SPA Girls Podcast – EP229 – How To Write Great Description

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How can we write more descriptively?

Characters? Setting? What gives “visual” to readers?

What is the point of description? – To enrich the readers understanding of a story, to move the story forward, and to help readers see a character. (Description by Monica Wood ;))

So how can we write great description without it sounding
cliched, over-written or just plain boring? Listen up and we’ll share all our
best description writing tips from ourselves and from some great writing
teachers.

We’ve compiled some great advice on how to use description effectively in your writing, without overwhelming or underwhelming your readers (or yourself!) …

Describing Characters

Often descriptions of characters tends to be like “she
had red hair, blue eyes and was of medium build.”

Consider instead, “She tucked a tendril of red hair
behind her ear, and gave me a cheeky smile. Her eyes sparkled with mischief as
she took off on the trail ahead of me, her pack bouncing on her back.”

Which one gives you more of a sense of who the character is?

Describing Setting

Put characters in uncomfortable situations

Setting can be an amazing way to put our characters into
uncomfortable positions. Consider the fish out of water kind of scenario, that
will amp up a boring scene. A billionaire walks into a dirty dive and, all
suited up in an expensive outfit, his Rolex on show, orders a tap beer. Or a
whiskey. Or a house wine.

Consider your infallible narrator

Describe the scene through your character’s eyes (which you
should be doing anyway, most of the time), but with an awareness of how they’d
see it. Someone who was a neat freak would see a messy caravan set up on a
ranch differently so someone who was used to dirt and disorder.

Only give a hint as to the setting

Readers like to spend time imagining the world for themselves. Beginner writers either describe nothing, and leave readers wondering where the action is taking place, or they describe everything, right down to the red pencil that’s balanced precariously on the edge of the desk. If the red pencil is really important to the story, sure, mention it, but if it’s not, don’t.

Give a comparison

Using comparisons is a great tip when writing descriptive
scenes. (Walking into that room was like walking into battle wearing a suit of
armor.) Well you get the idea!

Use all your five senses

Taste, touch, smell, sound, sight. Use them all. Often we
rely on sight, and describe things based on what we can see. Make sure you talk
about the smells from the rotting fish in the garbage bin in the alley (which
can actually be far more provocative to the reader), or the fruity taste of the
wine she’s drinking, or the feel of the sheepskin rug beneath her fingers, or
the sound of the thunder of approaching horses.

Consider touch – the feel of things, but also the personal
touch – how they touch other characters, but also other objects. A character
who gestures wildly, or is clumsy, and continually knocks things off shelves, a
character who is obsessive compulsive, and has to touch every mailbox she sees.
How characters touch each other is a great way to tell story, as well as get
your story right into the head of your readers.

Description is another opportunity to move the plot forward. It’s not accidental or any old stuff. It’s what you can use to draw your readers deeper into the story, to give them clues as to the characters and to help them understand who they’re spending their time with. It’s a huge opportunity to show not tell.

Wendy’s pet peeve as a reader is overwritten description. She
says “Don’t over write!” Descriptions are for setting a scene, we don’t
necessarily need to experience every inch of it or the smell of each blade of
grass. Using comparisons is a great tip when writing descriptive scenes.
(Walking into that room was like walking into battle wearing a suit of armor.)
Well, you get the idea!

Remember, description doesn’t need to be flowery – yes, even in romance! It needs to have a purpose and give a visual perspective to a reader. Imagining a setting with clues is subjective to us all but you don’t need to belabour it!

Writing Tips:

  • You don’t have to do all the description in the first draft. Don’t get caught up doing it all the first time round. Put notes to yourself that you need to flesh it out, and come back to it in the second draft. Sometimes it’s actually way easier to do it that way.
  • Description often has layers. You need to really know and understand your story to get all the layers right.
  • Use description to help with the characterisation of your heroine. If she’s a messy, disorganised arty type who loves cats… Well, you can probably guess how to show that through where she lives.
  • Avoid vagueness – Would your heroine buy a “vehicle” or a specific type of car, like a blue Mazda CX3? Does your hero have a “cat” or a cheeky Maine Coon? Does your character have a “sweater” on, or are they wearing a cute pink knitted jersey?
  • Use significant or mood objects – You can use objects to help define the mood of your characters, lonely old house that your protagonist lives in. Or significant objects – ie the murder weapon, but before anyone realises it’s the murder weapon. The leg of lamb in “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl.
  • Stay consistent – Don’t describe it as light and airy in one scene, and then dark and gloomy in a later scene. Keep it the same.
  • Avoid “Double Vision”. You want the reader to be inside the story. By saying that the character saw something, you’re calling attention to the act of sight, rather than what they’re seeing. Don’t say “Samantha saw the large flock of birds diving toward her.” It is already be in Samantha’s point of view. So you can just say, “the large black flock of birds dove down, cawing and screeching.”

And finally, a nice summation from Jericho Writers 8 Steps For Writing Great Descriptions
Set the scene early on
Build a sense of place with telling details
Be selective, not comprehensive
Write for all the senses
Get place and action working together
Use unfamiliar locations (and research!)
Foreshadow
Be creative: specific is good, unexpected is better!”

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