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This is truly one of the hardest aspects of writing. Even after 16 years, I still have to go back and redo my descriptions on occasion. If I get in a hurry, I tend to list.
I think the best way to explain how to write a description is to remember that when you're describing something, whether it's outside or inside - the place, object, or person - your imagery must be an extension of your character. Have them feel, touch, smell, imagine, or remember. First we'll look at an example of a list and then a description.
She walked into the entry and saw that it had a curved staircase climbing one wall. In the centre of the room sat a low table and four chairs. She could see into the great hall that had a linen-covered table with a bust of King George III on it and spindle chairs lining one wall.
The list isn’t bad. We can see the rooms. We can see how they're furnished. But we get absolutely no feeling for the character. Remember, description has to be an extension of your character. Notice the difference in the following example.
Crossing the threshold, she was again reminded of her father's misdirection. Where once a beautiful, circular bench had sat in velvet splendour to accommodate waiting guests, there now stood four tapestry chairs in a half circle around a low oval table.
Her gaze moved to the doors leading into the great hall, and she ached at the confirmation that the pianoforte she'd practised on as a child had been sold last month. In its place stood a linen-covered table topped with a plaster bust of King George III. Spindle chairs now lined the wall that once hosted a magnificent seven-foot credenza.
With a sigh, she started for the curved staircase against the wall. It was the same in every room, except hers and her sisters. And she knew it wouldn't be long before her father invaded those private spaces, too. Just three days past, she'd seen him eying her white brocade settee.
Do you see the difference? Do you get a feeling for the characters situation? Try to describe without letting the reader know you're describing. Involve the reader in the scene; give the reader the sense of time, space, and emotions in reaction to the descriptive details.
Here’s an example of what I mean. See if you can also notice the contrast between the list and the description.
As she entered the parlour, she saw Baron Whitaker sitting in a padded chair. He was a small man with mutton chop sideburns, a narrow face, and small eyes. A white powdered wig was perched atop his head, a cravat beneath his chin, and a grey satin vest stretched over his slightly bulging stomach.
We can see the baron. We know that he’s wearing a wig, we know he’s small and so forth. But, again, we get no feeling for him one way or another.
When you walk into a room and see someone, you don’t think about his/her hair colour, the shape of their face or eyes. You notice things about them. Your words have much more impact if you bring the description into your character's point of view into the immediacy of the scene.
Baron Whitaker was sprawled in a heavily padded chair near the glass doors that led to the garden, a snifter of amber liquid in hand. The heat must have gotten to him today. Normally, he was adequately dressed, but this afternoon, he looked wholly unkempt. The curls on his white powdered wig drooped, his mutton-chop sideburns were damp with sweat, his cravat loose, and his grey satin vest hung open, revealing his narrow chest and slightly bulging stomach.
Why hadn't she instructed the servant to tell the Baron she was out? Next time, she wouldn't make that mistake. But now that he'd seen her, she knew she had to greet him with the respect his station commanded. Wishing she were anywhere but here, she opened the doors between the entry hall and the parlour as wide as they’d go, and then entered the room.
"Good afternoon, Baron."
He didn't rise, which they both knew was a direct insult. A fact that apparently didn't bother him in the least. He merely straightened his cravat and nodded. "Lady Greyhill." He gave her a sweeping glance, stopping at her chest. His gaze clung inappropriately as he spoke. "Is your father about?"
Fighting the urge to cover her bodice and cursing the fates for not having time to find a tucker, she turned for the Chippendale sideboard against the rear wall and poured a cup of tea. She had the feeling the baron knew more about her father's whereabouts than she did. "I’m afraid he isn't here at the moment." She gestured toward the silver tea service. "Would you care for some?"
His sagging jowls pulled up into a smile, and he raised the glass he held. "This brandy is fine."
With a resigned, inaudible sigh, Melinda sat on a velvet settee across from him, as far as the width of the room would allow, holding her cup and saucer at chest level.
His gaze focused again on what he could see of her bodice, his eyes alight with something she couldn't name, sending streaks of fear up her spine.
"So you are here all alone?"
"Of course not. My sisters and the servants are here." Thank goodness. The man scared the wits out of her.
He adjusted his girth in the chair, and the wooden frame groaned in protest. "I am certain we will not be bothered, then."
Bothered? Everything about him bothered her, from his slovenly appearance, to his thin-lipped smile, to the way he always sniffed out of one side of his nose. "Was there something you wished to speak to me about?"
"Quite so." He took a swallow of brandy, his small eyes shifting in an effort to see around the china in her hands. "Our nuptials."
Well, do you get more of a feeling for the baron? For Melinda? Did you notice how many things I described in that scene?
Your descriptions need to move the story forward, give a feeling for your character, and draw a response from your reader.
Even if your character has never been in the room (or place) before, they will still have a feeling about their surroundings.
When you enter someone else's house for the first time, you don't think about the number of pictures on the wall, or the dining table with only five chairs. The first thing you notice is how clean it is (or not), the smells - whether spicy scents from candles or the stench of well-used cat litter - the quality of the furniture and how it does or doesn't suit the resident, the airy brightness or dark dismal appearance of the room, and so forth. You form opinions.
So do your characters.
And most of their opinions are based on their own personal situation. If they're poor, they may be awed by the fine quality of the furniture. If they're higher classed, they may notice the inferior brands, a scratch, or a chip. If they've known the person in the past, they may think things like:
She remembered the first shabby house he bought - and what wonderful times they had remodelling it. Now he owned a mansion, and it felt lifeless.
She couldn't help comparing the plush leather sofa to the dingy horse-hair one that used to sit in it’s place. She missed the comfortable old couch where they’d spent most of their childhood years studying lessons.
Just a few words relating how the character feels makes a world of difference to your imagery.
Now, try looking at some of your descriptive scenes and see if you can put a little feeling into them, a little action, or a little memory. It will bring your characters and your story to life.
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