Compelling Description—beyond the cliché

When I write my first draft I’m usually focused on getting the story down. Description, which is my least favorite part of story writing, is simple, fast, and dirty. A lot of clichés slip in because I don’t want to take the time to craft a perfect sentence. It would slow or stop the flow of words to edit a sentence or paragraph and that’s not my goal. I want to get the first draft down so that I can see the story as a whole. Then I go back and clean up the mess, remove the turds, polish the sentences, and strengthen the story.

My favorite part of writing is dialogue. I love the interplay between characters. When I write a new scene I always put in all the dialogue first, then I go back and add some action. Last I’ll sketch in some quick description, usually just enough to set the scene. It’s only when I’m in the editing phase that I will take the time to flesh out the description. I don’t know why it’s so torturous for me to write description. It’s like eating lima beans. It’s tasteless and a chore and even though I know it’s good for me, I have to hold my nose while I do it. I know that sounds really odd. Description should be rich. It should bring a scene and characters alive. It should be full of sound and smell and color and texture. The only reason I’ve been able to figure out why it’s so hard for me is that as an artist I’m a visual person. I see the scene in my head and I’d rather use images instead of words to create the scene. Writing description feels unnatural to me for that reason.

That said, I know good description when I read it. Sometimes a line will strike my heart. I’ll catch my breath at the beauty of it and wonder how the author ever thought to put those words together. Here are a few descriptions that have stuck in my head:

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

She crowed and led the way into the tiny parlor, where the smell of old cat had been left to gain depth and maturity.

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon

The dress hung loosely now, the waist dipping where she had nothing left above to fill the bodice, the hem lifting behind to accommodate the stoop in her back.

Lips Touch Three Times by Lani Taylor

The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent the goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood.

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

The new boots were all wrong. They were stiff and shiny. Shiny boots! That was disgraceful. Clean boots, that was different. There was nothing wrong with putting a bit of polish on boots to keep the wet out. But boots had to work for a living. They shouldn’t shine.

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

He had a sudden insight as to the exact state of mind of a person who fell/jumped/was pushed from the top of a very tall building, in that subjectively stretched eternity it took for them to reach the pavement below.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

“Oh, darling,” she whispered, and the sound sent goose bumps popping down Artemis’s neck. “I hear things. At night. They crawl along the pillows and into my ears.”

There are a number of reasons why these descriptions work so well. In the first one, is there any more profound essence than marinated cat piss? I don’t even have to close my eyes to smell it. It’s a scent that tells me a lot about the woman who lives there. It also puts me in the room with the characters.

In the second description I can see that dress hanging on the old woman’s frame, like a hundred other old women I’ve seen. I can feel the movement of the dress—the dip in the front, the lift in the back. I know she’s worked hard all her life and that she hasn’t had many breaks. But I also know that once she was young—she had nothing left above to fill the bodice. It implies there’s more to her than a simple old woman.

The third description uses senses to grab our attention. A desire, a wish, a want that leaves a trail—a smell only the goblins can sense. Young girls…fresh…succulent...tasty, leaving a trail for goblins, like blood on the water for sharks. A soft bloom of blood. The color is so strong without the word red ever being used.

The fourth example conveys so much about the personality of the character simply by describing her boots. She’s no-nonsense, practical, a worker, nothing showy about her, no pretense. I love the line But boots had to work for a living. It combines the unexpected—the idea that boots need to make a living. It also tells us more about the character. Her practicality extends to everything around her.

When I read the fifth example, all I can think of is Oh, shit. I know the character is about to hit the ground and his life is over. And he begins the scene thinking he has gotten away with what he’d done. He doesn’t realize he’s walked into the trap until this moment. The ground is jerked out from under him and the reader at the same moment so we experience that rush of feeling with him. And we’re going to hit the ground as hard as he is.

The last example takes a common phrase feeling goose bumps and takes the cliché out of it when he adds the word popping. It takes the image so much further—the idea of goose bumps popping. And then he makes that image real with the next sentences “I hear things. At night. They crawl along the pillows and into my ears.” and suddenly we feel the goose bumps popping on our necks.

I think what makes these descriptions stand out is the way they engage our senses and our memories and put us in the moment with the character. They are personal instead of generic. Specific instead of general. You need to find what makes this character, this feeling, or this image unique and put that onto the page. So easy. Not. Still, it’s something to keep in mind the next time you have to write It was a dark and stormy night.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *