Monday, April 25, 2011

My Description Journey

Once, way back in middle school, as I was talking to a good friend of mine, I brought up a girl I had introduced to her a few months before. “Oh!” she said. “You mean the girl in the yellow dress?” I frowned. Did she actually remember other people by what they were wearing? I never noticed anyone's clothes!

(As I realized later, that was probably why I had such horrible fashion sense.)

My lack of observational skills didn't end with clothing, though. To this day I will often go into the grocery store looking for one particular item, and I can find the right aisle and stare at the item for ten minutes without seeing it. I've come to accept my blindness to the world around me (a feature, not a bug, I tell myself, because if I weren't so much in my own head I wouldn't be making up stories). But the one downside for writing is that I struggle with description.

For a long, long time description has been my sore spot, the part of writing that I detested. The setting didn't matter to me. I was so much more interested in the people and what they were doing. My first novels had only the barest mentions of the characters' surroundings, and only when the outside world intruded on the action. In later novels I sketched out a little more, if only because I knew I had to, but most of the details were of the dreary, expected variety: everyday furniture in an everyday room, repetitive features on a repetitive face.

But finally in the past year I've begun to enjoy description. I love picking out the unique details that bring a setting to life. Description has become a hunt for the unexpected and a personal challenge to find the one piece that says more than a hundred other words could.

So when one of my critique partners wrote the following about chapter one of Unmade, I was pretty excited: “I thoroughly enjoyed your initial descriptions of the neighborhood... the fact that you used more than one sense to describe her surroundings... Deftly done and all good stuff.” Yay! If I'm finally learning to put these things in the first draft, I must be making progress.

How about you? Do you love description? Hate it? What are your tricks for making it pop?


  1. I love it when I'm writing from the POV of Jules, who is a painter (and therefore tends to think in terms of lots of vivid colors and images). I love it sometimes when I am writing nonfiction, and can draw on my own artistic background.

    I love it a lot less when I'm writing the POV of a character who doesn't see the world with a painter's eyes. In that case, I really have to work to make myself include description.

    Ah, well. Right now for me, it's one of those second draft things. :-)

    But I have definitely noticed your descriptions improving across your drafts--a lot. You've done some great work!

  2. I've always sensed my surroundings on several levels so description is something I really enjoy writing. The only time I get frustrated with description is when my words aren't living up to what I have in my head. >:( That's when I have to walk away from it for a while - take a break, gain new perspective. It's not much of a trick but it works.

  3. Thanks, Ico :) And I do love seeing the world through Jules's eyes.

    Kendra - You know, I'm almost glad I don't see that many details in the world, because I think I'd have the same frustration. I guess I almost prefer having to build the description out of a scene instead of trying to describe a perfect image in my mind.

  4. I go back and forth on description. I like to write it, but I have to admit, my eyes glaze over if I read too much of it. I like finding that perfect line between the two - just enough to give you a good sense of the world and not enough to bore the reader :)

  5. Balance, yes. Why does *everything* require balance? :) With so many fine lines to walk it's a wonder we can ever get them all to meet in one story!