Unleashing The Force of Effective Description to Conquer Your Critics.
We're all agreed: everybody loves a good story. Otherwise, you wouldn't be a writer, or trying to be one. And you're likely wondering what the magic formula is that draws readers in and has them in such awe of a book that they can't put it down. You might even dream of writing a book that everyone wants to jump inside of and live within, like the Harry Potter world or The Lord of the Rings. The obvious answer would be that it's the world-building and well-developed characters that enchant the reading public, along with a strong plot. And that would be true, but those are big picture elements that come together over the course of the book. In order to draw in your reader far enough to appreciate those elements, you need to hook them on a more micro-level. Your best weapon for that is your powers of description.
Description really is the writer's secret super power. It can imprison your reader in a dungeon of utter delight. For they often return to beautiful prose and interesting turns of phrase for the pure adoration of the writer's skill. It requires a close attention to the words you provide on the page. Sometimes, because we can imagine our story worlds so vividly, the words we write don't necessarily do our imagination justice. Ultimately, that is the unspoken goal of all fiction writers.
Matching up our prose to our imaginations is hard work, and can often leave the writer disappointed, disillusioned, and ready to give up when their vision doesn't align with the reality of their script. But seasoned writers know that the first fight for your work is with yourself and achieving the highest standards possible. If you are not proud and confident of your abilities, you have no shield of defence. If you are not proud and confident of your abilities (and I mean rightly so, not egotistically and misguidedly so), expect to be shot down by your critique partners or readers.
If this resonates with you, maybe it's time to ask yourself if your descriptive armament is adequately stocked. Are you missing vital munitions or weaponry – quills for your bow (or ink pot)? How do you know if you are, and what should you learn to bolster your writerly war chest? What does it matter, anyway?
Description is the bedrock of any story. It’s a writer’s stealth weapon when executed in the right way. Weak and clumsy descriptive passages will only make readers groan or disengage. They certainly won’t have your book breaking out, making any agent’s eyes pop with admiration and a longing to follow you to the frontline of the battle to publish your book. You need to make them sit up, hear your war cry, and know that you are a serious contender intent on winning the fight. Does that sound rather too combative? Well, it should, because the publishing industry and standing up for your work is no place for wimps. That is to say, you need to prove your book deserves victory over another’s in a bidding war. After you win that, your work needs to warrior its way through its harshest battle of all: reader reviews and maybe even Twitter discussions. You want your work to stand up to literary criticism, right?
Your powers of description will be the first thing by which an editor, agent, or reader will judge your writing. On a conscious or subconscious level, they will decide whether it is stale or stimulating, clichéd or incredible. It plays a role in every aspect, from setting to character development, to action, and it begins its charge from the very first words of your story. Yes, strong plots and intriguing characters might seem to be the gun-toting elements, but the individual details the writer brings to each sentence as the plot progresses are the gunpowder that creates evocative writing that shoots at the hip. And evocative writing captivates readers to make one story tower above the rest. It offers the reader unique insights through the magical power of metaphor, espionage-intimate observations, and implicitly tenacious traits that arm characters to triumph or die trying. At the same time, it connects the writer to their readers through shared experiences. Experiences the writer phrases in ways that snag the readers’ attention to offer new angles of viewing said experiences. Words that place the readers into the story as if they were living it themselves.
It’s difficult to judge if your words achieve this when you have visualised and ‘lived’ your scenes yourself. You can transport yourself into your story in an instant, but that doesn’t automatically mean you have succeeded in taking your reader with you.
Mastering the art of immersive description in novels and short stories is the first thing any aspiring writer should focus on. Often the excitement about the plot and characters tends to supersede thoughts about the micro-moments. This can lead to telling-dominated narratives in the rush to get all the ideas out onto the page. Nothing wrong with getting the raw material down by any means but, sometimes, it’s a better strategy to slow down, take measure of the landscape, and judge where your shots are best targeted.
Taking some time for description can often unlock the most surprising facets in a chapter or scene.
Description is the vehicle for all the other elements in a novel, for that is what a novel is: a long description of things, people, places, feelings, actions, ideas. Were it a living, breathing entity, consider description as the skin that covers the whole body. It contains all the vital organs that work in the background, keeping the entity alive, moving, and continuing the fight.
If you’ve ever taken a beginners class in fiction writing, this is the base point from where you start. For, the techniques for crafting vivid descriptions are as vital to a novel as breathing is to a human, as a sword is to a knight, as fire is to a dragon.
Enhancing storytelling through effective description will hook your readers all the way through your book, so that they relish every sentence served up to them. Painting vivid scenes, conjuring the right tone, eliciting emotional reactions, depicting characters, and choreographing action are not all attained in one fell swoop. Instead, each must be attained as a skill in its own right, and then the writer must learn how to layer them through paragraphs and sometimes even within one sentence. With that, the phrasing not only conveys tone and setting but depicts character traits, too. This is one of the secret to great fiction writing: making your sentences work harder to earn their place in your chapters by having them achieve more than one intent. A kind of multi-tasking, if you like. Or, firing in multiple directions. One completely clichéd war chant I’m sure you’ve heard in your writing community is “show; don’t tell.” But it’s a term I find confuses most of the writers I meet. Even those who know how to employ it in their writing struggle to define it when asked.
What is it?
Well, it means attacking your text with description, rather than summary. The array of techniques for swinging that sabre rests on a very broad blade indeed. But the mantra is also a fallacy. I’ll tell you why: if you show every single aspect of your story, your book will be bloated, overwrought, and seemingly unending. This affects pacing. Description – the types of descriptions you employ and how they’re delivered – is key to whether you create a waddling warrior or a warrior warlock. The best thing to do is learn how to show and how to tell effectively. After that, striking the right balance of show and tell in a story, and when it’s appropriate to employ each technique, is the next rung on the ladder towards expertly controlled fiction writing. Part of the path towards becoming a novel-writing ninja.
Something else that relies on the use of highly effective description, and perhaps one that’s less spoken about, is tension. If there isn’t enough, it can make a story feel flat and unexciting. I’m pretty sure I can speak for all writers when I say that ‘flat’ and ‘unexciting’ are the last words we want anyone using when referring to our writing! Tension, unfortunately, doesn’t come naturally to all writers. It’s also one of the hardest things to edit if the writer doesn’t have a solid understanding of it, because it works on both macro and micro levels. Which means many times it’s too much work for an editor to want to take on. Bad enough in a short piece, but to go through a whole novel? Likely, the manuscript will be sent back to the writer with a thanks, but it’s not for us. Tension can be taught, however. And – yes – it involves mastering your descriptive prowess to be fresh and dramatic.
A common perception in fiction writing is that description is the enemy of tension because it slows down the pacing, but this is untrue. Really great writers know tension is another hidden weapon in storytelling. Rather like a poison, they know how to brew it through description and bring about its fatal consequences. They gradually infuse the two and understand when the finer details contribute towards the tension and when they don’t – when a quick, blunt object might do a better job.
Ultimately, crafting memorable scenes through vivid description will make the reader sit back and delight in your words, or brood on them. Have them linger on them for hours, days, or maybe even years after they read them. Have them coming back to their favourite book because some phrase or metaphor stirred them deeply within. It doesn’t have to be overtly poetic, but it does need to be succinct, strong, and succulent.
How do writers do this? Well, yes, they write a lot and hone their skills, but as with anything in writing, you can’t hone what you don’t already know exists. Some people have a more natural flair or instinct than others in certain aspects of writing, but for either, digging deep into your own experiences and exploring those is always the starting point. That’s what makes description uniquely the writer’s ‘voice’ and avoids clichés or lazy writing. Some people like to keep a journal of their observations and thoughts which can be later utilized in a story or poem. That kind of routine doesn’t work for all, however. I’ve found much more effective ways to mine the subconscious for gems through exercises that inspire not only good descriptive prose but tie those descriptions into the emotional heart of any character in a way that also creates story. This enhances storytelling no end because, by developing character traits through descriptive phrasing, the details feel seamlessly integrated into the plot. That impacts pacing and reader engagement.
Description is like a veil of mist laid gently across a verdant valley. It’s not the most dominant part of the landscape, but it catches the eye, accentuates the beauty, and once evaporated, the valley loses an extra nuance of attraction.
Do you want to catch the reader’s eye, or are you content with a pretty but generic view of your story landscape? Isn’t it strategically better for warriors to take their enemies by dawn, under the cover of a morning mist, than in plain view in broad daylight?
For more specific tips on writing description and the initial steps of turning your more wimpy words into warriors, check out these related articles:
This article only scratches the surface of ways description can supercharge your writing. If you’re looking for a comprehensive solution and personalised guidance tailored specifically to your current skill level, I invite you to sign up to Anvil & Ink, my online writing school. Begin with Forging Description and Smelting Personas classes, where we’ll explore the initial steps in creating memorable descriptive prose and how to use it to characterise not just people but places, too, and in doing so, unlock hidden plot potential. Through Anvil & Ink , you can access a wealth of in-depth knowledge, practical tools, and one-on-one support that will accelerate your progress and help you become the writer you’ve always dreamed of.
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