Description is one of those magical elements of prose. Whether it’s “good” or not is entirely subjective. One author’s Mozart is another’s Metallica. But, regardless of your preferences, there are some techniques and literary tools you can use to tighten your sentences and sharpen your description. Here are just five tricks you can use.
1) It’s all About the Impact
Stories are told through the eyes of your protagonist or narrator. Nothing should happen in your story without your protagonist coming into contact with an object, event, or problem etc. When that interaction happens, a writer usually describes the ‘what’ of the event, character or object encountered. While that’s interesting, it’s not what makes a reader connect with the protagonist or plot.
What makes a reader connect is the emotion in the story. So how do you convey emotion when the protagonist is walking in a street, or meeting a new character, or discovering a sword?
Instead of describing the physical ‘what’ of what the interaction is, describe the impact it has on your protagonist. Here’s an example:
He smiled and thrust his palm out, shaking everyone’s hand in turn. When he gets to me, I hesitate. I swear a sneer passes over his mouth but it’s so fast I can’t be sure. I reach out and shake. He feels icy, like the blue in his eyes. The rest of the village might be taken with the new mayor, but I’ve seen under his skin, there’s something dark there, something cold and I won’t be fooled by his silky words.
Here, the mayor’s impact on every other character is a positive one. But he unnerves the protagonist and makes her wary. While the blue of his eyes is described, it’s the impact that creates the effect. They’re icy, like his hands. This shows how the protagonist feels about the character she’s meeting.
2) Focus on Character Quirks
When introducing characters to your story, there’s a few tricks you can use to ensure your characters stand out to your reader. While you do need to describe their physical appearance, what makes a character more memorable are their quirky features.
For example, if I say Sherlock Holmes, I bet one of the first things that comes to you isn’t his hair colour or eye colour, but the fact he’s a pipe smoking genius. Or maybe you pictured his striking Deerstalker hat? Whatever came to mind, I doubt it was the minutiae of hair and eye colour, though that’s what most writers describe first.
For each of your characters, create your normal physical description, but make sure you add one or two quirks. In Sherlock’s example, he has: a pipe, Deerstalker hats, tweed, and a magnifying glass.
Keep these details in a list or table with all your other characters so you can avoid duplication. Then when you introduce your characters, instead of focusing on the normal details, mention those in passing and have your protagonist notice the unusual quirks your new character has. It makes them much more memorable.
3) Cut the Filter Words
Filtering is when you, the author, add in unnecessary narration, causing the reader to be removed one step from the character, for example:
• I heard
• I saw
• I felt
• I thought
While there’s nothing wrong with these words, you want the reader to see your story from the eyes of your protagonist. That way they witness the action first hand as if they actually are the protagonist. However, when you filter instead of the reader looking through the eyes of the protagonist, they look at the protagonist observing the scene, for example:
I heard an owl hooting in the trees and a moment later I saw the canopy leaves rustle as if replying.
The reader doesn’t need to read the word “heard” or “saw” because it’s implied in the description of the sound.
An owl hooted in the trees and a moment later the canopy leaves rustled as if replying.
4) Specificity is King
Generalities make your prose bland, and bland is boring. The more specific you are, the clearer the image you create. Choosing the level of detail you use is a stylistic tactic for creating a specific effect.
Giving a lot of specific detail means your reader will spend more time with that concept in your story. Detail—and I mean specific detail—slows the pace of your story. It’s a valid technique, if you want to create a distraction or red herring, but also it’s important to remember it does affect your story pace. In characterization terms, when something is important to your protagonist, they should spend longer describing that ‘thing’.
Let’s put this into practice.
She put her glass on the floor and walked out.
Simple enough. Doesn’t give much of an image in your mind’s eye though. Let’s try again.
She threw the glass on the floor and marched out.
Better, a little more image because we’ve used stronger verbs. But I think we can improve it again.
She threw the glass on the floor. It shattered; crystal shards skittered over the tiles. She glared at me and marched out, sharp splinters crunching under her heels.
This creates far sharper imagery, but it’s also longer—three sentences instead of one. If you used this level of specific imagery all the time, your novel would be a thousand pages long. There’s a time and a place, which leads me nicely into the final tip.
5) Showing and Telling
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the original debates in story history. But over time it turned into a cardinal rule, and it really isn’t. It’s a great piece of general guidance to err on the side of showing when trying to evoke imagery, but sometimes you just need to tell. So let’s clear this up.
In technical terms, telling is a second-hand report where the characters report the facts to the reader. The reason this is so often deemed as a negative is because it’s disengaging.
Showing on the other hand, means creating sentences that draw the reader in and make them feel like they’re experiencing the action for themselves. But when should you show and when should you tell?
Telling is most commonly acceptable:
• In action scenes
• Where there’s a need for pace
• When shifting scenes
• With younger protagonists
• When it’s in character
• When you’re doing complex worldbuilding
• To avoid narrative repetition
When Should You Show?
• Emotional scenes
• Important pivotal scenes
• Areas you want to draw your readers’ attention to
• To slow down the pace
• For characterization
• For worldbuilding
• To foreshadowing
I hope these tips give you a sound starting point for brushing up your descriptions. Ultimately, it’s about balance, a sprinkling of tell, a lashing of show, describing the impact the world and characters have on your protagonist, and keeping the prose immediate by removing filter words. If you’d like more tips on polishing your descriptions, I’ve recently released The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences which is crammed full of tricks and methods like these.
Sacha Black is an author, rebel podcaster, developmental editor and speaker. She has five obsessions: words, expensive shoes, conspiracy theories, self-improvement, and breaking the rules. Sacha writes books about people with magical powers and other books about the art of writing. When she’s not writing, she can be found laughing inappropriately loud, sniffing musty old books, fangirling film and TV soundtracks, or thinking up new ways to break the rules. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her wife and genius, giant of a son. Visit her website, Listen to The Rebel Author Podcast, Join the Rebel Author Community and connect with her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter