pretend you're a machine again: can you program a 'nice building' or an 'exciting roller coaster'? Think about it for a moment; you really need more (e.g. What's nice about the building-the color? the shape? Why is the roller coaster exciting? Does it loop? Did you throw up?) It's your job to convince the reader something is beautiful/ interesting/ exciting/ etc. Don't cheat them by saying 'Believe me, it is.'
The exception here is when you're writing description in a character's voice. If your character is the sort of dumbstruck guy who would say 'She was really, really beautiful' then let him say it, but certainly don't avoid describing this really beautiful woman in greater detail.
Use an adjective as an adjective and an adverb as an adverb. An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun.
EXAMPLE: The moon was dark. (adjective) He laughed darkly. (adverb) The tale was darklyhumorous. (adverb, adjective) He moved quick into the night. (WRONG!)
Modifiers are memorable. If you use the word penultimate to describe something, chances are if you try to use it again six pages later, someone will notice.
On the whole, strengthen your use of nouns and verbs before using too many modifiers. This doesn't mean avoid them entirely, but think about each one and use them sparingly.
Befuddling Figures of Speech
Okay, pretend you're a machine again. You're walking around as Agent Smith, looking for some ne'er-do-well human in the Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, your black suit makes you look like a guide and you've forgotten to make yourself invisible. Someone comes up to you and asks what a takin is, and while you could blow him to smithereens, that's twelve fewer volts to go around. You'll have to answer.
You could say 'It's an Asian ungulate, large in size and yellowish in color.'
Or you could say, 'It's like a goat if George Lucas had designed it and stuffed it full of ugly, then wrapped it in your grandmother's mildewed bath mat.'
Figures of speech (good ones!) almost force you to picture what the author is describing. Few of you will picture a real takin from the description above, but you'll definitely form an image with the important details: it's ugly, smelly, big and hairy, and not your average animal.
Similes and metaphors are the two main types of figures of speech used in fiction. As any English teacher will tell you, a simile uses 'like' or 'as' to compare two unrelated objects, while a metaphor implies that two objects are related. A simile is explicit while a metaphor is implicit.
What follows is an example of how to make a good figure of speech (in this case, a simile). Your similes and metaphors should be fresh and original, but also make sense and keep with your story's tone.
Her eyes were blue.
Very straightforward. Let's make it more interesting: Her eyes were as blue as the sea.
Good! A simile! But a weak one. Blue as the sea has been used so many times it's almost invisible. To help it, make a list of words that can complete as blue as_____.  The sea, steel, the sky, blueberries, peacocks….
When using a figure of speech, you want it to be clever and fresh whenever you can. You can probably pitch the first five things you think of. The words above are not only over-used, they're very generic-the sea, for instance, is many things (few of them applicable to eyes), and not even all that blue. So what are her eyes if their not just blue? Let's say she has sharp, cold blue eyes. Her eyes were as blue as blue knives.
Wow, that's bad! And why? Because not all knives are blue, and specifying that you mean only the subsection of knives which are blue completely ruins the affect and no one will think about the knife part. Think of something else that's always blue and sharp. That way, your readers won't be confused and won't need extra clarification. Her eyes were as blue as Smurf's with daggers.
This is absurd. So, Smurfs are always blue and daggers are always sharp-but the simile stands out too much, almost as a joke. The tone of your figures of speech should match your story (Remember we're looking for the tone here too), and while I'm sure there are stories out there that would bloom with this sort of simile, let's assume this one is a little more serious. Her eyes were blue and sharp as the crack and tumble of glacier ice.
Now that's better. 'The crack of glacier ice' is not only sharp, but evokes the blueness and coldness of the ice.
Technically, it's doing a few things. First, it's making your reader picture this woman. Second, it's pulling double duty; not only are we now aware that her eyes are blue, but the description tells us something about her character. This is one unpleasant lady!
Moreover it's what's referred to as synesthesia, describing one sense with another. Here we're using a sound to evoke an image. If you can do this right, it always looks good. It gets used a lot more in poetry than fiction writing, but it's an excellent tool to borrow.
Two Poles: the Infodump and Withholding Information
'Infodumping' is what happens when you try to tell the reader every little thing about the character or the scene:
The alchemist's workshop was large and cavernous. Along one side, ran a counter covered with experiments, starting with a pan of boiling metal and ending with a rock which had water dripping on it from a pipe in the ceiling. The floor was covered in an intricate mosaic depicting the Seven Daughters of Urania and a bestiary in blue, yellow, red, and green glass. The opposite side had a fireplace, three doors leading off to bedrooms, and was otherwise covered with shelves of books whose titles hinted at their owner's profession. The alchemist himself was about 5'11' 160 lb, with dark hair and blue eyes, and a scar down one cheek …
This is the beginning of an infodump—basically the regurgitation of information. When you are describing a person or place, it is not necessary to tell the readers EVERYTHING about it. Return to the Matrix: If a person walks into a room, do you really need to fill in every detail of that room for he or she to believe it? They aren't going to see what's behind closed doors unless they open them, notice the patterns on the rug unless they look at it, a person's height unless they're comparing it to something, etc. Why do the extra work?
On the other hand, if, when you write, all you do is let your characters talk, you may be guilty of withholding information. When you write, most of you probably have a good mental image of what's happening, what it looks like, who's there, and how they feel. So letting the characters discuss doesn't seem so bad, because you know that the castle is made of blood-red granite and stretches up over the treetops, the elf wears a lavender gown and smells of pine trees, and the space station lights give everyone on it a sickly, green look.
The trouble is, the rest of us can see what you're seeing.
If a person in your Matrix looks up and instead of the building we mentioned before, there's a big, blank, gray space, they are going to tear off screaming. So while it isn't necessary to tell them every possible thing they might see, it is very necessary to tell them what they should see.
The best way to avoid withholding information or infodumping is to give the story to someone else, someone sympathetic but honest (not your mom, brother, or girlfriend-give it to someone whose opinion you respect and who won't be afraid to tell you if you stink). Ask them to read it and tell you what they have a hard time seeing or even understanding.
When Blue-eyed Blondes Aren't Enough
We're in the Matrix, once more. Today, you're processing appearances for these people. You start by programming hair color, eye color, height and weight. That seems like enough (I mean, they all really look alike don't they? Two arms, two legs, no processor?). Unfortunately, pretty soon, your world is overrun by blue-eyed blondes and brown-eyed brunettes who all look alike. People are screaming and jumping off buildings, and boy, are you in trouble.
It isn't hard for your character description to fall into a rut. What shows up on profiles is very basic (height, weight, eye color etc.) so we tend to assume that these are the important aspects of a person's appearance.
If I told you I have brown hair and blue-eyes, I'm 5'5' and weigh around 120 lb., you could build a very generic image of me, it's true. But if I told you instead I have my grandfather's eyes that turn up at the corners, I'm tall enough to hit my head on the kitchen cabinets every time they get left open, and I think constantly about dying my hair, but instead spray Sun-In Blond on it and hope I'll remember to go out? You'd learn a lot more about me than my police profile, while still building a physical image of me.
What do you pay attention to when you look at people? Do you see the shape of their noses? The size of their mouths? Their arms and legs and how much muscle they have? How did they get to look like that anyway? Hair color, sure, but how do they wear it? Brushed back? With gel? With little butterfly clippies? Does she wear any make-up? Is she wearing Poppy Fields matte lipstick with liner and blush? Is she wearing Dr Pepper Bonne Belle? What kind of clothes does he wear? I know this guy who's a computer scientist. Everyone around him wears t-shirts they got for free and jean shorts and sandals (with or without socks). This guy always wears a clean, untucked button-down shirt with an undershirt and khaki shorts with a belt. He sticks out. Why does he do that? (I have no idea, but if he were my character, I'd have an answer.)
Get into the habit of noticing details about people and what it makes you think about their personality. Freckles make people think of innocence or acting cutesy. Red haired people are assumed to have bad tempers. Blonds are attractive but stupid. Your characters don't have to (and probably shouldn't) conform to these assumptions, but you should know how your readers and even other characters will be inclined to react.
This applies to non-human characters too. What about the alien is so off-putting? What makes the vampire impossible to look away from? What's so enchanting about that elf? It's tempting to get lazy and say things like, 'Well, everyone knows what an elf looks like!' or 'The vampire's got hypnotic powers!' 'The alien looks like all aliens!' When your characters are looking at these creatures, is that all they're seeing? ('Hmm, I can't seem to look away from this odd fellow. I suppose he has hypnotic powers...' or 'My what an average elf. He looks just like Legolas...')
Especially in these cases, keep in mind that while there is a tradition associated with these sorts of beings and with fantasy, science fiction, and horror, you shouldn't be bound to it 100%.
Show, Not Tell
Who hasn't heard this bit of advice? It means what it says. It's better to describe something by showing it in scene or use than to stop and tell your readers what they need to know flat out.
Let's say we have a character named Iona we want to describe. We want the reader to be able to picture her in their mind with absolute clarity. So start with a snapshot. Let's say Iona has long brown hair and large green eyes, fair skin, small nose, small hands and feet. She's an elf so she has pointy ears and really sharp features. She's maybe 5'5', 115 lb. She dresses well, because she's a princess, but her clothes would be messy from riding down the mountains.
Iona Thundermist was a princess of the wood elves from the tips of her pointed ears to her delicately crafted boots, all five and a half feet of her. She dressed in long riding gowns of lambs wool, thin but warm for the season's brisk winds, their cool greens smudged with dirt from the road. Her long brown hair was tangled but her green eyes flashed in her pale skin.
No one is going to say this isn't clear. What it is, is indulgent. You have stopped the story like a stage mother to parade out your darling. Nothing else can happen while we're describing Iona. Pretend she's a construct in the Matrix (ignore the cross-genre for the moment): It's a lot harder to make someone subtly notice a person if she's just standing there than if she's, say, barrelling down on you on a horse:
'Ride you fools!' rang a clear voice down the mountain road. The party turned from their warm fire to watch the woman bearing down on them, twigs tangled in her long hair, her fine robes muddied and stained with horse sweat. 'They are coming!'
'Wood-elf,' Alric snorted, but whether it was the fire in her great green eyes or the silver circlet perched on her head, he took her word and leapt to his horse.
The story doesn't stop because Iona shows up-in fact, she's helping to move it. We can read this passage, imagine what this wood-elf princess looks like, and read on in anticipation of who 'they' are and what's going to happen.
Sometimes, you have to tell. For instance, it works a lot better for a first-person character to describe himself the way Iona was described in the first example. Can you really believe someone saying, 'My green eyes flashed as I laughed at him'? No, absolutely not. To show how a narrating character looks either have another character mention it in dialogue or use a mirror, but here it's far more convenient to 'tell.'
Description should carry your world out of your mind and onto the page. While good description will always take time and effort, keeping these guidelines in mind may help. As with any aspect of writing, think about what you have on the page. Consider your word choice and let others consider it as well. It will be worth it. In writing good description, you will be setting your readers up in a Matrix of their own, in a lie they want to be told and want to believe in.
*NB:'The Matrix' is copyrighted to Warner Bros. Entertainment, and is used solely as an analogy. As of this article, the author has seen neither 'The Matrix: Reloaded' nor 'The Matrix: Revolutions' (shame on her). Therefore any details used for this analogy inconsistent with either of these sequels, are irrelevant.
Whew! Well this took a weight off my mind! I often write swift, sloppy scenes in order to pin down the movements of my characters in my head. These scenes are just for my own pleasure and enjoyment, but sometimes I want to share them. Then I get really worked up because OMG is the writing bad! So this tutorial has made me realise that, no, I am not a terrible writer with the natural talent of a boiled lobster, but am actually a perfectly adequate writer who merely needs to block out scenes before she can add in good descriptions. Thank you so much for the help. ^-^
Great article, and very helpful! I still fall into the ’telling’ trap - and I never thought about the fact that too many modifiers bog down a story. Now I’m going to look through my story and see how I can improve all the descriptions!
Now I have a name for the effect when my eyes glaze over and I skip several paragraphs while reading...infodump! This is such a helpful article I can see myself referring back to this often. Most likely in a futile attempt to avoid such word traps Thanks for the valuable resource
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