Keeping it Real
Scouring my bookshelves,
I actually had a hard time finding a lot of descriptions to use for examples and
thatís actually the first point in this article.† There are brief descriptions, but the days of
having long, dense paragraphs of poetic imagery in commercial fiction are
pretty much over.† Writers are now more cagey about it.†
They slip them in when youíre least expecting it so theyíll go down nice
to write good descriptions.
Keep 'em brief.
Keep 'em realistic.
Keep 'em ordinary.
Thatís about it so if
youíre in a hurry, you can stop reading now.
(Darn! I thought I could end there!)
Okay, so what did I mean
by ordinary? †Well, just...ordinary.† Not a lot of fancy words or extended
comparisons to silks, jewels and fruit. †Itís
all about describing something so the reader can envision the scene, not get
overwhelmed by imagery.† And itís not
about your excellent vocabulary.† So the
idea is to use ordinary words in creative ways.†
Use red instead of vermillion, blue instead of Indanthrene because the
last thing you want to do is make the reader focus on the words instead of the
story.† You really donít want them to
stop, even if itís just to think:† Wow, cool word.† Because the next thought is: What does it mean?
Does that mean Iím
telling you that you canít write lush, sensual descriptions?† Not at all.† But what youíll find is that the most sensual
descriptions generally use quite ordinary words in unique and often surprising
ways.† Perhaps in a simile with something
yummy like chocolate or the warm yeasty smell of fresh baked bread.† It doesnít take much to make the reader
drool, particularly since everyone is dieting these days so just the mention of
a prohibited food like warm, crumbly apple struddle
makes the readerís mouth water in a purely Pavlovian reaction.† (Sorry, maybe thatís just me.)
So letís get down to it.
This article is going to
mostly show instead of tell, because there are a lot of talented writers out
there who have written amazing descriptions and Iíd be a fool not to use them.
The following example
ought to make romance writers sit up and take notice.† Itís one of the best descriptions Iíve ever
read and it makes me moan with lust and envy every time I read it.† Itís also an excellent passage--from a male
point of view--showing sexual tension.†
The most amazing part is that it uses quite ordinary words.† Well, okay, except maybe for ďmellifluousĒ.
Jonathan Gash's Paid and Loving
was relish in her mellifluous husky words. †I recognized the response.† Women love conflict more than men.† In the oblique light of the loading yard she
looked stark somehow, black and white yet languid with the serenity of the well
used.† Lovely.† Money's easier to spot on a woman.† They like it to show more.† Smallish, slender, intense,
voluptuous.† I loved her...
is life or death?" †She actually
licked her lips...
glanced at me, at them, her excitement growing and showing.
†God, but women interrupt your thoughts...
That was one small scene
at the beginning of this book.† I only
cut out small bits of conversation between what is listed above, as indicated
by the ellipses (...). †All I can say
is...masterful and exquisite. †I wish I
had room to include the entire scene.
This passage show one of
the major differences between a description that works and one that
doesnít:† it expresses the characterís
thoughts/feelings about what he is seeing.†
Itís not just an abstract description of a woman standing in a loading
yard.† It works so well because it tells
us how the character/narrator feels about the woman he is describing.† It reveals his thoughts and emotions.
In this example there is
one more thing to remember: it is written in first person so it is the
narrator who is doing the
describing, so the passage is the
way the narrator would express it. †If you've got some flowery English-professor
who takes five years to say something an ordinary mortal would say in five
minutes, then that's how you
have to describe the scene. †Okay?
Letís see how a woman
would handle a similar kind of description.
Wendy Roberts' book
Dating Can Be Deadly, does a
great job with brief and realistic descriptions, spliced into the narration. †Two examples are shown, the first is the
heroine's friend and the second is a guy the heroine has a crush on (not the
First, the friend:
in my direction, with high heels sinking in the sodden grass and with ample
bosom rising and falling in deep gasps, was my good friend Jenny...
tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, the red hair color, Claret Classic, was
courtesy of this week's sale at Neuman Drugs.
†Next Jenny dug in her purse and pulled out a
cigarette. †She lit up then nodded her
head in the direction the thief had taken...
the picture? †There's a bit more
interspersed throughout the main character/narratorís conversation with her
friend, but only brief phrases. †That is
a great technique, since it lets the reader build up a picture without being
hit over the head with one long paragraph of description. †In fact, let me continue so you can see the way
she builds up the picture of this secondary character.
was retaining twenty-five years of fried food, not water, but she was my best
friend so I supported her delusions of water retention...
planted thick fingers on wide hips...
now for the not-hero guy. †She relays the
initial description in dialog when the poor heroine looks up so see a coworker (this
guy) standing in her checkout line:
hair, body like a Greek god, has on a brown leather jacket and there's a
blonde, a model-type, hanging off his arm," I whispered.
doesn't that violate the rules about keeping it ordinary? †No. †Because this is a
†If it's how
your characters would talk, then that's how the description must be given. †
a final description from this book, just showing another secondary character. †I include it because it's just as important to
know how to describe secondary characters, maybe more so, because you've got to
give the reader a handle to remember the secondaries.
the doors did open and out stepped a stocky middle-aged man with skin the color
of espresso. †He
wore a rumpled overcoat, a worn tweed suit and a dour expression...
Here is a description of
another secondary character, Anita Blake's boss in Laurell
K. Hamilton's Bloody Bones.
glanced up, smiled, and motioned me closer. The smile
bothered me. Bert was never pleasant unless he wanted
thousand-dollar suit framed a white-on-white shirt and tie.
gray eyes sparkled with good cheer. His eyes are the
color of dirty window glass, so sparkling is a real effort.
snow-blond hair had been freshly buzzed. The
crewcut was so short I could see the scalp...
Again, you should begin
to recognize that the narrator (who is really the main character) is imbuing
the description with her own thoughts and emotions about her boss.† Thatís part of what makes it work, versus a
bland boring description that only...describes the scene dispassionately.
Adding Sensory Details
Remember how I mentioned
chocolate above as a way to add sensory and sensual detail to a
description?† Well, here is the example I
was thinking about.† This is also from Laurell K. Hamilton's
had to admit that Richard was worth a crush or two.
†His thick, brown hair was tied back in a
ponytail that gave the illusion that his hair was very short and close to the
head. †He has high, full cheekbones and a
strong jaw, with a dimple that softens his face and makes him look almost too
perfect. †His eyes are a solid chocolate
brown with those thick lashes that so many men have and women want.
†The bright yellow shirt made his permanently
tanned skin seem even darker. †His tie
was a dark, rich green that matched the dress slacks he wore.
†His jacket was draped across the back of his
desk chair. †The muscles in his upper
arms worked against the cloth of his shirt as he held the book...
good, right? †She goes on some
more, dribbling in tasty descriptions and Anita's reactions to him.† But again, she didnít use any ďspecialĒ
words.† Just ordinary
language to describe a very attractive man.
However, these examples
are all written in first person. †In many
ways, it's easier to write descriptions in first person, because any over-blown,
exotic phrases can be blamed on ďthe narratorĒ. †It's much harder to write good descriptions in
third person, because you,
Mr. or Ms. Author, are responsible.
So, here's an example in
third person from the fabulous Georgette Heyer's
The Masqueraders. It's
quite longish. †It's quite good.
lady's brother gave his three-cornered hat into his servant's keeping, and
struggled out of his greatcoat. He was much of his
sister's height, a little taller perhaps, and like enough to her in appearance. His hair was of a darker brown, confined demurely at the
neck by a black riband; and his eyes showed more gray
than blue in the candlelight. Young he seemed, for his
cheek was innocent of all but the faintest down; but he had a square shoulder,
and and good chin, rounded, but purposeful enough. ...The lady wore a fine silk gown, and Mr.
Merriot a modish coat of brown velvet, with gold lacing,
and a quantity of
lace at his throat and wrists. A pretty pair, in all,
with the easy ways of the Quality, and a humorous look about the eyes that made
them much alike...
brief, it doesn't go in for
fantastical comparisons either. †If you
look at this, the description is very down-to-earth, very
fact, that's the key element in all of these that makes the work really shine. †It's
so real you can see it.
That's what makes a
Describing Something Other Than Characters
Point to consider: If
your reader's eyes flicker down the page and see more than a couple of very
dense paragraphs, there is going to be an immediate urge to skip over them.
†Therefore, you have to do something in
those paragraphs which makes the reader want to read them.
Animate the inanimate. †Here is a
description of London by Neil Gaiman, from Neverwhere.
It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new
jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and
offices and restaurants and homes, of parts and churches, of ignored monuments
and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds
of districts with strange names--Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl's Court, Marble
Arch--and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city,
which fed on tourists, needed them as much as it despised them, in which the
average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three
hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and
unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or,
more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and
teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.
technique draws the reader in and makes what is being described become another
character, in this case the character is London. †What might otherwise be a dull recitation of a
cityscape turns into something alive and interesting. †It feels like a character, rather than just
some "the city's narrow streets were filled with traffic and so on"
kind of passage which doesn't accomplish anything other than get on the
Insert a sense of movement into the
description. †The problem with a lot of literary books is
that the descriptions are static. †They
feel like someone just sitting on top of a hill somewhere describing what they
are seeing. †This is exactly the kind of
thing readers will skip given half a chance. †By inserting movement through the scene, you
draw the reader in and keep them going.
is an example by J.A. Jance from Devil's Claw.
The yellow school bus rumbled down the long dirt trail
known as Middlemarch Road,
throwing up a thick cloud of red dust that swirled high into the air behind it. Approaching a shotgun-pellet-pocked CURVES sigh, the bus
slowed and then stopped beside a peeling blue mailbox sitting atop a crooked
wooden post. Switching on the blinking red lights, the
driver, Agnes Hooper, waited until the trailing dust blew past before she
opened the door to discharge her only remaining passenger.
is movement--the school bus coming down the road and halting--and action
(including information about Agnes' personality--she cares enough to wait for
the dust to settle) when the driver opens the door for her passenger. †Instead of being just a straight, long passage
about a dusty road, the CURVES sign, and the peeling mailbox, these things are slipped
in as the action occurs. †So we have
action and description combined.
only way you can get away with a static view is by coloring it with a
character's perspective to so it says something important about the character. †Sadly, I don't have an exact passage to
quote for you, but I'll give you an example from Wild Orchids by Jude Devereux.
hero and heroine arrive at this old house they are going to turn into their
offices (or whatever). †Anyway, she
describes it as this wonderful old Victorian with lovely gingerbread carvings,
a fabulous turret, and great old rooms complete with hardwood floors. †Her description reveals her strong romantic
streak, energy, and innate optimism. †
hero then describes it. †He sees a broken
down old house that's huge (will cost a fortune to heat) and needs a lot of
repairs. †It's got all these horrible
carvings that will be hard as heck to sand down so they can be repainted, and
the hardwood floors need to be refinished. †His description reveals a strongly practical
man who already has a lot on his plate and the last thing he needs is one more
"fixer-upper" job. †(I know exactly how he feels.)
descriptions donít just "set the scene" so much as to reveal who
these two people are and how they view the exact same house in very different
ways. †It is a point in the novel where
you see the differences between the two characters and the potential sources of
should lead you to an important conclusion.†
You donít really want a page-long description in order to just set
the scene. †If your description is
there just to set the scene, you need to make it really, really short. †Or animate it in some way. †Make it funny. †Make it sad. †Show the reader what the characters are seeing
and what they think about it when
they look out over the gray ocean with the wind whipping through their coat.†
the reader something other than what amounts to a nice landscape painting on
the wall. †I mean, there's a reason hotels
have landscapes in the rooms. †They
put people to sleep.