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Tips for Writing Descriptions

My never-ending search for a reliable critique partner continues. Last week I thought I had a good lead on a writer around my age. But then I read her entire manuscript, left detailed comments, sent them back to her...and never heard from her again.

It's probably just as well, because that manuscript shouted "FIRST NOVEL!" on every page. She wasn't a bad writer, she was just a new writer. Nobody writes a publishable novel on the first try. It's like starting a video game as a Level 1 character and trying to take on a Level 10 boss straight off. You have to grind up some skills and experience points first.

Reading her manuscript, I recognized many of the same mistakes I made when I wrote my first terrible novel in high school (and when I wrote my second after college, and my third in grad school). One of her biggest weaknesses was in her descriptions of settings. They were either missing entirely or were non-specific, generic, and flat.

Here are some tips for writing descriptions that I wish someone had given me before I wasted five manuscripts figuring them out.

Existential vs. Active

People typically describe places in conversation like this: "We went to the park on Friday, and it was beautiful! There weren't too many people, but there were a lot of ducks in the pond. There was a good-sized playground for the kids. And there's a nice restaurant nearby, too."

There is, there are, there was, there were. Grammarians call these existential clauses. Readers call them boring. Here's how a new writer might describe the front of a house.

The house looked like it was built in Victorian times, but it had been well cared for. It was beige with green gables and was surrounded by a white picket fence. Rose bushes were planted along the wall. A marble fountain was in the middle of the yard and a swinging bench was under the trees to one side.

It sounds sweet and lovely, but this passage could be describing a photograph. There's no action or sense of movement—just a list of "things" that exist in close proximity to each other. But even inanimate "things" can be active.

Beyond the white picket fence stood a beige and green Victorian, grand and sturdy despite its age. Well-pruned rose bushes sent a delicate perfume through the warm summer air. A marble fountain gurgled in the yard, and a wooden bench swung gently under the rustling trees to the side.

Same setting, same features—but while the first passage sits idly on the page, the second one pops out of it. You don't want photographs, you want movies.

Static vs. Interactive

One of the tricks I used in the rewrite above was to incorporate multiple senses. In addition to sight (colors, positions), we have smell (the scent of the roses), touch (the warm air), and sound (the gurgling fountain and rustling trees). Multiple senses kick the description up from "movie" to "virtual reality."

Settings aren't painted backdrops for the characters to stand in front of and carry out the story. You want them to interact with it. New writers tend to make characters see and stare at things.

I went through the gate and followed the cobblestone walkway to the entrance. As I passed the rose bed, I admired the pretty pink and yellow blooms.

Then I noticed a small gray cat on the porch. It sat at the top of the steps, swishing its tail and gazing at me with saucy yellow eyes. The collar around its neck was studded with a dozen glittering stones. I stopped and stared. Were those diamonds?

The action is very hands-off, like the protagonist is an outside observer instead of a key player. Why stand back and look at things when you can interact with them?

The gate squeaked closed with a gentle clang behind me. My heels clacked over the cobblestone walkway to the entrance. As I passed the rose bed, I couldn't resist the urge to sniff the pretty pink and yellow blooms.

Suddenly something furry brushed against my leg. I jumped and looked down. A small gray cat sat by my feet, swishing its tail and gazing up at me with saucy yellow eyes. I bent down to pet its head, and my fingers brushed a row of hard, glittering stones on its collar. I leaned in closer to examine them. Were those diamonds?

Long descriptive passages that paint static backdrops can stop the narrative flow dead. They're like those annoying parts in Disney attractions, e.g., the Haunted Mansion, where the ride stops moving and you're supposed to sit still and look at the scene. Readers get to them, see a block of adjectives and "things," and are tempted to skip ahead to when the ride starts moving again. But if you integrate scenery into the story and vice versa, you not only preserve the flow but make a deeper impression. A cat you see sitting on the porch is a decoration. A cat you meet and play with becomes a character.

Visually Interesting vs. Verbally Interesting

There are many breathtaking scenes in this world that fall flat on the page. Try describing the Grand Canyon to someone who's never seen it. It's a big hole in the ground, surrounded by a lot of rocks. Redwood National Park is a bunch of trees, and the Pacific Ocean is full of water.

Scenes that are astonishing visually may be boring verbally. Impressionistic language (beautiful, majestic, wonderful) and emotional philosophizing (e.g., seeing the Grand Canyon stretch into the horizon reminds you of humanity's fleeting insignificance) will only get you so far. Here's a description of a living room that would look lovely in real life.

Katherine invited me inside. She sat me down on a couch and hurried to the kitchen for tea. The living room was light and airy. The walls were painted a cheerful yellow, and the furniture was upholstered in subdued floral patterns. A vase of fresh-cut flowers sat on the coffee table.

My hostess returned with a smile and silver tray of tea things.

There's nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing interesting about it either. The room sounds perfectly pretty and perfectly ordinary. But you can make it pop by adding unique elements.

Katherine invited me inside. She sat me down on a floral-patterned couch and hurried to the kitchen for tea. The living room was light and airy. Framed cross-stitches of squirrels and songbirds hung on the cheerful buttercup walls. A hand-carved cuckoo clock ticked away over the fireplace, and a time-worn rocking horse sat in a patch of sun under the window.

My hostess returned with a smile and a silver tray of tea things. She set it on the antique coffee table, next to a vase of fresh-cut mums.

The room was plain before, but with the addition of imagination-stirring details like the cross-stitches, cuckoo clock, and rocking horse, it gets a much-needed dose of personality. The second room wouldn't look much different from the first in real life—both would leave good impressions—but in text the second stands out more and gives some insight into Katherine's character.

Generic vs. Specific

Why settle for "yellow" when you can say "buttercup," and why say "flowers" when you can clarify the visual with a simple switch to "mums"?

You don't have to write many words about a setting to say a lot about it. You just need to choose specific ones. The right details will add layers of flavor, history, significance, and emotional resonance.

Katherine's kitchen looked like it hadn't been renovated in decades. It was small and cozy, with a linoleum floor and white cabinets. All of the appliances were pink. Music crackled from a radio on the counter.

Now transform it from "blah" to "bam!" with specific details.

Katherine's kitchen looked like it hadn't been renovated since 1955. It was small and cozy, with a checkered linoleum floor and white walnut cabinets. The ancient Kenmore oven and petite refrigerator were a strawberry-ice-cream pink. Soft jazz crackled from a transistor radio on the shiny Formica counter.

The smallest details can transform an entire scene. The kitchen could be from 1985, the appliances hot pink, and Katherine could be rocking out to retro pop, and it would evoke a very different image of her character. You can even kick it up a notch and have her listen to a particular song or music group—though you have to be careful that your target audience would recognize the reference.

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