“The sky was as blue and delicate as a porcelain teacup, and the hills rolled gently in all directions, intersected occasionally with the silver ribbon of a river.” -Alyxandra Harvey, Haunting Violet
Descriptive detail in stories is an important but tricky element of writing.
How do you know if you’re using too much? Or too little?
I believe knowing when and how to use the right amount of description is an intuitive skill that’s learned over time and is mostly based on personal preference. Establishing the perfect balance between description and action in a story is like trying to achieve the perfect balance between dressing acceptably but still maintaining individuality.
We want to please our audience but still maintain our distinctive style. Deciding on how much or how little description to use is largely based on the writer and their preferences as well.
Despite these factors, every story needs a little description. Readers like to immerse themselves in another world and try to imagine that world. We as writers may clearly see the story and all of its parts in our mind, but how do we translate that world to our readers?
Here are 7 areas where you can sneak in that detail:
The setting (physical location and time period) is probably the most important place to put description. When you describe the setting, not only do you give the reader clues about the location and time period of the story, but you help establish a mood and feeling. Does your story take place in a dark, mysterious Victorian setting in England where crime and intrigue abound? Or in a vibrant, Mediterranean climate like Spain with flamenco dancers and bull-fighters?
This is the second most important area for detail. Your character will drive your plot and be a central figure. The audience has to know him or her. You can describe your character’s physical appearance (maybe they have an interesting scar or tattoo), their personality traits (maybe they have bouts of anger or a fiery temper) and/or their habits (do they have a habit of losing their keys?) You accomplish two things by doing this: you flesh out your character and you provide a clear picture for your reader.
Our senses are powerful channels of experiencing the outside world. What we see, hear, touch, smell and taste accumulates into perception and meaning. If a character can taste the rich hot chocolate or feel the cool rain, it feels more real and relatable to me. You can also tie in symbolism with that sensory experience. Perhaps the rain helps the character recall a distant memory or makes the character feel a certain way.
You can use detail simply by choosing strong verbs–as long as you don’t overuse the same verb. For example, the word ‘saunter’ might be a lot more descriptive than the word ‘walk’, depending on your context and situation of course. This creates variety and interest, and can also be another element of characterization. For example, I used the word ‘saunter’ for a rather arrogant character instead of ‘walk’. I feel like this gets the point across more clearly and creates a stronger image in readers’ heads as well.
Revealing details or important information through characters’ dialogue is another sneaky way to include detail. If you’re telling the story in third person subjective, also known as third person limited, your main character cannot see or know everything that happens in the story. This occurred to me the other day when I realized I couldn’t write a scene without the main character present.
I had been portraying all the inner thoughts and feelings of my protagonist throughout the story, so it would be too jarring for my readers to include the scene with only the antagonist plotting away. But I found my solution in another character. They would provide this detail while talking to the protagonist. This is a break from description and allows for creative problem-solving when you need it.
Every word has an impact: some more than others. And words may mean something different to your readers than to yourself: there are also the cultural, social and political factors to consider when using certain words. Consider the word ‘crazy’: it has many synonyms such as ‘mad’, ‘insane’, ‘mental’, ‘nutty’, ‘bonkers’, ‘wacko’, ‘nutso’ and so on. Certain words can inspire, offend, entertain, disgust, engage, etc. The rhythm, definition and connotation of words all have effects on our audience. They all mean the same thing but each has a different connotation for each person.
This is probably my favourite because there is so much room for individual creativity and innovation with the use of similes, metaphors, personification, alliteration and onomatopoeia, among other techniques. There are a lot of cliché smilies and metaphors out there but you have the special opportunity of inventing new ones. For instance, the alliteration ‘weeping willows by the water’ can evoke much more of a response than ‘trees by the water.’
The blog post above is actually an old post that I decided to revisit and re-write. Revisiting old writing has proven to be a good technique for me. Here’s my recent post on this called Do You Ever Revisit Old Writing?
Where do you like to put the most detail? How do you normally use detail in your work?