Description Prescription

I’ll admit it. I hate, hate, hate description. Most of the time, it bores me. If you give me a huge block of description, I can almost guarantee that I’ll fall asleep by the end of the page. True story. But obviously, I can’t write a story with zero description and expect it to get published.

Now, I can regurgitate many of the “rules” (guidelines? suggestions?) when it comes to description:

Limit it to three details that focus on what’s different and then move on to something else.

For example, if you walk into a room and there’s a table, most people know what a table is. No need to go into great detail unless there’s something peculiar about it. Does it matter that it has four legs? No, but it does matter if those legs are rickety. Do I need to know everything that is on said table? No, but an unattended lit cigarette says many things. So does having dried milk splatters, etc.

But if I read a story that goes on and on about a table (or 3 pages of pancakes), I’m probably going to start skimming after the second sentence. I believe my writing suffers because of my aversion to most things descriptive.

Any ideas to help me with this problem? Are there any writers whose description you find absolutely beautiful?

I’d also LOVE to see some of the best description you’ve written…but, please, no more than a couple paragraphs of it in a post. Show me what you’ve got!

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Not my idea, but Lisa Cron’s (Story Genius) is that description has to serve the story by affecting what the protagonist is doing or how they interpret what’s happening. Basically it emulates life when you are noticing and conciously ‘see’ things that are useful to your situation and what’s on your mind/your mood. The details that are extraneous, no matter how poeticlaly written will get you to skim. The details that jive with the protagonist’s advancing story will keep your immersed.

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Advice I’ve heard and agree with: focus on the unique / unusual. Or try to focus on details your character would notice, if they’re in new settings or there’s something different with a familiar setting. In my passage, my mc’s seeing something different with a familiar setting.

Three paras: for context, this is when my MC is seeing the first demonstration that is part of a Civil War.

Avery shrugged, joining Tristan and his father, watching a memory in a place Avery was familiar with—the gates to the Inner city. But the area wouldn’t have been recognizable if she hadn’t seen the wrought iron gate and the sentries guarding the ornamental doorway engraved with the Regalis crest. The circular intersection of the Outer Ring had been completely transformed.

The junction was usually deserted this time of the day, everyone would be at to work save for a few stragglers. Today, it was packed to the brim with people, people who looked like they’d come from all the corners of Regina. She could see the straight-haired people from the North with their yellow skin and dark hair—the refugees and travelers from Dao. Another group stood next to them, the dark-skinned people from the North-Western regions—a product of the cross breeding of the Daons and the tribes that inhabited the West. She could make out a few Lamanis as well; characterized by their dark olive skin and sharp features.

The eastern regions—the nobles’ regions—had sent very few representatives, telling Avery that they’d chosen to side with the king—as they should. Traders and merchants had abandoned the king, choosing to side with the revolt, their fight against the monarchy.

Everyone was shouting, holding up placards and making demands. Sentries pushed the crowd back, trying to keep them from entering the Inner City; a place that had always been banned to commoners. Fear stole over Avery, its icy fingers gripping her heart and squeezing. If this was just the beginning, what more was to come?

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I get descriptive, but I write too little visuals.

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Thank you! This helps. I’ll definitely google Lisa Cron. I feel like I tend to focus on what is essential to the story (setting, what the characters are doing, how they interpret), but it’s what I call bare bones description. If I go into detail about a picture, there’s something significant about it and usually it’s a clue (or a red herring). I’m trying so hard to figure out where I am on that writing curve and how close my work is to being publishable, but I feel it’s my description that really needs work.

Thanks again!

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Thank you! Your description/exposition is beautiful. I envy it. :slight_smile:

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No problem!
And thanks! I’m still learning :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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Okay, so I’ll admit I have a bit of an obsession with description. And a huge purple prose problem. Something I’m trying to get over since I know it’s boring—and weirdly, I can’t usually read huge chunks of description either.

But to write description, I try to envision the place in my head first, taking inspiration from certain real-world things and feelings. From there I’ll find a mood to set—is it welcoming? Menacing? Bright? What light do I wanna paint it in? And I’ll use that mood to find the right adjectives.

This is the opening of my current WIP:

boop

If one were to study Silver Avenue from afar, they probably wouldn’t linger. It was a small collection of about two dozen houses designed to look perfectly unnoticeable. From the spiderweb cracks on the windows to the worn boards that made up the sallowed domestic frames, it matched every other neighborhood in the near vicinity. Decrepit and worn.

The air carried the smell of violence. Spilled blood, maybe, or lingering gunpowder. Snow drifted down, small flakes slowly blurring the world into a white smear. Their simple innocence was set against the dreadful backdrop of the neighborhood, the cold whispering sweet nothings to the distressed air.

That was Sterling.

Poetry and gunpowder.

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Thank you! Your description is absolutely gorgeous. I’m going to study this.

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Thank you so much!!

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Oh you’d hate my writing then. I’m very descriptive :joy: but you won’t see me writing paragraphs about pancakes or anything, so :sweat_smile:

Uh, maybe try to use the five senses instead of just focusing on visuals?

I remember when I was in high school, part of our English class involved writing descriptive pieces. Such pieces were 100% purple prose and 0% plot (if you had a plot you’d be penalized). Since I couldn’t pants a good narrative piece in one hour, I resorted to writing descriptive pieces since I knew I’d definitely get high marks. As a result, my stories have become quite descriptive because I was so used to writing descriptive pieces :joy:

The trick was to imagine a descriptive piece like a single photo, whereas a narrative piece was like a movie. Maybe when trying to write a descriptive piece, pretend you’re taking a photograph of a moment in your story and try to describe that one scene.

Here ya go :joy:

So this is from a descriptive piece I wrote in high school. It’s part of an anthology.

The land had run dry. A sea of dust and dirt flooded the parched surface. Small grains of sand slipped between crevices of an ancient, wrinkled ground. Deep were the cracks that were carved into the sterile soil, but running even deeper was the well in the middle of the plot. It once boasted a belly of fresh groundwater, splashing and trickling sounds emanating from its brick mouth. Now that well was humbled, its pride evaporated, and its life dead and gone. Lest a single drop be gifted from the clouds as a sign of pity, the land might as well become accustomed to its new climate.

Golden yellow and light brown dominated the lands. In the past, the place had boasted a myriad of colors: dark greens adorned the leaves and the dewy grass; vivid violet, banana yellow, and shades of pale pink festooned the flowers; and blood red bricks encircled the orifice to a hidden pool of deep blue. All that had been driven out in favor of black and beige. A little bit of brown and grey was permitted, but anything of a more vibrant hue was forbidden. The barely-existent clouds, clothed in glorious white, and the heavens, with their wardrobe of midnight blue and cyan, seemed to be the only exception. The golden termagant in the sky continued to lash her light onto the Earth. Her heat scorched the soil and dried even the air. The skeletal trees swayed and kneeled before her, as though begging to be relieved of their suffering, but Mother Nature refused. Out of all the habitats in the world, that land was Mother Nature’s prodigal son. Mother Nature was callous and unforgiving - a lesson learned the hard way.

@iiingriiidd! Her short stories are full of such beautiful descriptions and creative metaphors. Unfortunately, I think she deleted her Wattpad account. It’s sad because her stories were truly hidden gems.

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You asked for description, so here’s some description:

Beginning of chapter 4

Every morning, when only a few early birds were on campus, the morning fog rolled down from the hills and enveloped Heller, a chill that condensed on lampposts, dampened leaves of grass, and made those wearing light clothing shiver. On particularly frigid days, when the winds were just right, the temperature dropped below freezing, and those who took morning showers had their hair decorated with shards of ice. Sometimes a student walking too quickly without offering the weather the proper respect would slip and fall, and then a good Samaritan passing by would help them hobble to the nurse’s office, where the employee on duty would warn them sternly about playing when slippery. Those being tended to were apologetic, regardless if they considered themselves at fault for merely walking as an ordinary person would.

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I totally agree with you that description should be minimal. A sentence or two is enough. Too much may give the reader a truly visceral feel for an object, but how important is it that the reader “feels” this object?

Example

Thaddy would later recall the sound of “angry metal” as the stairway ripped away from the building, and a sound like small gunshots as rivets and bolts snapped. The fire escape groaned as it twisted under its load, dumping its cargo on the sidewalk below ─ its own hardware racing the victims to the pavement.

Like, you could go on and on about the smell of smoke and the pain of hot flames consuming a human body, but why? I may be wrong, but I think a good book lets the reader do a little bit of the work themselves. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong, but I too hate a whole lot of description. ¯\_(ﭢ)_/¯

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The only smell I’ve got an interest in detailed explanations of is the smell of pain.

Yes, pain has a smell. It’s not really pleasent.

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Thank you! And, yes, incorporating the five senses definitely helps. I think I might actually try that descriptive piece activity. I think it would help me immensely…either that or have me running for the hills. LOL But it truly sounds like something that could be helpful.

Your description is beautiful!

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Thank you for sharing. I like this description, too, Franklin!

This is my belief through and through. But I worry that I just don’t have enough of it… (I’ll never forget submitting a passage on a critiquing thread and the OP telling me that I should go into more detail about the MC’s vomit, that I actually needed to describe it. Umm…no.)

Your description is absolutely gorgeous. I love that it’s so vivid. I can almost hear those things happening.

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Seriously? Someone wanted you to describe vomit? ʕʘ.ʘʔ

See, to me that’s totally unnecessary, and won’t help the plot any. By the time one’s a pre-teen, they ought to know what vomit is, what it looks like, what it smells like, etc. So why make it any more explicit to the reader? I really don’t see how that would help the book…

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I kid you not… She gave a ton of bad advice on that particular excerpt. She didn’t like my use of “spitting snow” and recommended I use “throwing snow,” but she had never actually seen or touched snow to know the difference. She’d also claimed that I had lots of grammatical errors, so I asked her to name three. She listed two which were actually correct. (I should add that I’d run that baby through ProWritingAid no fewer than three times…and I paid close attention to those red and green squiggly marks on MS Word. For a few hours, I thought, “Wow, did I go to sleep last night and forget everything I learned about the English language? If so, the guy who’s paying me $400 to edit his story is about to be majorly disappointed.”

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I really love that rule—it’s very true to what I try to do. Not because I hate description (I honestly love it), but because description can be something that I have trouble with as well. I’m both an under writer and an over writer, and sometimes, I consider it a curse. Haha.

But the idea of leaving few things to say, and keeping them short, sweet, and to the point is a great start to describing whatever it is you’re trying to detail. You don’t want to go on and on about how someone looks unless there’s certain things about their look that is very different, like their pink hair or how they wear a bunny costume while shopping at Walmart. Something that will capture your character’s eye when they first see them.

One of my favorite pieces of description from my current novel.

After a few moments, they began to hover over a grove of burnt trees. This would’ve been a forest if it weren’t for the Victorian sorcery that destroyed it. Past the trees, however, was a ruined village. Stones and wood scattered across a field of dead grass and sand. He wasn’t sure which direction they were heading toward, but he guessed North. For all he knew, this was Hiroko’s home. The place she grew up. Dilapidated.

A surge of depression and trauma overwhelmed him, crashing into his veins like a wave sucking him under the depths of the sea, grasping his legs and pulling him deep into the sand, into the trenches of the ocean. A flashback of when he was a boy sprung into the corners of his mind and engulfed his vision with his past.

Fire. Lots of fire. Everywhere.

Blood curdling screams filled the air.

Smoke clouding his sight. Couldn’t see which way to go, what was in front of him.

Adrenaline raced through his body as he searched for someone. My brother. When his eyes landed on his little brother who had lay motionless on the floor, soaked in a pool of blood, Nicolas knew the answer to the awful question that poked at his brain. But as he kneeled, sobbing uncontrollably, Nicolas couldn’t let go. He couldn’t turn away despite the crackling flames that grew higher and bigger, obliterating the house piece by piece.

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