Writing is describing, either in precise detail or in emotional terms. If you want to keep an audience, “paint a picture” with words… then move beyond images. Effective description addresses the full sensory experience.
Description uses all parts of speech, though each writer favors a different selection of words. The preference for parts of speech and particular phrases shapes the writer’s style. The use of punctuation — correct or incorrect — also reveals the author’s thought process.
If a writer likes “just the facts, ma’am,” then the writer favors noun-based description. Noun-based description reads like reportage — cold, fact-based, and (in theory, not reality) unbiased.
The Industrial Revolution resulted in a popular belief that science and factual knowledge would reveal the nature of mankind. Realistic art, especially photography, took hold during this period.
Noun-based description uses nouns and “nouns as adjectives” to present information. This form of description began to appear in the second half of the nineteenth century. It regained popularity in the 1950s, making it a “modern” form of description.
A white convertible Mustang driven by a 50-year-old man in an ill-fitting charcoal department store suit pulled up to the light. Distorted “classic rock” blared from the speakers, the vibrations moving the two dozen strands of died brown hair he still possessed.
Notice the use of nouns and noun forms within the passage. The car is a specific model and color. The driver is an exact age. The narrator knows the suit is from a department store. As you read the passage, the image presented is precise.
Though not politically correct, noun-based descriptive writing is considered a “masculine” or “neutral” form of description. Mystery and suspense writers use noun-based descriptions.
Some writers like the “everything does something” approach to description. These writers favor verb-based description. In verb-based descriptive passages, every “thing” seems active.
Western and horror writers like verb-based description because it maintains a sense that the story never stops. The reader moves from action to action, without pause. One way this is accomplished is through personification.
The wind howled as she ran across the dusty plains. Scorching the earth mercilessly, the sun sought any plants not yet destroyed. Together, this couple set forth to ruin us all.
We know the wind does not howl and certainly is not a “she” running across the land. The passage uses personification and verbs to create a sense of intentional action.
Verb-based description, like noun-based, is classified as “masculine” because of the genres favoring the form. However, many writers are adopting this form in a variety of genres.
When most students and new writers think of descriptive writing, they envision “flowery passages seeded with figurative language.” Such writing is adjective-based, relying upon adjectives, adverbs, similes, and metaphors to create images.
Before the Industrial Revolution, people did not travel far. Writers used adjective-based description because they often described people and places with which their audiences were unfamiliar.
Adjective-based description is sometimes called “Victorian” as it was popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature. British readers anticipated the adjective-laden works of Dickens during this period.
Maybe mansions are meant to be cold and musty. I was uncomfortable standing alone in the anteroom, as isolated and outside as I could be. Today might be special for the lady of the house, but for me it was horrible.
Often “emotional” in presentation, adjective-based description is subjective in nature. Sexists that we are, this is “feminine” writing. Adjectives lack the precision of nouns; the description relies upon the point of view of the narrator.
Show or Tell
When an “expert” tells you, “show it, don’t tell it,” that expert has read too many books by other “experts.” Some things cannot be shown, they must be described by a narrator. There are instances when facts are important, but “showing” requires too many words.
To show or tell is a matter of “benefit analysis” — use the method with the greater benefit to readers and creating the most interesting story. Showing is more effective when conveying information essential to the story. But, showing information about a character appearing in only one scene is wasteful.
When to Show
If an event or character is important to plot development, show, don’t tell. It is up to you, as the writer, to determine if an event is important enough to show. The following guidelines are suggestions, not rules.
Show a character’s nature; let words and actions illuminate the character for the reader. Telling about a character loses an audience. The following example reveals the character’s passion in life:
She hobbled up the stairs, sighing heavily with each step, but progressing with the tenacity of a climber in sight of a mountain summit. Her skeleton-like right hand guided her cane from step to step, while from her left hung a large cloth bag. As she reached the top, she smiled.
Her cane fell carelessly to her feet as she reached toward the screaming voices.
“Mrs. Kincaid!” the children yelled.
She hugged each and every one of them. All twenty-six students.
“It’s nice to be back,” she said, leaving the cane behind.
It’s still “telling” if one character describes another. What a character says about others is showing as long as the words demonstrate the nature of the speaker. In other words, what a character says about others is more revealing about the speaker — it exposes biases and prejudices.
“He’s a good enough writer,” Sam said of his colleague. “Of course, he’ll improve with experience.”
If a character is trusted by readers, then what that character says and observes stands in for the author. Readers know this, and accept it. An author cannot avoid “telling” entirely.
When to Tell
Tell readers about events and people when you need to introduce background quickly. Short stories require this more than novels, novels have the need for exposition, too.
No One Can Say
When characters are unavailable, the narrator describes settings. Usually, a character observes the setting, allowing the author to hide, but there are times when no character can offer a description.
Consider a thriller set on an aircraft carrier. No character would have reason to describe the size of the carrier or basic facts like the count of jets, helicopters, and weapons deployed. The narrative has to expose these facts directly, if they are of interest to the readers.
If characters do not have a reason to explain something, then authors have two options: breaking the illusion of realism or telling the reader facts. A medical thriller seems artificial if one surgeon describes a basic procedure to another. Crime novels and television shows are allowed to break reality with procedural discussions, but another audience might not be so tolerant.
On the television show Law & Order, there are few procedural discussions. The illusion of reality is carefully maintained. But on the series CSI, criminologists detail procedures to each other — even though such discussions are highly improbable. Audiences have different expectations.
A novelist would detail the actions of a criminologist or detective, explaining procedures without the need for unrealistic discussions. In this respect, the “telling” in a novel frees the author to maintain realism paradoxically.
When a character remembers the past, “flashbacks” are not needed. State the past and move ahead when appropriate. The author must decide what the most benefial approach is, based on the importance of detail in the memory.
Five (or Six)… Not Three
There are five senses, but writers ignore two of them most of the time — and steer clear of the “sixth” due to the idea among some editors that “intuition” reveals lazy writing. Use all five natural senses if possible, and the sixth when it, too, is appropriate.
Readers should remember their own sensory experiences when you describe a setting or action.
Sight and Sound
It is easy for a writer to describe what is seen and heard by characters. Sight and sound tend to dominate how we perceive the world; it’s only natural they perceive how our characters’ experiences are revealed to readers.
We tend to not notice many of the sights and sounds we encounter. (That’s not a bad thing — if we did notice everything we might go insane.) Characters and narrators do need to notice more than they might in reality.
Sing Lee tried in vain to read the newspaper, but the sounds of the train — click, clack, click, clack — distracted her. Three years, 210 commutes, and she still could not relax on her way into the city. Click, clack, click, clack.
Most of us adapt to commuting and ignore the peripheral sights and sounds. We think about the day ahead, the night before, and the weekend too far away. Characters need to experience more.
Mention the sense of touch to a group of student writers and they assume its only important between two people. Beginning writers forget to describe how things feel — and they “over-describe” how people feel.
Everything has a texture, and many have a temperature that can be detected by touch. Describing how a thing feels to a character makes a scene more easily imagined. Give enough detail that a reader can imagine touching the described item.
The rock was smooth beneath her feet; a thousand others had walked here to look out into the ocean. She felt the sun’s effects in some spots, while others had been cooled by the splashing waves. A cool breeze lifted her hair, tickling her neck. She smiled.
Notice the character in the preceding passage does not use her hands to feel anything. Allows characters to feel with their entire bodies.
Taste and Smell
The two under-appreciated senses are taste and smell. Smell is used occasionally when an odor is too strong or important to be ignored within a story. Romance writers refer to smells more frequently than their colleagues, but even they utilize smell rarely.
Humans do not rely upon taste as other animals do. It isn’t an easy sense to work into a story. The taste of food can be worked into some stories, while other stories never present opportunities to mention taste.
Because taste and smell are not the primary human senses, readers notice when a character smells something or a taste is described. Anything rare carries added weight in writing.
The “sixth sense” might best be identified as intuition, though some prefer the various paranormal terms. People believe instincts exist, even if instinct is the culmination of experiences. A lover’s “instincts” are based on past relationships, for example.
Include hunches, instinct, gut reactions, and other insights of characters in a story. Humans operate on emotions and feelings. Realistic characters rely on their instincts at times.
Synonyms emphasize, while antonyms contrast. Using descriptive language means employing metaphors, similes, synonyms, and antonyms, among other tricks of the trade. Authors should master figurative language and have above-average vocabularies.