You want to write fiction. Or perhaps you’ve written a novel and an editor has told you that your novel needs work. One of the easiest ways to improve your fiction is to help your readers to engage fully with your story, so that your readers to experience what your characters experience. You do that via your descriptions.
A tip — in your first draft, just write. Focus on what you want to achieve with your descriptions in later drafts. Invariably, writing good descriptions depends on thought. In your first draft, you’re discovering your story. You can only shade and color your story by working with your descriptions in later drafts, when you know the story you want to tell.
When you write fiction, your descriptions create the effect you want to achieve
When you think “description”, adjectives and adverbs leap to mind. You reach for a thesaurus. 🙂 Please don’t do that. To write great descriptions, think about the effects you want to achieve.
Consider the difference between:
“He was handsome.”
“He had a bellowing voice and addressed women in a loud cheerful way, just as if he was speaking to a man. I never saw my mother so lively as when Kenny Smoke called.”
(From His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.)
Neither of the above descriptions is “better” than the other.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a girl who’s been tricked into a blind date. The single sentence “He was handsome” can be very effective when it describes her shock — she was picturing going out to dinner with a gargoyle.
Essentially “description” covers everything in your novel, because everything depends on what effects you want to achieve.
Let’s look at a couple of tips.
1. Just one vivid detail helps your readers to see your character
I was around eight years old when I wrote my first novel. I loved describing everything. The more adjectives the better. Luckily, in high school I had an English teacher who weaned me from scattering adjectives and adverbs like confetti without considering what effect I wanted to achieve.
There’s a school of thought that suggests that when you introduce a character, you should devote five sentences to his description. You can do that of course, but you’ll get the biggest effect if you focus on just one vivid detail.
“His ruddy cheeks looked as if he had a pair of Ping-Pong balls tucked inside his mouth.”
(From A Place of Execution by Val McDermid.)
2. Avoid describing using labels. Instead, use those labels to develop your setting and plot
The big challenge with beginning authors’ descriptive passages is that they’re static. They stop the story dead. Labels are fine in a first draft, when you’re working out your characters and plot.
In later drafts, have characters reveal themselves by their actions. Show your characters going places, and doing things, rather than merely thinking. When you find yourself labeling — telling — via narration, show your character in action instead.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a New Adult novel, and you’ve labelled your female lead as “adventurous.” That label means nothing if you don’t show it.
Show her on a white water rafting vacation, and skidding her car in an advanced driving course. You’ve made your novel more interesting because of the settings of these scenes, and you’ve also moved your plot forward.
Description is everything in your novel: improve your descriptions and you’ll improve your novel
Have fun with your descriptions when you write fiction. Remember the effect you want to achieve in a scene; use a single vivid detail to make the scene come alive.
And if you spot a label, use it as a suggestion to develop your novel’s settings and plot.