Friday, August 5, 2011

Making the World Sound Pretty (A Look at Description)

Sure, it has a nice beat, but can you dance to it?

That's how the art of description seems sometimes. Sure, it sounds nice. It certainly sounds accurate. But does it make me want to keep reading? A lot of times, the answer is no. Nothing bores me more than description that seems too detailed without some emotional element to drive me forward.

Consequently, my own ability to write description needs work. And it's something that I've given time to, because it's important to readers to know where they are. Not enough description, and the reader floats in the ether, like spacemen set adrift in outer space. Slowly floating away. They have nothing to tether them to the world of the novel.

But too much description leads to overload. It can read like a lawyer's list of assets. "Make sure you get all the items in the house down on paper before we have the estate sale, Fred." The details you choose to focus on have to mean something to the reader. More importantly, they have to mean something to your characters. After all, you don't notice every single thing in a room they enter for the first time, unless you're participating in a psych study that asks you to remember as much as you can about the room. The rest of us notice some stuff...the stuff we care about, find interesting, have never seen before, long to own...

And then there's the problem of using metaphors. You don't want your description to sound trite... Dead as a doornail, white as a ghost, red as a lobster. All overused. But you don't want your description to sound ridiculous either. This is hard work, this descriptive writing.

Here are a few descriptive sentences I have written over the past few months, that just might be better than my usual work. (Or worse. You'll have to let me know what you think.)

  • Clouds rose up tall, dark as smoke from a wildfire, and just as wild. (I don't like the repetition of wild.)
  • The trees crouch small and low to the ground, as though they dare not reach too high and attract unwanted notice. (Maybe small and low to the ground are repetitious?)
  • The trees have skinny arms. (Skinny branches. Is that clear?)
  • The cars whip by like multicolored snakes. (Like a multicolored train?)
  • The dog takes tiny, chunky steps, like a lively but aging old man, full of laughter but not capable of much action. (I like this one, though it may still need polishing.)

So, what do you think? Do you have trouble with description? Or is that an area where your writing shines? Feel free to share an example of a descriptive sentence you like from your own writing. I'd like to see a tiny view of what you're up to!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. Good post, Michele. Description is like seasoning... a little bit goes a long way.

  2. Good post, and Bob is right, description is like seasoning, because without it our stories are bland.


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