Cindy Hiday

Description.

The effectiveness of all writing depends in part on description's image-making power. The more specific your word choices are, the clearer your description will be to the reader.

Description isn't a "grocery list" of images and sensations. Pick up a book and turn to a page of description, a passage where a character or a room is being introduced to the reader. What's happening? Did the action stop so the author could tell you about the room and everything in it? The furnishings, the flowers on the table, the wood the table's made of (do you really know, walking into a room, what kind of wood was used? Does it matter to the story? If it represents status, perhaps, but often it's just another piece of furniture).

Writing description doesn't mean writing more. Do you come to a block of description in a story and skim down the page to where the action picks up again? Or read a list of a character's physical attributes and still don't know anything about the character?

The viewpoint you use will determine what details to include. Different characters will notice different things when they walk into a room. For example, a boy and his little sister will remember different images from a train station that they're seeing for the first time. Or they'll remember the same images differently. The boy will probably remember the engines as being huge and powerful and fascinating, where the sister may remember them as being intimidating and loud and smelly. Choose the images that reflect the character they are being experienced through. Employ smells, tastes, textures and sounds.

John Gardner said, "Detail is the lifeblood of fiction." But it isn't just detail that distinguishes good writing, it is detail that individualizes. In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein calls it "particularity." During his decades as an editor and publisher, what drew Stein's attention to a piece of work more than any other factor was the use of apt particularities, the detail that differentiates one person from another, one act from another, one place from any others like it. Take this example:

The estate was magnificent, with beautiful gardens everywhere.

Can you picture that magnificent estate with its beautiful gardens? Of course not. Words like "magnificent" and "beautiful" are vague and have so many different meanings, they really don't convey any picture at all. Describe the estate in specific details that allow readers to come to their own "magnificent" conclusion. Make sure the picture they get is the one you want them to have, not because they're told what to think in general, but because the writing is detailed enough to let them see, hear, taste, touch and smell it for themselves.


Recommended reading:

Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published by Michael Seidman

The Truth About Fiction by Steven Schoen

On Writing by Stephen King

If a picture says a thousand words, what is this one saying?

Wallowa Mountains