Being a writer is harder than I anticipated. I used to think I had a knack for storytelling, but I have been humbled to realize that I have a lot to learn. One of the things I have been learning about in writing is description, and today I would love to share some of what I now know with you.
In my head, stories are so simple. I do have an imagination that is very active, so it is actually fairly easy for me to come up with story ideas and also not too hard to come up with characters. There is a big problem though. I have a hard time getting words out on paper.
My friend Sarah, recently asked me to offer constructive criticism for a short story she wrote. (It was pretty neat.) One of the many things that stood out to me was how well she handled description, especially the first aspect we are going to talk about today: using all the senses. Today I am going to correct sections of description in my own book that I am writing, for you all to see. Let us begin:
1. Use all the Senses:
Before I explain, here is a passage from my book:
Cable halted in front of the door and turned the ornate nob. When he nudged the door open, I let out a quiet gasp. Lavish maps covered the walls. There was elaborate crowning over the entire room. The floor was covered in one plush crimson and gold carpet. Off to the left, a red velvet chase lounge stood and on the right of the room an armoire carved with intricate roses. In the middle was a gorgeous shining redwood desk and behind it sat the Masked Pirate reclining in a gold, navy upholstered seat with his left leg draped over the arm of the chair and his cheek leaning on the finger of his left hand. He had been studying me closely as I gazed about the room. He slid his leg off the arm of his throne. The door closed behind me and I peered around my shoulder to see Cable had left the room.
Do you see what is wrong? I am literally only describing what my character sees. What are all the senses?
I pretty much used nothing else besides sight. It is not as if every scene must be described with these five senses, but it can become rather dull and un-varied after a while if the same sense is used. Sight is probably the most common, but it would be useful to branch out and think of the other human experiences. I bolded my changes:
Cable halted in front of the door and turned the ornate nob. When he nudged the door it creaked open, and I let out a quiet gasp. Lavish maps covered the walls. There was elaborate crowning over the entire room. My nostrils flared at an unusual and strong perfume. The floor was covered in one plush crimson and gold carpet. Off to the left, a red velvet chase lounge stood and on the right of the room an armoire carved with intricate roses. Two windows against the far wall showed only the blackness of the night, but the soft lapping of waves assured me of the sea outside. In the middle of the room was a gorgeous redwood desk and behind it sat the Masked Pirate reclining in a gold, navy upholstered seat with his left leg draped over the arm of the chair and his cheek leaning on the finger of his left hand. I became colder as I grew aware of the crisp air. He had been studying me closely as I gazed about the room. He slid his leg off the arm of his throne. The door clicked behind me and I peered around my shoulder to see Cable had left the room.
Did you see what I added? I was able to add the senses of, hearing, smell, and touch. What do you think?
Using different senses makes the story much more sensory and involving to the reader. It paints a clear picture of the scene. I definitely recommend using differing senses in your description, but, leading into our next point: avoid saying the senses explicitly.
2. Eliminate Sense Tags:
Alright, let us take a look at a shorter bit from my story:
I heard a slight groan from behind me. Turning to see Warren, I observed him bending down over his foot.
The audience does not need to be told that the character is experiencing, sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch when you can just describe the feeling without the tags.
I bolded my changes:
I froze at a slight groan from behind me. When I turned around, Warren was bent down over his foot.
I eliminated the verb “heard” and “observed.” The audience knows that a groan is a sound and that the character saw something, they do not need to be told. Writing this way emulates real life better. When we smell something we do not usually think about the fact that we are “smelling” we just smell.
This follows one of the most important rules in writing: Show Don’t Tell. Our next rule does as well:
3. Don’t Tell how Your Character Feels
Here is another passage:
“No you don’t,” my anger started to show, “I am not a toy to be kicked around! I am a capable and worthy man!” Warren looked stunned.
Here I stated the emotion of my character too explicitly. I love the book The Emotion Thesaurus because it has multiple examples of ways a character may SHOW emotion without the author having to TELL how they feel.
“No you don’t,” I snapped, heat rising to my face, “I am not a toy to be kicked around! I am a capable and worthy man!” Warren looked stunned.
I replaced “anger” with words that described the feeling of anger. The reason I usually fall into the trap of using emotion statements is to make sure the audience knows how the character feels. The fact is, they still will if you can master describing emotion. People are smart. They will know the cues when you give them. It is more involving to the reader when you describe the emotion instead of just saying that the character is “angry,” “frustrated,” or “enraged.”
4. Use Specific Verbs and Avoid Adverbs
When writing a description, you want to be… descriptive.
The crew looked hesitatingly at each other.
There are many polished and precise verbs out there that have the same use as an adverb and a boring and common verb together. For example instead of saying “she ran quickly” you could say “she raced.”
The crew glanced at each other.
This one was tough because there are not many verbs that mean “looked hesitatingly,” so I probably could have kept the adverb “hesitatingly” if I wanted to, but for the sake of example I took it out. Maybe it was wise to take it out though because the sentence seemed to automatically assume Max knew how his crew was feeling when in reality he is not “in their heads.” Maybe it was too explicit and Rule 3 applies: I should show (not tell) how they might feel. I would change the verb still because it is just a bit too dull and generic.
Also, I know it might seem like I broke rule 2 “Eliminate sense tags” because the word “glanced” is a specific sense, but I am using 1st person POV so there is no way to show that characters, besides the main character, are using a sense without stating the sense distinctly. My story is seen through the eyes of Max. He witnesses the other characters senses, but again, he does not experience their feelings. Rule 2 is more widely usable in 3rd person POV, etc.
Remember, these rules are not always hard and fast, but they are good guidelines. I hope this post will help you in writing descriptions in the future.
Did you learn something new? What are you working on in your writing? Chat with me in the comments and hit that like button if you enjoyed! Bye, for now, everyone!
P.S. I have had some struggles working through the book I am writing currently, which is to be expected, but I am not sure I want this to be the first book I am known for. I am determined to finish it, but I know that a lot of authors have “practice books,” and I am thinking this book may not be as publishable as I thought. If I do not end up publishing it, but finish it, would you guys like to see it released on this blog? Then maybe I could get some feedback from you all for my future writing. Let me know in the comments!