Description Tips and Tricks

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dios4vida
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Description Tips and Tricks

Post by dios4vida » June 13th, 2012, 3:46 pm

Hi all,

I have a severe and chronic case of White Wall Syndrome. In everything I write, I almost never have any description of where my characters are. I'll say "forest" and pretty much leave it at that. I don't mean to, but description doesn't naturally flow into my writing. When I do try to put it in, it feels forced and far too clinical.

Margo has pounded into my head several tips like "make the description reflect the character's emotions" and things like that, and while I think it's fantabulous advice I can't seem to get those kind of things to fit naturally into my manuscripts. It always seem to stick out like a neon sign: THIS IS THE DESCRIPTION PART I WORKED SO HARD TO PUT IN.

Some of you, I know, have the most amazing skills at blending description into your writing so the reader barely notices it, but the scenes are a crystal clear in their minds as in yours. I have one simple question for you folks: How do you do it??
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by polymath » June 13th, 2012, 4:09 pm

Artful setting and character descriptions for me are causal in the moment. Perhaps a character observes a forest. What does the forest cause the character to do, to say, to think and therefore mean to the character? Is the forest a danger? Sanctuary? Subsistence source? Like firewood or food. Does the forest represent a pleasant place to socialize? Striving to fulfill primal needs there, representing problems wanting satisfaction: subsistence, safety, society.

In addition, what does the forest symbolize? Is it cold, with subtext meaning an intangible concept, an abstract second- or third-order need or problem wanting satisfaction? Describing a complication of a cold forest might preposition or foreshadow a cold reception coming up. A dramatic conflict of acceptance or rejection comes into play. Theme: the individual in nature.

If cold meaning rejection is repeated and related to a distinguishable theme, then it's a motif. If cold meaning rejection is repeated through visual sensation descriptions, then it's imagery. If cold meaning rejection is repeated, but using different sensory descriptions: sound, smell, touch, taste, thought, or emotional feeling, then it's symbolism.

Motifs, imagery, and symbolism portray intangible concepts, abstracts that otherwise have literal meanings which are concrete though with emotional subtext that has figurative meanings.

Interlace caussation and figurative meaning to develop settings and characters and thus plot. The more causal, the more antagonistic, the more artfully description works for developing settings and characters and plot.
Last edited by polymath on June 13th, 2012, 4:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Mark.W.Carson » June 13th, 2012, 4:18 pm

I had a REALLY hard time doing it at first. I used to lie to myself and say "The reader will adjust and make something up" but my wife is a proof reader of some of my stuff, and she is notoriously bad at coming up with her own descriptions to fill in blanks.

I watched some of the stuff by Brandon Sanderson, and then it just clicked. How do you describe something, without being wordy, and getting the message across?

You say
They walked into an overgrown forest.

How about this?

The crew walked into a bramble wood. The bent old trees were gnarled and twisted through the path, but the way was wide enough for them to walk single file. Kortlan (making up a name) unsheathed his sword and took the front.

"They get thicker than this," Old Gerrick said. "You'll be glad I brought the torches, 'b'cause they blot out the sun not far up ahead."


The trick is, picture it. What is it, and now pick words that are not descriptions by themselves to give the feel of what you are witnessing.

The descriptions Brandon mentioned were "bed, to wood bed, to log bed" You picture different things with each nuance. Then "Dog" became "The dog that had not been killed and eaten yet." Sure, you add words, but the choice of the words has now become better, because it does the story telling AND the description for you.

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by trixie » June 13th, 2012, 4:36 pm

I have nothing to add because I'm still in the "Margo broke my brain" camp. :)

I tried to make my descriptions match my character's emotions in that scene. Scared kid = creepy shed. Nervous kid = clumsy students. It's a stretch, but it's what I'm working with.

But at a macro level? It's SUPER hard. My MC is afraid he won't fit in. How do you capture that when describing an Irish manor home?

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by dios4vida » June 13th, 2012, 4:49 pm

Okay, polymath and mark54g, those were both brilliant responses. I especially love your example, Mark. I just feel like whenever I try to do things like that, it never flows naturally. It feels forced, like it was interjected into the prose on purpose but not smoothed over so it doesn't stick out. I guess I just need some more practice.

Trish, it seems weird to give description advice when I was just asking for it, but when you asked "How do you capture that when describing an Irish manor home?" I immediately thought that you could have him notice and pick out all the Irish elements, wonder what some are for, how nice others are (like Irish linen, it's so much nicer than American stuff), and make comparisons to what he's used to back home. That would really give a sense of 'not fitting in' - contrast his American-ness with the Irish-ness of the place. Maybe?

And I guess...I could do that in my own novel, too... :idea:

Anyone else got some tips? Cause these are amazing. :)
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by polymath » June 13th, 2012, 5:02 pm

trixie wrote:I have nothing to add because I'm still in the "Margo broke my brain" camp. :)

I tried to make my descriptions match my character's emotions in that scene. Scared kid = creepy shed. Nervous kid = clumsy students. It's a stretch, but it's what I'm working with.

But at a macro level? It's SUPER hard. My MC is afraid he won't fit in. How do you capture that when describing an Irish manor home?
In addition to dios4vida's marvelous advice, consider other causes. Like being ushered in a back door. Not just afraid he won't fit in, pursuing a self-fulfilling prophecy he won't fit in. He's dressed in a manner that embarrasses his hosts. Unthinking, they send him around to the back door so the neighbors don't see him enter the front door reserved for honored guests. Nonconscious resistance to and refusal of a challenge is a hallmark of journey quests. Artful when a protagonist is his or her own worst problem. A problem wanting satisfaction.
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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Hillsy » June 13th, 2012, 7:53 pm

dios4vida wrote:I just feel like whenever I try to do things like that, it never flows naturally. It feels forced, like it was interjected into the prose on purpose but not smoothed over so it doesn't stick out.
I tend to read/need to read description in prose like spiderman needs skyscrapers.............

*Puts down joint*

.......hear me out. Spidey is ripping it up down a street chasing a car carrying Bankrobbers or some other ne'er-do-wells. In order to achieve this action, he needs an anchor point - a skyscraper - to swing from. Without this spidey can't swing down the street, stop the baddies and have the act twisted into some nefarious deed by JJ Jameson. For me, I need the same thing with prose. In order for a character to perform an action, I need something to anchor him to to do it. Otherwise you get a generic reply of some stock footage in your head and your not reading that book, you're just reading 'A' Book (perhaps this is why I don't get short stories that much??...hmmm). AN example you want? Oh ok then dammit.....this dancing monkey will fire up the organ grinder one more time............

So take something simple: Woman bangs a desk in frustration (Assume I've got a description of the woman and a reason for her banging the desk). So I read this and I see in my head person banging a desk - nothing more, nothing less....which is bland. I've read the action a hundred times, by a hundred different authors, and each was different. So what now? Well I need something to anchor the action to to make it more vivid, to get me a little closer to the image. Cue description. So she bangs the desk, and her fist comes down on a large knot in the wood. A-HA! Now I've got an action (Generic) and a close up of her fist connection with knotted wood (Specific). So you've anchored the generic action to a specific thing you've described, therefore the action is already more concrete because it's happening to something REAL .

OK, following on from that what's her next action? SHe swipes the phone off her desk in anger. OK fine. Anchor it to something and describe it: the phone is one of those black plastic things that appears in ever TV drama on CBS. So I've got a generic action I've seen a hundred times, but I've now got a concrete bit of description about the phone. Next action. It went tumbling through the air. Add an anchor: it went tumbling through the air and smashed against the wood panelling of her drinks cabinet. Generic ---> Specific.

This is essentially all description is: Differentiating why actions are different from their most generic, base for. Yeah there's one hell of a range, from something a simple as the above to the complexity of taking someone walking through a forest in a completely fantastic kingdom a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it's all the same, just with more or less layers or description built into it.

Once you've got the anchor, you can start applying all those fancy prose tricks you know about 5 senses (The wood of her desk was coarse, like courdroy. It made a muffled thud. The wood was pine, two shades darker than her floridian tan), then picking the right words that show rather than tell. Description explaining character, backstory, motivation, blah blah blah.......then add as many layers as you want. Hell, I can probably take a single action and drag it over 2 pages (in fact in some of my earlier stuff I think I did) just through layering these descriptions, then branching out from there. Blocks of description are bad things if they just exist in there own self contained bubble. (E.g "Dark forest was so called because the weave of the branches was so dense, the sunlight never penetrated below. The animals dwelling within all had big eyes, some no eyes at all, and hidden from the passage of day and night none were solely nocturnal. Dave the barbarian wondered how far in his quarry had ventured. He walked forwards."....here the description is "framing" the action - it's not anchoring it. If Dave's walk through the forest involves him tripping over in the darkness, being peered at by big eyed animals that should've only been out at night, but were tricked by the impenatrable ceiling of branches, everything is hung on the action. As Dave is doing stuff we are constantly zooming around like some crazed michael Bay action sequence picking out details. In version 1 Dave's walk is generic, by anchoring the action with layers of description, Dave is walking across something REAL)

OK I'm starting to overtake my own narrative here. Suffice to say when someone makes an action, has a thought, says something, anything, make the target of that action specific. DO this enough times, put in enough layers, and you automatically build a bigger picture without trying....

.....think back to the woman hitting the desk I mentioned earlier. What do you now know about that scene? Her desk is made of grained wood, possibly pine. SHe's got a cheap phone on it, black, plastic, horrid. To one side she's got a wood panelled drinks cabinet - probably part of a larger shelving unit. Which means the windows will be on one of the other 3 walls. The cabinet is now chipped.....Am I right? All that, and all I did was describe action. I could have block descripted the whole lot, then just had her hit the desk and swipe the phone....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

God I rambled AGAIN!....Night night

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by dios4vida » June 13th, 2012, 8:51 pm

Hillsy wrote:Blocks of description are bad things if they just exist in there own self contained bubble. (E.g "Dark forest was so called because the weave of the branches was so dense, the sunlight never penetrated below. The animals dwelling within all had big eyes, some no eyes at all, and hidden from the passage of day and night none were solely nocturnal. Dave the barbarian wondered how far in his quarry had ventured. He walked forwards."....here the description is "framing" the action - it's not anchoring it. If Dave's walk through the forest involves him tripping over in the darkness, being peered at by big eyed animals that should've only been out at night, but were tricked by the impenatrable ceiling of branches, everything is hung on the action. As Dave is doing stuff we are constantly zooming around like some crazed michael Bay action sequence picking out details. In version 1 Dave's walk is generic, by anchoring the action with layers of description, Dave is walking across something REAL)
:idea: :!: :idea: :!: :idea:

Wow, Hillsy...you bemoan your rambles like they're bad or something, but I love it when you do this! Right here, I think you hit the nail on the head (it's like you've read my writing or something...). All this time I've been trying to frame what I've got in description, and that's why it feels forced. Holy crap, I think I can feel my paradigm shifting.

You guys are freakin' brilliant, I love you!! (In a totally non-creepy way.)
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Mark.W.Carson » June 13th, 2012, 10:21 pm

I agree, Brenda,

I like to have my descriptions come as tiny drops of information, but then get set up by dialogue. For me, if you can show it, great, if you can have your characters say it, even better.

If you drop your description in blobs, they are info dumps. If you show, then you have the added benefit of furthering the story. If you show WHILE making it dialogue, you have information dumps, that further the story, and give insight about characters.

The forest was so dark that light did not penetrate... is bland

"Why is always so dark in here?" Roderick asked, stumbling for a second time.
"It's the woods," Sir Wilton said, catching up to them. "They're cursed. See up ahead? The branches interlock. Birds don't fly in our out, either. They know something isn't right about this place."
"That's a load of horse manure," Callum, added. "There's no curse, and there never was. My gran told me about this forest when I was a wee babe. It wasn't always like this. It was the plague."


Something like that.

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by writersink » June 14th, 2012, 8:12 am

I'm really rubbish at description. I tend to focus on the characters, because I can see my world perfectly fine, so I don't understand why everyone else doesn't as well. But then I try adding in some, and one of my CPs will highlight the whole thing and say "I just skimmed the whole thing." The description I worked so hard on, and I find out people skim it, because it isn't that good. :cry:

So instead of trying to give bad advice, I'll just come along and take everyone else's advice *cue evil laughter.*

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Hillsy » June 14th, 2012, 9:34 am

dios4vida wrote:Wow, Hillsy...you bemoan your rambles like they're bad or something,
Aww that's sweet - but I mean it because I'm like - "Hey I'll just jot down a quick note"...then it's 914 words later and I'm like "If that dude from across the road doesn't stop shining that damn light through his window I'm gonn hunt down his.....oh, it's the sun!!!"

Anyways - just another tip. All these rules and techniques and such....they can ruin your book as well if you take them to the nth degree. Like anything, balance is the key. Sometimes a chair is just a chair, a crow a crow, a backflip a backflip. All this "Weigh every word, make sure it's place in the sentence is warranted, that it's adding to the momentumn of the sentence and supporting that sentence's mini-arc within the larger arc of the paragraph, within the greater arc of the scene - like a kind of literary matryoshka plot doll." - it's just hyperbolic bollocks. Use all the techniques until you're happy with the image they're concocting, be it a pencil sketch or an oil painting. You employ techniques, you don't serve them.

Either way, glad to help

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Sommer Leigh » June 14th, 2012, 9:41 am

I don't know whether I do it well or do it right, but I try to keep a couple of things in mind when I write.

1. I have certain locations I choose to describe, but not every place needs to get the whole painted effect.

2. When I describe those places, I write out a long description, and then cut everything out that is a "It looks like..." description and see what I have left. Most descriptions center on how something looks, so I try other things first. I try to use the "what does something look like" description as infrequently as possible because I find those sorts of descriptions to be boring.

3. Details are more fun than descriptions. I look at a location and think - what one thing captures the feeling my character gets when she's here? This is an organic thing, we all have an impression of a place when we first step in. I have a character who wakes up in a cell, and while the walls are wood and the door is iron and it's dank and kind of smells, the thing she describes is that her bed is crowded next to her bathroom. What the room is made of is immaterial to the fact it's really, really small. If your character walks into a gas station in the middle of no where, the reader is going to pull up a canned picture of a gas station in their head. You don't need to describe the shelves or the cigarettes behind the counter. Instead maybe it's the rumble of the oscillating fan on the counter, the sweat dripping clean lines down the windows, or the flies hovering over the hot dog machine. Suddenly it's not just a gas station in the middle of no where, it's the edge of civilization or one health inspection away from being shut down. It's every horror movie gas station you've ever seen.

4. A lot of scenes in stories fall victim to the "walk on stage" effect where a character walks into a well described space, says her lines with her costar, then walks off stage. The space, the "set", is for the readers benefit only. If someone tries to open the fake door in the corner, the fake wall is going to topple over. I try to make sure my characters interact with their space. Generally, if they are not going to interact with their space, I don't describe it beyond a, "Romeo waited for Juliet in the library."

5. Is the place itself almost as important as a minor character? If yes, then I spend a lot more time on creating an immersive description.

6. My descriptions are somewhat dictated by the genre I'm writing in. Fantasy tends to get a lot more sweeping descriptions. Science fiction is either sparse or more technically described. Horror gets to be very immersive with lots of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches, or it's the bare minimum allowing the events to do most of the describing. Crimes and mysteries receive careful, well placed description since only describing one detail in a room practically screams I AM A CLUE! I AM A CLUE! etc etc.

7. I name things. I give specifics. It's not a mess of toys on the floor she trips over, it's a demolished Lego castle. She doesn't see seagulls swooping over the water, she see's Ring-Billed Gulls. He doesn't live in a loft, he lives in a converted loft in the Fredrick Hoffmeyer Mattress Factory building.

8. The description should elicit or recall emotion, either in the character or in the reader. And it needs to do so without me saying it's doing so. I shouldn't have to mention my character feels claustrophobic in her cell. My description should make the reader either feel claustrophobic or make them understand the character is feeling claustrophobic. Both would be ideal.

I don't know if any of that is helpful or not. I figure the first time I write a scene I'm going to over describe it, I always do, and during one of my edits I spend a good amount of time deleting a lot of description, choosing better words that do double duty, or slipping in description through dialogue, interaction, or action. I tend to over-write, so I do my best to cut it down as much as possible so that I "get" a space in one sentence rather than a whole paragraph.
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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by polymath » June 14th, 2012, 4:40 pm

Another description tip or trick that in other words mirrors what's already been said is based on a fundamental writing principle: When a sensation matters to a viewpoint character, it matters to the story, to readers, for plot, character, and setting development.
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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Gypson » June 23rd, 2012, 7:00 pm

I'm a bit late to the party. However, it seems like such a fun and inviting party that I don't mind barging in late =)

By no means am I perfect at this, but here are some description tricks that have worked for me:

1. Describe through the lens of the viewpoint character. Two characters walking through the same space will see very different things. Say Ahab and Quequag are walking through a densely populated city. Quequag has lived here all his life, but Ahab is a traveler from a rural village.

Ahab might notice the sheer mass of the city, the height and breadth of the buildings, the narrowness of the roads, the traffic (human, animal, or vehicle), the filth or cleanliness, the noise (cell phones ringing, cars whirring by, the accents of the diverse people around him), the confusing smells (food, exhaust, unwashed humans, sewers, dust from the construction site).

Quequag, meanwhile, would probably shut out the background noise and confusion, because it woudn't be noise or confusion to him. He would know the quickest route to their destination, how to elbow his way through the crowd, how to stick his foot in the road to stop cars for him, how to keep an eye out for dog shit.

2. Focus on sensory information. Tell me that the doog banged shut behind him, that the oatmeal tasted burnt, that the stiff paper collar chaffed his neck. Think of how many "beeps" you hear in a day: an alarm clock to wake you up, a timer for cooking food, a smoke detector going off, an ambulance wailing by, a doorbell chiming or buzzing, the asshole behind you honking his horn. Each sound elicits a different response. A character might hurl his alarm clock away from him because he's not ready to get up, or be grateful for the forced wakening from a recurrent nightmare.

There are a lot of ways to work this in. Maybe one character hears her friend call to her before turning around to see her, or hears the pounding hooves of a galloping horse before sighting the approach. Smells can add fantastic levels of dread to scenes where a character smells death before finding the body. On the other hand, I find descriptions of scent to be far more erotic in love scenes than descriptions of what people look like.

3. Focus on specific traits. When describing a character, focus on what makes her unique. Maybe she has a snaggletoothed smile, or retro glasses, or lines around her eyes that crinkle when she grins. An insecure character might hide behind the long bangs that cascade over his face, or polish herself to the extreme with careful application of makeup and hair products. An old building might have sways in the stair steps from hundreds of years of feet, or the beams might groan in the wind.

4. Link description to emotion. The sight of a house might be lovingly familiar to one character, or fill him with a sense of dread. The darkening forest around your character might be perceived as peaceful and meditative, or cold and threatening. Show the fear sink in. Show us the wave of goosebumps rising on his arms.

5. Recognize when description isn't necessary. I don't need to know what every building looked like, what everyone present was wearing, the direction from which the wind blew. Don't burden yourself with the architecture of a passing place when "she walked down the hall" will do.

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Re: Description Tips and Tricks

Post by Cookie » June 27th, 2012, 11:16 pm

I'm much like Sommer, in that I'll overwrite a description, then edit it down later. I'm constantly tightening up the prose and searching for better descriptions. Most start out pretty basic, until I can think of something better later.

And like someone else said (Hillsy?), I try to get into my characters head and see things how they would see them. A construction worker is going to view the world differently than a warrior, who will not see it quite the same as a poet. Take advantage of their professions, past experiences, personalities, current emotions, the knowledge (or ignorance), and their biases.

What is the first thing your character will notice when he steps into the forest? He seems to be a pretty inquisitive person (from what I've read so far), so will he marvel over how tall the trees are? Will he think they're beautiful and marvel at them, or will he find them frightening? Also, since he's never seen the surface before, what does he know of it? What stories had he learned from his elders, and how does his experience relate to what he sees?

For instance, one of my characters is extremely self-centered, so everything he notices will only be in relation to him. Because of who he is, I chose to play off his emotions. At one point, he's stuck in a house with his father that he hates, and he's less than pleased with the situation. So, instead of saying his bedroom is well-appointed, I take advantage of his unhappiness. Therefore, well-appointed becomes "an extravagant overabundance of useless furniture." From that, you know that not only is his room luxurious, but that he's annoyed, and probably pissed off.

Start out with basic descriptions, and build on it from there. It's not going to be perfect the first time, but you'll at least have a starting point. :)

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