The art of evocative description
Descriptions are an integral part of any story. They help the reader picture the characters and settings in their minds. But descriptions are a sensitive area, and they are probably the part that is easiest to do very badly. Some descriptions go on forever, others are muddled, and we read them without retaining a single useful detail, not even an idea of what we’re trying to picture. Descriptions are especially difficult, because, as writers, the vast majority of us are driven by action, which makes describing a difficult task, but the vast majority of readers are also driven by action, which makes them critical of description. Think about it this way: if I told you, “this morning, when Jane walked out of her home, she was hit by a car”, what would your response be? Most likely, it would be, “is she all right” or “what happened after”, not “what does her house look like” or “is Jane blonde” or “what color was the car”.
Before I get into technical advice on how to write them, I have to say that description depends on a skill called visualization. That is basically the capacity of the writer to see what he or she is describing by simply closing their eyes and going there in their mind. This talent is essential, and although not everyone has it naturally, it is possible to develop it. If picturing things precisely in your mind is not something that comes naturally, try doing this exercise as you go to bed and close your eyes to sleep: try to picture a place. It can be a real place, or a place from your imagination, but try to picture it as accurately as you can; imagine what it looks like, what kind of ground is under your feet, what it feels like to be there, what you can smell, and hear. When you have it, next, try to picture someone, again, real or imagined. Try to picture the way they look, the way their clothes move when they sit, the sound of their voice, everything that you would normally notice about a person. Now imagine you are interacting with them in that place. If you do this often enough, it will become a skill, and besides, this is the first thing you should try doing when you’re stuck in a scene, so it becomes a very useful skill.
The first thing to remember about description, is that they must be placed at exactly the right point in the story. They must NEVER interfere with the flow of action. Remember what I said about pace, how there was a sort of ebb and flow between high-action moments and quieter moments? Well, the best place to put a description is in the quiet moments. That also create its own difficulty: they are not the moments when your reader holds his breath and bites his nails and can’t wait to turn the page, and a lengthy description at that moment would kill your already fragile momentum. So what could the solution be? Keep it short, concrete, and active.
Descriptions really should be concise. You should pick as few details as you can to be able to still be clear: when your descriptions are too long, they not only become huge blocks of text that the reader tends to skip, but they also dilute the effect you are trying to achieve. In the words of Walter Mosley, from his book This year you write your novel: “Details will devour your story unless you find the words that want saying.”
Be as clear as possible. When you describe, you are not trying to create a mystery, you are trying to convey an image or a sensation. Which means the descriptive terms you use should be as precise as possible, and you should choose specific details instead of trying to describe every last thing about what you are describing. You are trying to create an impression, not write a list. Creating an impression is the true goal of the description: readers will retain the impression you are trying to create, and as a whole, will have a much better, and more consistent interpretation of your descriptions than they would otherwise. For example, when Heinlein said “the door dilated”, he could have chosen a lengthy description of the mechanical process by which it was made possible for the door to accomplish that. Instead, he chose one verb, and we can all picture exactly what that looks like easily instead of having to work backwards from a long technical explanation.
So what does that mean, creating an impression?
Try to think of the sensation you wish to represent. Is it that the building is huge? Impressive? Well-designed? Is it that the landscape is cold? Dry? Forbidding? Is it that the character seems kind? Warm? Crazy? Pick one, and then choose the details that would best represent this feeling. When you’ve chosen the details, next, choose the words with which you describe them. Words should be chosen by what they evoke in the reader; for example, blanket evokes warmth and comfort; and while snow is cold, anyone that lives in a cold country knows that crisp snow is really cold and heavy, wet snow is not that bad, and can be kind of fun. Have fun with words, while you’re doing that: the English language permits us to move things around and adapt certain expressions, and make use of things like personifications.
Try to represent the concrete rather than the abstract. A lot of people have a hard time with the distinction, but it’s really simple: something concrete is something that represents a sensation. A sensation is not a feeling; a sensation is something that can be experienced through one of the five sense, touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. A feeling is abstract; it represents an emotion, or an idea, and is not conducive to evoking a sensation. What does that mean, concretely? Well, instead of having your character reminisce about how what he or she sees makes them feel, try to think about that they are experiencing with their senses.
Finally, no matter what or how you do it, you should try to have fun with everything that you write, and that includes description. Make it a game, of trying to find what words your POV character would use, and what kind of details he or she would notice. And most importantly, if description is a pain in the ass, use it sparingly, and your reader will thank you. In fact, readers are most likely to be really annoyed by a terribly lengthy description than to notice that it’s missing entirely.