Mission: Description

29 Apr

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And another reminder for the fantabulous Book Cover Contest which is also still running! The deadline is this Saturday, May 1st as well, so break out the colored pencils and flaunt your visual art skills!


Vanessa Di Gregorio

As with dialogue, description is where you’ll often find overwriting and underwriting. Most people, however, will underwrite their description; it isn’t often that you see description that is overwritten anymore. But be aware! There should be a decent balance to your dialogue and description.

So, what is the point of description? Like dialogue, it often helps advance the plot with the actions of your characters. But it should also help readers visualize the people and places in your manuscript.

Picture Perfect

The best way to go about writing description? Visualize it! Where are your characters? What is surrounding them? Are they in a lush tropical forest, surrounded by greenery? Or are they riding a camel through the desert, surrounded by endless mounds of blowing sand for miles and miles? And don’t feel that your description needs to be in huge chunks happening before and after your dialogue. Incorporate your description into your dialogue as well. Think of a movie (or heck, real life!) – people aren’t standing stock still when speaking. What are your characters doing? What is the setting? Are they walking, sitting, or lying down on the bed talking over the phone? Then picture what a movie would do. What might they be doing then? They might fiddle with the phone cord, wrapping it around their fingers as they lay in bed on their stomach. They might be standing but decide to sit down. Do they ever get distracted during the dialogue? If they do, what is it that distracts them? A black cat? A knife being suddenly thrown at them? A flash mob? Do certain things in their setting make them talk about certain things? Ask yourself a lot of questions – especially when you’re struggling with something.

Make Sense of Everything

But visuals aren’t EVERYTHING. Not only do we see, but we touch, taste, hear, and smell as well. You need to include all the senses in your writing. I’m not saying to always include all 5 senses all the time; that’s a bit extreme. But every now and then, stop to consider it as well. If we go back to the tropical forest, what is it that you would smell, taste, touch, or hear? Perhaps you would pick up on the sounds of the rainforest, such as the constant buzz of insects, or the sudden bird call. And when I say touch, I mean, what do your characters FEEL (and not just with their hands)? Perhaps the oppressive heat bearing down, or the sweat trickling down their neck.

Show, Don’t Tell

Often, a lot of writers will begin to tell us things that have happened. Instead of TELLING us that something happened, SHOW it actually happening. Use action to convey information instead of just stating it. For example: If a mother and daughter get into a fight, don’t just mention briefly that they fought (especially if it is integral to plot/character development). Try showing the actual argument itself, dialogue and description and all. Another example (but much more basic):

Elena was agitated.

-> Elena drummed her fingers on the table.

See how even with something so simple, you can still flesh it out to tell us rather than show? Picture what your character does when agitated, or annoyed, or upset. How can you convey that visually? Go through the first few pages of your manuscript; do you have lines like that? Can you visualize an action instead?

What’s Your Tone?

Description is a great way to set the tone and atmosphere. When choosing words for your description, always keep in mind what kind of tone you’re trying to set. Is the sewing and thread shop full of cobwebs and creaky floorboards, with boarded up windows and candles? Or is it bright and cheery, with dolls lining the shelves and bright-colored threads everywhere? Description doesn’t have to be boring; it can keep your readers on the edge of their seat as well.

Details, Details…

But remember: don’t go overboard! Don’t write five paragraphs of detailed descriptions. Sure, little details are great; maybe one character fiddles with their wedding ring a lot. But pacing is important. The little details become a bit irrelevant in a chase scene, for example. Running through alleyways and swerving around cars while your character is chasing a criminal works for a scene like that; but mentioning how much graffiti is on the alleyway wall and the wafting smell of the Chinese restaurant probably won’t work in that chase scene. You need to target what you want your readers to focus on. Again, consider your pacing and your tone; if a lot of action is going on (and I mean heart-pounding, edge-of-seat action), you probably don’t want to mention all the little details. It’ll slow everything down. But the little details are great in the calmer scenes.

Editorial Trick of the Trade

Not sure if you have enough description of your characters or settings? Try this: Make a list of all your characters, and go through it, highlighting or writing down what you are told about them. Write down physical description and well as family relations, and anything relevant to their character development. Then look at your list. Is your character described only visually? Or only through important events? Do you think what you have makes them in-depth enough? And with setting, try making a map of a certain scene. Does it make sense? Can you map it out roughly? Or does it not make sense at all?

Write Away!

My best piece of advice? Practice. Take a notebook with you everywhere you go, and observe people. Are you drinking coffee at a small little café? Or on the subway heading to work? Jot things down; how would you describe the place, such as the café or the subway? And then take a look at the people around you. How would you describe them? What are they doing? Writers are observers; so pull out your little writers notebook, and write away.

Some Prompting

Instead of coming up with brilliant writing prompts myself for you to do, I thought I’d share some great descriptive writing prompts I found. Try it HERE!

I suggest at least doing the first one. It takes into account that everyone has a different writing style (so some of you might write more detailed description, and others will be very sparse). Let me know if you tried them out, and if they were at all helpful.

And if you really want to practice writing description some more, try writing a description of a tropical forest setting, and use at least one sense other than the visual. Try to incorporate some sort of tone and atmosphere as well (perhaps go dark and scary like Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, or perhaps have a hunter who feels at home – go nuts).

So, get to writing! And have fun!


Vanessa is an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.


13 Responses to “Mission: Description”

  1. Lyn South April 29, 2010 at 11:04 AM #

    Great post, Vanessa. Thanks! I just tweeted this!

    • Vanessa April 29, 2010 at 12:43 PM #

      Thanks so much Lyn!! 😀

  2. svonnah April 29, 2010 at 4:14 PM #

    Excellent article, Vanessa! I think you covered everything.

    • Vanessa April 29, 2010 at 10:35 PM #

      Thanks Savannah! I hope I covered everything!

  3. Kat Zhang April 29, 2010 at 5:30 PM #

    I love your “Editorial Trick of the Trade”! I definitely need to try that. All too often, I find myself sinking into the “only visual” descriptions rut. But it’s the other four senses that make things come alive!

    • Vanessa April 29, 2010 at 10:37 PM #

      See! Taking publishing courses helps writers, too!

      And every manuscript I read will fall into the “only visual” descriptions rut! Crit partners are the BEST at noticing when it’s lacking.

      And I totally agree! A story is just that much more real when you include all the senses

  4. Angela April 29, 2010 at 6:00 PM #

    Thanks for the article. I managed to pick up a few things that I never knew.

    A whole article should be devoted to the topic of showing and telling @_@ Seriously. I have people sometimes tell me that I need to show more, but I don`t understand what they are talking about.

    Now I have a vague idea of what showing is, but it`s sometimes hard to put in my writing.

    • Vanessa April 29, 2010 at 10:42 PM #

      Thanks Angela! I really do hope it was helpful!

      I think that it is often hard to notice when you’re telling rather than showing. Because as the writer, you KNOW everything. It all makes sense to you. But a reader doesn’t know every detail you’ve plotted out in your mind, and is less familiar with the story. Critique partners are honestly the best way to find those parts where you tell instead of show something.

      Tell your crit partners/readers to be more precise. Ask them for suggestions… what do they mean by show not tell? What is it they want shown exactly? It can be hard because you see it all in your mind, but they don’t. Plus, suggestions are a great way to help a writer start churning ideas around during the editing process – it makes it easier when you have something to work off of. So just let them know that they aren’t being clear enough.

      I hope this helps! But maybe I will one day devote an entire post to showing instead of telling! 😀

      • Angela April 30, 2010 at 6:18 AM #

        Thanks! =D

  5. Lua April 30, 2010 at 3:11 AM #

    Thanks for the great article Vanessa! I think the whole thing comes down to balance; I tend to overwrite the descriptions from time to time and that is the result of too much visualizing I suppose 🙂 I want to write EVERTYTHING with all the details, but it does slow the story so I must develop a better filter in my head to sort what’s important enough to get into the story and what must stay out…

    • Vanessa April 30, 2010 at 2:55 PM #

      I feel your pain! I tend to write a lot of description too, and I’m always asking myself whether or not I’m balancing it out.

  6. cristinaguarino April 30, 2010 at 9:54 AM #

    Nice article, V! I love your point on using only relevant details. I usually begin my stories with mostly just action, which is why they tend to be fairly short (my MS is 50k words), and then flesh out the detail the second time around. This works well for me now, but I used to have the bad habit of trying to force detail, which would result in unnecessary scenes or details that didn’t belong (like the graffiti in the chase scene thing).

    You provide a good example of the classic “show, don’t tell” rule, too. At this point in the game I’m so sick of hearing that–my creative writing class has officially beaten that horse to a pulp–but it’s one of those things that, no matter how often you’ve heard it, needs to be repeated anyway. It’s incredible how often we tell; it’s also very easy to do, and occasionally the “tells” are disguised as “shows”.

    For example, I wrote a haiku about my favorite animal, the horse: “Silken, flowing mane / Hooves pounding on helpless grass / Beauty at its best.” I handed this in to my creative writing professor, and he told me that “Beauty at its best,” which was a line I personally loved and never wanted to change, was a “tell” that had to go.

    I changed it for his class, but I kept the original draft for myself. 🙂

    So I think it’s also important to realize that sometimes you can’t get around telling; after all, we’re very expressive beings. How many times have you whined “I’m hot,” or “I’m exhausted,” etc? I’m sure the person could see it on your face, from your flushed cheeks or droopy eyes, but we feel the need to say it as well. Sometimes it can be useful; we wouldn’t want our books to read like forced poetry with a barrage of heavy imagery. 😛

    • Vanessa April 30, 2010 at 2:57 PM #

      The show, don’t tell thing is definitely important. But I find other people will notice it more often than the writer themselves. And yeah, I think there are some lines you can leave as a “tell”; you’re not supposed to show absolutely everything anyways, because it can really bog down the pacing.

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