Descriptions: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 and easy.

 So how 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.

 From Jonathan Gash's Paid and Loving Eyes.

...There 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...


..."What is life or death?" She actually licked her lips...


...Diana 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? Got that?

 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 hero, though).

 First, the friend:

...Stumbling 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...


...She 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...


Get 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.

 ...Jenny was retaining twenty-five years of fried food, not water, but she was my best friend so I supported her delusions of water retention...


...Jenny planted thick fingers on wide hips...

Okay, 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:

 ..."Golden 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. ...

 But doesn't that violate the rules about keeping it ordinary? No. Because this is a conversation. If it's how your characters would talk, then that's how the description must be given.

 Here's 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.

 ...Suddenly, 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.

 ...He glanced up, smiled, and motioned me closer. The smile bothered me. Bert was never pleasant unless he wanted something.

His thousand-dollar suit framed a white-on-white shirt and tie. His gray eyes sparkled with good cheer. His eyes are the color of dirty window glass, so sparkling is a real effort. His 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 Bloody Bones.

 ...I 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...

 Pretty 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.

 ...My 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 Mechlin 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...

While not brief, it doesn't go in for fantastical comparisons either. If you look at this, the description is very down-to-earth, very real. In 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 great description.

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.

This 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 reader's nerves.

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.

Here 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.

There 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.

The 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.

This 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.

The 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.)

These 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 conflict.

This 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.

Give 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.


Books by Amy Corwin
The Dead Man's View