You know, I’m finding out that trying to conjure up description for fiction writing is as likely as trying to conjure up the ghost of dear Edward Bulwer-Lytton himself, the English novelist who originally penned that opening. We all want beautifully described scenes and characters, the sort that leaves our audience breathless. The problem is when it becomes bloated or without purpose and upstages the story like a singer trying to out sing the choir. Please, save it for your solo career.
I love authors who can find balance. When I first began writing fiction I tried to mimic them. I figured, hey, if you read enough of what they’ve written it’s bound to rub off on you right? Well unfortunately it doesn’t rub off or on, but it can be learned and practiced. Here are a few tips for improving your description.
Make it flow intricately with what you are describing
Stephen King in On Writing writes about a piece of description he read that just simply didn’t work: ‘He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.’ Nope. There is nothing in this simile that connects. It seems to be thrown in there just for the sake of having description.
On the other hand, the character Leo in author Pat Conroy’s, South of Broad describes the city of Charleston: “I survey my city as it lay simmering in the hot-blooded saps of June while the sun began to set, reddening the vest of cirrus clouds that had gathered along the western horizon.” It flows naturally within the scene. With each broadening, colorful stroke of description he is painting a scene that is vivid and clear and suddenly Charleston comes alive.
See vs. Feel
Let’s face it we don’t read books just to know what happened; for that we can read a newspaper. But in books, especially fiction we want the writer to take us there. Description is not so much about what you see but what you feel. Ultimately, what we want to provide for the reader is an experience.
Jane Fitch, the author of White Orleander writes about sensual writing—appealing to all of the senses. Descriptions are given in layers—what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste.
- Angle for Description. Literal description is limited. Fitch talks about coming in at an angle; using synesthesia—using once sense to describe another. Wine tasters are famous for doing this. They move past the bitter or sweet of it. A wine is often described as crisp, leathery, young or sharp. A wine has legs or is flabby. Start with the literal and work your way through the other senses.
- Evoke sense memory. Smells and sights aren’t just for one dimensional interpretation but for the memory which they evoke.
Fitch writes: “Memory lies coiled within us like a magician’s trick handkerchief, and a simple smell or taste can pluck the tiniest corner and pull out the world.” The senses are the stimuli to the memory. The memory captures the experience.
Don’t overdo it
We as writers like the sound of our own voice. If your description is more impressive than the character, chances are you need to lighten up a bit. The goal is to be transported into the story through the character, not to be lost in all of the pretty colors. Remember it doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated, just on point. Maya Angelou describes her grandmother in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now: “She was seventy-nine when I met her, sinewy, strong and the color of old lemons…With her high cheekbones, old gold skin, and almond eyes, she looked more like an Indian chief than an old black woman.” It is simple and on point.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I am constantly wearing my writer’s hat. And the fun thing is that I can wear it in public without anyone being aware of it but me. I see people at the bank, the grocery store or at the park and I began to describe them in my head. I try to describe people I see in the way I would if I were writing about them. I think not just about how they look, but the way they move, the manner in which they take the money from the clerk, how they speak to their children, the way they smile and walk or touch their moustache or laugh. All of these mannerisms tell us so much about a person. It can be done with places too. Is it hot? How hot is it? Is it a sweltering heat or a dry heat? What does the smell of it remind me of?
The more you use descriptors, the easier it gets.