Once upon a time, description read much like a classified ad, with all the significant attributes of whatever object the author chose to highlight, listed out one after the other. More recently, this kind of static description has given way to description through action.
While this method may be the best way for writers to create graphic scenes and vivid characters, it is not the only app on the screen. Let’s look at three other devices that contribute to good description.
First, good description utilizes a variety of senses. Rather than limiting depiction of characters or setting to visual aspects, a writer can include sound, touch, taste, or smells to give life to the story. This idea is not new and may seem simplistic.
However, the saying “too much of a good thing” can apply to description, too. I’ve critiqued, judged, or edited work before that seemed bent on providing a five-senses descriptive experience, regardless of whether or not the sounds or smells, tastes or textures mattered to the story. Rather than enhancing the scene, these unnecessary additions bloat the action, slowing the pace.
Picking the right sensory details, then, is the second way writers can build scenes that come alive. The clue is to pick those sensory details that matter to the character at that time, in that place. From Description by Monica Wood:
Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the “telling” details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. …
This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape (pp. 6-7).
A third device at the writer’s disposal when creating powerful imagery is two-pronged: on one hand the writer may employ similes and on the other, metaphors.
A simile is a figurative statement comparing two usually unrelated things or people to one another by using “like” or “as.” The sentence My brother is as tall as my father does not create a simile because the comparison is between two people. However, My brother is as tall as a giraffe does produce a simile.
The metaphor is another figure of speech, more understated and more revealing, according to Ms. Woods.
With a simile, the comparison stops at the end of the sentence; with a metaphor, the reader’s imagination goes on to include all the images and associations that the metaphor implies (Description, p. 14).
Metaphors, like similes, can be created using nouns and adjectives. Example: The boss was coming, our supervisor warned us. And still I wasn’t prepared for the peacock that strutted into the conference room.
Another effective way to create metaphors is to utilize verbs, which some writers already do naturally. Characters burrow under the covers, for example, or fly across the room. These established uses of verbs in a non-literal sense add color to our writing. Creating new and unusual metaphors make our words memorable.
Just For Fun.
I used two metaphors earlier in this post (not as part of an example). Just for fun, see if you can spot them, then write your own or identify the well-known (and oft used) comparison that served as the model for the one I created. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments if you’d like.
Next, look at your work in progress and find places you can deepen your description by creating a simile or metaphor. Enjoy! 😀
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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Good Description” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in June 2011.