1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

What do you do to improve your descriptive writing?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Geo, Mar 19, 2016.

  1. Geo

    Geo Troubadour

    161
    73
    28
    A great description of the world around your characters is what gives a story it’s realism, it’s what allows the reader to fully immerse in the world you have created. But learning how/what to describe of the world I’ve imagined is one of my main writing challenges I face everyday, and from talks with other aspiring writers (and some recent posts here) it seems to be difficult for everybody, so I wanted to share a bit of what I do and ask others to tell about their tricks and strategies to improve their descriptions.

    I like to write about what I know, so I take a lot of notes about details of the world around me to translate them later into my fantasy world. I also use parts of my own personal life to round up my characters (memories of what was happening around me as I was doing everyday things). Although none of the things I use are very spectacular or exotic by themselves, and taken out of context such details might be uninteresting, they appeal to the senses, and I like to think that, when included in an action scene or a setting description, they give the story solidity, a sense of truthfulness.

    And you, what do you do to make your descriptions better?
     
    LizzyRo and Chwedleuwre like this.
  2. Vincent Lakes

    Vincent Lakes Dreamer

    21
    6
    3
    I've done sort of writing exercises to hone my skills in different aspects of the craft. I think of a certain kind of atmosphere, place a character in it, pretty much anything I can think to help me reach a certain goal, then I try to write as well as I can to achieve what I set myself to achieve whether it's character description or different kinds of environmental descriptions. I've also done some erotic pieces this way in order to make them work better in an actual story. I guess the idea behind this is that when I've done it once, and I've been content with the way it turned out, it's easier to embed it in larger context. Sometimes these exercises turn out so well that I extend them into short stories. In any case, I believe that practice is the best way to improve, so I try to make myself do it as often as I can no matter what aspect of writing is in question.
     
    LizzyRo and Geo like this.
  3. Jim Aikin

    Jim Aikin Scribe

    25
    7
    3
    (1) Colorful words. (2) Solidly constructed sentences. (3) Appeal directly to the senses. (4) Choose details that can hint at other things you haven't said.

    For example, a little while ago I wrote a description of three men in a dingy pub, and mentioned that they were sitting at a much-scarred wood table, and that the sun shone in through a dirty window. Those two details tell us clearly what sort of pub it is. (Well, that and the fact that one of the men is missing an eye.) The state of the floor or the chairs, the fact that flies are buzzing around, the fact that none of the customers have bathed recently -- you can guess all that from the details that were given.
     
    LizzyRo and Geo like this.
  4. Letharg

    Letharg Troubadour

    118
    70
    28
    For me it's comes down to cutting description down to a few very crucial lines. Most of the time when I'm writing a scene I'll do my best to describe certain objects with details and word choices that convey the sort of feeling I'm trying to create. As such, I'm a firm believer that the reader's minds will fill in the rest of the details if I provide them with the right visual triggers.

    So for practice I mostly write and when I edit my writing I focus in on a single setting, figure out what exact feeling I want the reader to experience then try to wordsmith my way there. Usually you can get a lot of mileage of one single sentence if both the sounds of the words and the words themselves harmonise to crate a feeling. It's hard and it takes time but it's possible.
     
    LizzyRo and Geo like this.
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    3,070
    1,827
    163
    I'll quote myself from another thread.

     
    LizzyRo and Geo like this.
  6. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,532
    2,589
    313
    A while back I wrote this article for the frontpage here on Myhic Scribes: A Beginner’s Guide To Writing Descriptions – Part 1

    I got a really good response on it and figured I'd mention it here as it kind of ties in to the topic.

    The main three points I'm trying to make are:
    1. First impressions last.
    2. Start with what the character sees first.
    3. Don't go back and describe things the reader would already have created their own impression of.
     
    Geo likes this.
  7. Geo

    Geo Troubadour

    161
    73
    28
    I also think that finding the right words is very important. Is not only the meaning of the word what matters but the image it conveys, two words may be synonyms but carry very different images. Looking for the right word may be time consuming, as it is always with good editing, but I think is word the hassle.
     
    Letharg likes this.
  8. Letharg

    Letharg Troubadour

    118
    70
    28
    Yeah, it can totally be worth it.

    Another thing I have been focusing on is using how the word sounds to amplify the image I'm trying to create. For example when describing a harsh scene I try to use short and hard sounding words, avoiding anything flowery. This can, if done right, greatly amplify the way the words are communicated to the reader. I think I heard this tip on Writing Excuses or something like that and now I think of it every time I edit.
     
  9. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    4,044
    1,946
    163
    In my opinion, great description does more than merely describe. Great description does work on multiple layers. Great description engages the readers mind, and choosing what to describe is important.

    For example, what's most important about a room in an inn, or motel, or whatever temporary lodging fits your setting? What are you, the author, trying to convey?

    Sure, you could just describe a standard bed, table, & chairs, but you'd be missing an opportunity. Rather, think about the motel's location. If it's a seedy part of town, choose descriptors that might suggest a poverty & crime-stricken area. Maybe the TV has bunny ear antenna. Maybe the mirror is cracked. Maybe there's a sliding iron plate on the door, used to identify someone outside.

    Another possible goal for description would be to convey information about its occupant. If we're in a medieval inn, we might describe luggage stacked high, or candles and incense burning, or some sheer fabric draped over the bed posts. I might do that if I wanted to inform the reader a well-to-do lady was renting the room, without just coming out and saying so.

    This is a part of the "Show, don't tell" principle writers love to discuss, at length.

    There are, of course, other possibilities. It might be the descriptive language itself that creates an effect, sets a mood, or brings an image we create, in our reader's mind, that brings the story to life.

    An example another scribe offered as a favorite description they once read (I'm paraphrasing):

    He had the look of a man you might find leaning on a pool table, finishing his beer, surveying a trashed bar as sirens wailed and grew louder.

    That description engages the reader's mind. The reader becomes a partner in the telling of this story by filling in the blanks from their own experience. The details don't matter here. The "bad ass" your reader envisions does. It's individual and different for each reader, but only on the surface. That personal connection between your story and your reader might be difficult to create, but it's powerful.

    If you want to do the most work with the fewest powerful words, learning how to use description that works on many levels, at the same time, is of enormous value.
     
    Chwedleuwre and Letharg like this.
  10. Geo

    Geo Troubadour

    161
    73
    28
    I absolutely agree. Description works in several levels. In fact, I'm a believer than piling on those levels along a story gives it a real-life complexity. While simple descriptions are useful for certain moments and characters, more complex, rich descriptions (not in length or number of words, but in the images and associations they convey) help by deepening the characters/setting and the link between the reader and the story.

    However, one thing I have noticed, is that good descriptions may come easily, but excellent descriptions, the ones that have depth and purpose, take time and patience. You need to look for the right words, the appropriate feeling to convey, to look at the world from your character's point of view, but also as an outsider, as the reader, to find that connection. Many, who just started writing, feel that not getting things perfect the first time means they are not good enough, that they lack talent. I don't believe that, I think that the true mark of a good writer is learning to edit your work, learn to polish it. A first draft is just the starting point, the place where you put down the ideas, it's your manuscript's day of birth. It still has to grow, to pass adolescence, to mature, until it becomes the best version of itself.

    As Hemingway once said: "Write drunk, edit sober."
     
  11. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    1,072
    251
    63
    Try writing some stuff that is overly descriptive, tons of purple prose, etc., and then trim the fat until you have the essence of what you are trying to say.
     
    Geo likes this.
  12. AJ Stevens

    AJ Stevens Minstrel

    50
    14
    8
    A few things I do, which really echo what has been written above.

    First, and only because I have trouble with it, I occasionally stop and think how the character whose POV I'm writing would interpret what is around him/her. I tend to drift into how *I* would view it, so that's an important thing I have to take consideration of.

    I think it's also important to remember how people receive information. Through the senses. While being careful not to overdo it, I make sure to use the full range of senses. Sight can play too heavy a role sometimes. Sound and smell are excellent for adding depth to a scene.

    Finally, as some people have already mentioned: Less can often be more. Someone with scars is probably used to fighting, or has been on the wrong end of punishment/torture. Shabby clothing suggests a lack of wealth. A lilting voice invites readers to conclude (rightly or wrongly) that a person is pleasant. Tall, thick-trunked trees tell you a forest is old. Small, brief details that paint a big picture.
     
    Geo likes this.
  13. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    1,072
    251
    63
    Economy of words means you are working smarter and not harder, not to mention making editors happy with less pages to read.
     
    Demesnedenoir and Russ like this.
  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    2,396
    1,469
    163
    Economy of words is a wonderful thing, and yet it always boggles my brain as to how many are wasted in published works. This is really the case in my pet genre, epic fantasy. The only writer I've read recently who doesn't seem to pepper the page with wasted words is Cormac McCarthy, not fantasy, but in some ways fantasy-esque. Mind you, I don't want everyone to run out and try to emulate CM, the verbosity of fantasy is in some ways what makes it fun. However, there is pure waste, verbosity, and there is tight verbosity... maybe even another level, not enough information, a rare affliction in fantasy, LOL.

    Fantasy world building in 'ticular suffers from pure waste on a regular basis, and verbosity is pretty much expected. My personal opinion is that this basic expectation of extra info for depth of world tends to lead to a whole lot of loose writing in every aspect of the novel. If a writer is prone to dishing out massive detail in the world... well, it's going to be natural to babble incessantly about other things too. Somewhere in there is a fine line that IMO a lot of writers cross, and it's forgivable in the most part because the fantasy reading public is forgiving and expects some of it.

    Excessive verbosity (and a lot of bad writing habits) is a self-propagating disease, in part because writers are naturally wordy and in part because of an old "rule" for writers which I get beat up on for beating up on... read read read! Reading lots of books is a great idea up to a point, but here's the thing... unless you are reading to learn what not to do, all it will do is teach you to write with all the bad habits you are reading (at best), and oh boy are there a pile of bad habits out there. Reading classics? Great, but they often follow antiquated rules of writing. I recommend write write write! Study story structure, and then write, and then learn to write tight. And then tighter. Maybe even learn to write so tight it's strangling your prose, that's when you ease off... keep your words on a choke chain and eventually they'll obey you and achieve the greatest effect without wasting the reader's time, and the printer's paper. And at some point in there, stop reading books on writing, most are redundant after a short time.
     
  15. Addison

    Addison Auror

    1,794
    353
    83
    There are a few exercises I do to improve my descriptions.

    One is I make lists of descriptive terms. Like if there's a scene, current or incoming, where I'll be describing something red then I make a list of terms and words that could replace red. Same with slow, fast, strong, cold, etc.

    I describe the person/place/object as a riddle. Long or short, they usually start long but then they get shorter.

    Finally I describe the subject from many different views, each with their own voice, in different formats. I'll describe a house from the perspective of some squirrels in dialogue. Or in a narrative paragraph from the POV of a passing person of high society. Even through the perspective of a robber as they're robbing it. I've found this exercise useful if I haven't found the right voice and/or tone of the story.

    Hope this helps, happy writing. :)
     
    Geo likes this.
  16. AJ Stevens

    AJ Stevens Minstrel

    50
    14
    8
    Interesting, particularly the part about lists of descriptive terms. Do you drop them into your first draft? Or do you write 'red' and then go back and change it on the second pass? Do you find that disrupts your flow at all?
     
  17. Addison

    Addison Auror

    1,794
    353
    83
    Mmm, it depends on how well the writing is going. Usually I use the lists and the exercises prior to the writing as a way to get my brain running. If a list or any of the exercises don't work prior to the writing then the lists will come in handy during the revision.

    I actually have some lists already made so if I get to a spot where I think a description could be better I just flip through them. When I first implemented this practice into my writing it was a little disruptive, like a speed bump on a race track, but I've gotten used to it.
     
  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    2,396
    1,469
    163
    One thing some folks will find useful is the good old word search... this won't teach you how to improve your description, but it can show you where to improve your description or prose in general if you expand your search.

    A few to look for are: Look(ed), saw, see, feel, felt, feeling, hear, heard, smell, taste, -ly "b"adverbs. Plenty more to throw in, such as up and down, most directionals. These are a few important ones worthy of searching a manuscript for. Why? Two basic reasons, they are generic and sometimes redundant. I've been brutally destroying these words long enough now that I barely use them, but I did catch one the other day. And sometimes it's just fine to use them so you have planted little red flags to say (improve here!) instead of slowing down writing progress.

    I wish I could remember exactly what I found the other day... think it was a "felt". By the time I replaced that bugger the entire paragraph read better with more life, and I think it really only changed/added 6-7 words. It clarified everything I was trying to say, or at least I hope it did, LOL.

    And for good measure, I'll throw out a few more words that all writers should search for and consider improvement around: had, that, was, were, could, would... no, a person shouldn't replace them all, but replacing some and simply deleting others in certain cases can improve prose.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2016
    Geo likes this.
  19. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    1,072
    251
    63
    If the world you have created is so off the wall that a lot of it needs explanation because it's so far removed from what we are used to in our own world then having a decent amount of description makes sense; however if you are basing your fantasy world on something that could be comparable to a past time in our history then you probably don't need to do nearly as much. I can appreciate the time the author dedicated to learning about the middle ages, for example. They may know all about the culture but that doesn't mean we need an extremely detailed history lesson. If you mention a particular type of clothing that was worn say back in the 1600's, and your readers aren't familiar with it, it's probably better to leave it up to them to look it up online than to spend two paragraphs giving a description that will still be rather vague. GRRM does this more often than I would like, and even after he gets done with all the little details, I still don't have a solid idea of what the outfit looks like. If something in particular catches my eye then I'll usually wait until I'm done reading for the moment and look it up, because when it isn't something vital to the plot it isn't going to take me out of the story by not knowing about it.

    Part of it comes down to the "cool" factor. We imagine a castle in our minds and want to do it justice through description, yet this can lead us into a trap where being overly descriptive has the opposite effect. Two sentences might be enough but we convince ourselves that this castle is just so amazing that we need to keep adding more and more description.

    This also happens a lot with character descriptions, especially when trying to portray how attractive a person is. This is doubly so for female characters. I don't need several paragraphs of description so the author can convince me that this is a women that is so incredible that I would do anything for the chance to sleep with her. Just let her interaction with other characters bring about her charm and sexiness instead of talking about how curvaceous she is, how big her breasts are and how gracefully she moves. Sure she may be a knockout but if she's just there for fan service as a two-dimensional character then I could care less.

    I think a lot of people that are new to writing fiction haven't yet realized just how much you can describe through character interaction, both with body language and dialog. If it is up to me I'd rather spend time writing dialog and get information to the reader that way.
     
  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    2,396
    1,469
    163
    Screenwriting can be an excellent training tool for learning characterization via dialogue by necessity, but it can be over-used too in novels, one must use all the tools you've got. A castle should be described to the extent it's meaningful to the story, which pretty much goes for every location. If the characters are just passing through the city, I don't need to know about its market, its sewer system which doubles as a black market, how pick pockets gather at the green, how the poor section of town is a collection of rickety buildings leaning one against another, etc etc., I just need to know its a city, with a couple highlights.

    Beauty I think is one of the most wasted attempts at description, because it's so subjective. Generally, an author is better off slapping on a detail or two and letting me know the POV finds them attractive, rather than blathering on and on about details. I will preach all day about not using "vague" terms, but when it comes to people, sticking in a vague term can be useful, because it allows the reader to paint their own opinion in their eye. I really don't like focusing on character description myself, but of course we must to some degree... a quick example or two from my prologue, same POV...

    Attractive--

    He turned, caught by a hug. Five feet nothing and petite, the girl had a smile and curly auburn locks capable of making his eyes droop like a puppy. Even the little mole on her temple endeared him to her.

    Unattractive--

    A shave under seven feet tall and three hundred stones, with a flattened nose crushed between sagging lopsided eyes by a horse’s hoof, Angin could scare the wits out of any gambler who though to cheat.

    Not saying they are perfect,but they are concise, and tell you all you really need to know about these two characters' looks. If looks have meaning... a character identifies with mom's side of the family more than dad's because of how they look, or GRRM, dark haired children of the king, then by all means detail is good.

     
Loading...

Share This Page