Writing Powerful Descriptions
By Jon Gingerich
Writing is an account of how people think. As a medium it's intrinsically empathic; it communicates patently human sensibilities. In order for a story to work, it needs to feel like real life, even when it’s actually something quite different. The more detailed and rich your descriptions, the better your writing will approximate the human experience, thereby establishing a connection with fellow minds.
The best descriptions are the ones that are completely original, easily understood and often reminisced. They're digestible yet impressionable, they say something profound but they’re palatable enough to be comprehended by anyone. It’s a difficult technique to master, an art form in itself, really.
Consider this a primer for writing good descriptions (here’s your first lesson: “good” isn’t a suitable or sufficient way to describe anything). To make things interesting — and very embarrassing for me — I’ve dug up several of my own stories from years past to illustrate some truly awful blunders in description, each of which poisoned workshops at varying times during the earlier half of the last decade. Be warned: some major toadstools lie ahead.
Appeal to the senses
Words with strong sensory associations always increase your chances of yielding an empathic response. Why? When you appeal to our sensory faculties, you’re inviting us to imagine how something feels. Literally.
In order to maximize that empathic response, try to appeal to all the senses as often as you can. Don’t just tell us what something looks like, tell us how it sounds, how it tastes. Recent studies show words containing sensory descriptions are so powerful they even stimulate areas of the brain that aren't used to process language. When we read a detailed account of how something smells, for example, our sensory cortex gets a signal. In other words, the brain often treats real experiences and reading about them as the same thing. If you really want to place your reader in the story, your writing should take advantage of our collective faulty wiring whenever you can.
The same applies to our relationships with the laws of physics. Words describing motion can stimulate the motor cortex, which is responsible for coordinating body movements. If you really want to simulate motion, try doing this while varying the rhythms in your sentences. Want to increase action? Put your subject directly before the verb. To slow down the motion (in other words, to add emphasis), shorten the sentence. If you want to bring things to a stop, try replacing a conjunction with a comma: The fields are barren now, deserted. Here’s another trick: if you want to temporarily “stop” time, try removing the verbs altogether.
In order to maximize that empathic response, try to appeal to all the senses as often as you can. Don’t just tell us what something looks like, tell us how it sounds, how it tastes. Be specific
Avoid summary in your descriptions. Offer concrete information, engage us with moment-to-moment details, tell us about each detail, and how they affect the senses.
One of the most practical — and indeed, easiest — ways of laying out a descriptive foundation is to envision each scene before you write it. Literally close your eyes, see the scene and then write it down. For the time being, just let the image do its work; look closely at the objects in the scene, and describe them in a manner that’s as painfully specific as possible. Now — to establish storytelling authority — make sure the description is told from the proper subjective viewpoint: tell us how the character or narrator would see things from the POV you've established.
Here’s an especially bad slice of description from a story I wrote eight years ago:
Example (bad): It is hot.
“It is hot” would be fine if I were filling out a police report, or even writing a piece of journalism. But this was intended to be a work of fiction. Clearly, I hadn’t yet realized that by generalizing and not appealing to the readers' senses I missed an ideal opportunity to connect with empathizing human minds.
Example (better): The heat is oppressive, sweltering and exhausting, it sticks to the skin and makes ovens out of parking lots.
Some things to always consider when you’re writing a scene: do your word choices paint images, do they place us in the moment? Do they make us participants in the story instead of mere observers? Not only is this new sentence more specific, it brings in a few common experiences associated with heat (sticky skin, broiling parking lots), thereby placing readers into the action and increasing the chances of an empathic response.
It’s bad timing given my last example, but try to cut down on your adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers don’t specify words as much as you might think. More often than not, they actually abstract a thought, so sentences that rely on modifiers for descriptive strength are building on faulty foundations. You’ll be more successful if you instead find the verb that perfectly portrays the image you’re envisioning. When you edit your work, spend considerable time scrutinizing your sentences to make sure the action maximizes full descriptive potential.
Example (bad): They arrived at the house just behind the streaming line of fire trucks, their street alive in the opulent glow of lights and sirens, their house ablaze in a perennial bloom of orange and yellow.
Unfortunately, this story was published before I possessed the wherewithal to edit such obtuse overwriting. Looking at it five years later, the sentence would have been fine if I simply cut down on the modifiers and let the action breathe.
Example (better): They arrived at the house just behind the fire trucks, the street alive in a glow of lights and sirens, their house ablaze.
Notice how this version places an emphasis on the verbs. Moreover, there’s another advantage gained here. In the first version, the sentence ends with a description of the colors of the blaze, hardly essential information. Now emphasis is placed on the most important information in the sentence (and in this case, the entire story): the burning house. If you want to draw extra emphasis to anything, put it at the end of the sentence. Placing it at the beginning is a close second. Never bury important information in the middle.
Use figurative language
Ever wonder why metaphor and analogy are such powerful — not to mention, popular — tools? Figurative language is an unmatched ally in descriptive pursuits. It gives the writer a chance to deconstruct a specific, subjective event and recast it into something familiar.
The human mind is engineered to see patterns. Anytime you disguise a comparison as a statement (which is what happens with a metaphor) you’re bringing the subject into a new relationship. You’ve established one pattern as being analogous to another pre-existing pattern, and we begin to see a small part of the world in a different way. It takes some creative know-how to make figurative language fly however, and metaphors that are confused, off-base or cliché can ruin an otherwise stellar piece of writing. The analogous relationships you establish have to be earned.
Example (bad): The overcast September sky stared back under a blanket of ashen gray.
First of all, I could happily live the remainder of my days without ever hearing clouds being referred to as a “blanket” again (ditto for “cotton”). Description this familiar tells me I wasn’t particularly inspired when I wrote it, back in 2005. Then there’s the semantic clumsiness of it all. “Blanket of ashen gray?" Why not just write “ashen gray blanket,” or better yet, “gray blanket?” Finally, do skies really “stare back?" The figurative appeals here (clichéd metaphor, awkward personification) seem careless, even lazy. If I were to rewrite the phrase today I might say something like this:
Example (better): There was an orange burn where the sun had been, and the mutilated animal shapes of cloud lay scattered in the tear of dusk.
It’s overkill, but you get the idea. Say something that both reconstructs the subject and enables the reader to see the world in a new, yet recognizable, light.
Also, avoid well-worn words and everyday figures of speech. Describing a farmhouse as “quaint," or using phrases like “before he knew it,” are so familiar the reader treats them as boilerplate and usually skips over them entirely. Always try to describe something in a way that’s never been described before.
If you want to draw extra emphasis to anything, put it at the end of the sentence. Placing it at the beginning is a close second. Never bury important information in the middle. Get to the point
If there’s a single take-away I want readers to get from a column that focuses on description, it’s this: avoid obfuscating and pointless over-writing. It’s not the job of the writer to besiege the reader, either with a litany of unimportant details or some long-winded, faux intellectual attempt at armchair discourse. Unfortunately, it seems nearly every writer (myself included) goes through this cringe-inducing phase where we pillage the dictionary or treat our keyboards like calculators. Works resulting from this mindset offer very little descriptive assistance for the reader, and a lot of later embarrassment for writers guilty of these storytelling snafus. When it comes to description, focus on the most telling details rather than caving in to your writerly proclivities to lean on the pen. You’ll thank me later.
Example (bad): He wondered if there was some deeper meaning to it, if the heat spoke of the true workings of this city, the only place he’d known really, and if he tried hard enough he could find an answer that satisfied him, an explanation beyond what those fortunate to have everything and those cursed with nothing have always been forced to accept, if nature’s brutality revealed a final authority, and man’s need to find reason with it was little more than a grotesque delusion that he could make sense out of nothing.
What a mess! Sentences like this reveal a practice that’s very common today, where writers spin these syntactical Triple Lindies in the hopes they can somehow scare people into liking their work. There’s a sort of bullying insecurity afoot here, because the delivery seems to operate off the idea that if readers don’t like the work, clearly it means they “didn’t understand it.” In actuality, this hat trick works on very few people, and incidentally, what’s on the page here says very, very little. This section’s descriptive duties would’ve been much more effective if I had ditched the dime-store existentialism and described instead what the character was thinking, in terms more fitting of his POV. The fundamental disregard to work within the descriptive framework of the character I established — to choose authorial square jawed smugness instead of revealing things the way the character would have seen them, in other words — reveals a rudimentary mishandling of narrative. In the end, it’s the writer who suffers the most from this kind of cloying pedantry, because he/she has deliberately girded the sentences’ potential strengths with mindless clutter.
Example (better): He wondered if the heat revealed nature’s final authority, and that man’s need to find reason with it was little more than a grotesque delusion that he could make sense out of nothing.
The sentence’s newfound pith reestablishes some aphoristic value that was completely submerged in the verbiage. It’s still not a very good sentence, mind you, but it’s far less annoying than what was on the page before. Maybe someday I’ll go back and further try to clean up this mess-terpiece, but until then I’m more than happy to let my purple prose serve as a lesson in moderation and sensibility. Here’s hoping you can also learn from your mistakes — as well as mine.