Ever hear a joke and have the teller explain the punch line? Or worse, have the moral of a story spelled out, like you’re too dumb to get it — or the speaker is worried you won’t?
That’s how a reader feels when you misuse description.
Description: An Essential Building Block of Prose
There are several reasons you need to use description in your writing. Think of these reasons as goals you want to accomplish:
- To make your readers feel a particular feeling
- To draw an accurate picture of your character
- To convey mood
- To show time and place
- To give context
Done correctly, your readers will feel all the right things, have sympathy or antipathy for all the right people, and understand the point you’re trying to get across. Done incorrectly, you will either bore the daylights out of them or cause them to put away your book, article, or blog.
Now don’t get me wrong: you’re allowed to somewhat
manipulate guide readers into feeling what you’d like them to feel, or into understanding the point of your story. But as with almost everything in life, moderation is the name of the game.
What One Brilliant Paragraph Can Teach Us
Here’s an outstanding example of an opening-page description by one of my favorite authors, Anna Quindlen, from Still Life with Bread Crumbs. See if you can pinpoint where Quindlen has met many of the goals of description outlined above.
We have learned several things from just three beautiful sentences. You’ll see below why I’m color-coding them:
- Rebecca is living in a mountain cabin that is falling apart.
- She’s not too savvy about country houses.
- She has a problem that she doesn’t quite know how to solve — and wouldn’t it be great if it could just solve itself?
- Things aren’t going quite so well in her life right now.
How to Bore Your Readers to Death in One Easy Lesson
Now let’s learn the same information in a blander, more “telling” way:
Rebecca lived in a broken-down mountain cabin. It was situated in a hollow halfway to the top. The cabin was totally falling apart: the kitchen floor was uneven, there was a loose step out to the backyard, and there were no electrical outlets in the bedroom. City girl that she was, she hadn’t noticed these things until two days after she moved in. She had no idea what time it was because she couldn’t plug in her old alarm clock. Rebecca’s life was falling apart, just like the house.
It’s not a great paragraph, and it’s certainly not as interesting and nuanced as Quindlen’s. (Ever notice how interesting and nuanced often go together?) It has four times the amount of “to be” words as Quindlen’s paragraph.The facts are just stated, and they are told instead of shown. And it’s kind of boring.
Here’s Quindlen’s paragraph again, color-coded to match the information we listed above:
She had no idea what time it was. When she had moved into the ramshackle cottage in a hollow halfway up the mountain, it had taken her two days to realize that there was a worrisome soft spot in the kitchen floor, a loose step out to the backyard, and not one electrical outlet in the entire bedroom. She stood, turning in a circle, her old alarm clock in her hand trailing its useless tail of a cord, as though, like some magic spell, a few rotations and some muttered curses would lead to a place to plug it in. Like much of what constituted Rebecca’s life at that moment, the clock had been with her far past the time when it was current or useful.
I have chosen three of Quindlen’s description techniques, which you can use in your own writing to make it more effective and to get, as it were, more bang for your buck:
- She conveys more than one fact or idea in the same passage. For instance, in the second sentence, we learn that Rebecca used to live somewhere else, that the place she moved into is falling apart, and that she must be a city girl if it takes her so long to figure out the house is in serious need of repair.
- She makes use of tools such as metaphor and simile while describing a character. Take a look at the passage in green. What is Rebecca doing? Is she “standing up and looking around for an outlet, hoping to find one”? Well, yes, but see how the words and techniques Quindlen chooses teach us so much more about her personality while she’s looking for a place to plug in her clock.
- She uses industrial-strength verbs and adjectives, nouns with nuance, and nary an adverb. 1) There are only two “to be” verbs in this entire 126-word passage. 2) Look how much we learn from a hard-working adjective such as “ramshackle” tacked on to the unexpected noun “cottage.” Wouldn’t you have expected “cabin,” or even “house”? Doesn’t “cottage” usually summon up coziness, gentility, order? 3) With words like these, who needs an adverb?
You too can develop description skills. Just keep your goals in mind as you write. Take advantage of meaning-rich words, but don’t get dramatic or overuse metaphor and simile.
You are walking a tightrope between pungency and nuance. Subtlety is the key here. Don’t shove anything down your reader’s throat.
Try writing a paragraph about a seventeen-year-old girl and a bicycle. Send it in to me and I’ll post the three best on my Writer’s Clinic page.
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