Descriptions – The Angels are in the Details!

Descriptions are some of my favorite things to do. But they’re not easy to write well.

Descriptions have changed over the years.  Stienbeck’s The Gapes of Wrath was published in 1939. Here’s the beginning:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Steinbeck fan, but that was before TV, Netflix, apps, and Xbox. Back when readers had time to linger over prose – through long, quiet, boring winter nights. I don’t care how great a word-smith you are, you’re not likely to describe a sunrise better than the great authors in history.

The good news is, you don’t need to.

Because readers don’t come to your novel looking for a new, fresh sunrise description. Promise.

They come for engagement.

They come for a great character they can relate to (or totally not) in a situation that puts their beliefs, values, or lives in danger. In a word, conflict!

So what does description have to do with this? Tons. Descriptions nowadays have to do double, and sometimes, triple duty. Because through it, you can show: worldbuilding, tone, foreshadowing, and most important, emotion.

Let’s look at each of those separately.

  • Worldbuilding

Most of this type of description is (as it needs to be) at the beginning of a novel. Even there, though, your descriptions need to do double-duty.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Suzanne Collins‘, Hunger Games:

See what she did there, in two sentences? You know the world you’ve been thrust into is spare, poor, bleak . . . and scary. That’s also a good example of foreshadowing.

World building is important in every novel, not just fantasy and Sci-Fi.

The realtor Mama recommended was a friend from her days on teh Appalachian craft fair circuit. Verna had a hairless Chihuahua named Mistake and a distended tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil running across her belly. I knew this second-hand, thank God. The point is, in my hour of need, this is who Mama turned to for sound advice.

Kimberly Brock‘s River Witch

What do you get of this character’s world just from the first paragraph? You also see a lot of Kimberly’s beautiful voice there, too.

  • Tone

I want to tell you some important things before we start our journey.

I lived through it all. That’s one problem about relating events in first person. The reader knows the narrator didn’t get killed.

Robert McGammon‘s Boy’s Life

You don’t need to read the back blurb to know this is a scary book, right?

“Come on, baby,” he murmured. “Give it up for me. You know you want to.”

Jade Bennett did her best to ignore the way the low, sexy voice made her shiver. Besides, it wasn’t aimed at her. Dr. Dell Connelly–dog whisperer, cat whisperer, horse whisperer, and known woman whisperer–was talking to a stray kitten.

Jill ShalvisAnimal Attraction

Lighthearted and fun, a rollicking romance. Right?

  • Foreshadowing

Girls stretched and writhed under the hot water, squalling, flicking water, squirting white bars of soap from hand to hand. Carrie stood among them stolidly, a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color. It rested against her face with dispirited sogginess and she simply stood, head slightly bent, letting the water splat against her flesh and roll off. She looked the part the the sacrificial goat, the constant butt, believer in left-handed monkey wrenches, perpetual foul-up, and she was. She wished forlonrnly and constantly that Ewen High had individual-and thus private-showers.

Stephen King’s Carrie

Even if you’d never seen the infamous shower scene at the beginning of the movie, you’d know this isn’t going to end well, just from the word usage, right?

  • Emotion

To me, this is the most important. A description should convey an emotion to the reader. Like Hugo did here, in Les Miserables

Do you see that the one light detail he highlighted darkens the entire feel? Brilliant.

So how do you do that? That’s where the details come in.

Think about it; the view of the sun rising over the bay will look different to a woman whose child is missing than to a woman who’s just fallen in love. The way you’d describe that sunrise for each, shows your focus, and sets a tone.

The details you’d choose to show that will be different than mine – and that’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s been written before, because it hasn’t been written by YOU.

Take, for example, a description of a junior high school dance.

The faint whiff of sweat from the locker rooms, mingling with your date’s cheap perfume. Don’t just tell us the character is nervous. We can guess that. Tell us what we don’t know. You can show that Junior high school awkwardness in description as well: a glimpse of a white bra at the gap in a sleeveless dress, a wobbly ankle in heels, a tug at a too-tight waistline. I love in the movie Footloose – remember the how awkward the dance was at first?  The guy picking his nose? Great detail.

Here’s how the master, Pat Conroy did it:

When I entered the dimly lit gymnasium, the awful reminder hit me like a well-aimed meteorite that I had never been to a high school dance before and had no idea how to conduct myself. Nor was I sure how to set my face – a confident smile, an easy nonchalance, a cocky watchfulness. I found myself simply defenseless as I felt my face congeal into a dewy lostness.

See what he did? He didn’t focus on sweat, discomfort, etc. That would be the norm. What lifts this above that is him focusing on one small part of it; how he holds his face. I’ve never seen it described that way, and yet I’ll bet everyone can relate to this feeling. Dewy lostness – Conroy slays me.

Whatever you do, be sure your description of a pretty sunrise is telling the reader about more than just the sunrise.

Do you have any other tips for us on writing descriptions? You you have a great one to share?

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