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Improving Description

So, you may have noticed that you clicked a different button to get onto the post today: “MJA” instead of “ARD”. Well, that’s because our beloved Amy Rose Davis has come down with an illness and as a result, the writer within wouldn’t let her publish a sub-standard article that she was sure would be the result of lack of time + illness. Fear not though, for she will be returning next week. For now though, you have me (sorry!).

Well, I’m not going to try and tell you too much about writing, because quite honestly I’m not experienced enough to tell you ‘how to write’ in great detail. Rather, I’m going to make some suggestions as to how you can improve your story telling through description. These are just some techniques I’ve come across over my years studying creative writing and English literature here in England. I hope they help and serve as a suitable replacement for Amy’s usual gold-dust stylistic articles.

Description

Description really does make a fantasy novel. I mean, story is hugely important, but essentially you are trying to bring to people creatures, locations, and objects they have never seen before. To do this successfully you need to describe them very, very clearly and in a way they can relate to. It is a skill that requires a heck of a lot of practice at and like anything, you need to be creative in how you do it.

Often people think that you get better at description by purely writing, but I’m not so sure about that. I think as a footballer must concentrate on passing, shooting, and dribbling away from the actual field, a writer should work on description away from their stories. What do I mean by this? Well, I have three techniques that I have tried and I’ve ordered them in terms of their successfulness in regards to my own writing.

Observe and Describe
Take a trip to the beach or the park. Drop a load of objects onto your bed. Work on describing what you see. If it is a beach, you are going to need to consider how to summarise what you see in a way that captures the scene and yet doesn’t have you describing each and every person and thing occurring. If you are in the park, you need to give a feeling of the beauty you are surrounded by and yet not focus on each flower, blade of grass or path. Dropped a load of objects onto the bed? You need to think about how they have landed and dramatise your writing to an extent that it is interesting to read.

Television
I think television is a very good tool for working on your description. Choose your favourite television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It doesn’t have to be fantasy, but as a fantasy writer it will help. Simply write what you see. Imagine someone doesn’t have the luxury of a television, how would you write the scene in a way they could understand? The great thing about this method is that you can do it in first person as well as third person and you will really see your ability to describe improving quickly.

Graphic Novels
This has always been my favourite method. I remember the day I got a piece of writing back from my tutor with an A+ stamped across it through this manner. Basically, my tutor had said, “You need to write a piece of fiction from another form of media.” Most people chose plays or television as I have put above, but I thought, “How about a comic book?”

I actually went with a Manga book and I was amazed at how easy it was to do. I basically took the dialogue out of the graphic novel and then just worked around that. I added in the descriptions, moved it into first person and added in the thoughts of the character that I thought fitted best. The thing about this is that it is so easy. You just grab the nearest comic book and work at your own pace.

Conclusion

So, why does it help? Well, I think essentially we are bad at description. Although we may see things clearly in our minds, actually getting it down on page in the same light is almost impossible. We therefore need to get better at it. I think that by practicing describing real objects/scenes/images you can actually compare them to what you have achieved with your writing. You can also get people to read your writing and have them guess what it is (if describing objects/places) or have them watch the scene/read the comic book you have described and ask for their feedback.

Once you get good at describing things that have a physical form, you will be far more prepared to describe things without a physical form and relaying them to your reader. The worst remark you could possibly have when someone is reading your work is, “What the heck are you on about!?” Make sure that doesn’t happen. 🙂

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10 Comments

  1. Great article Mark!

    I think description is one of the most important key about writing, if you get ir right you can transport the reader to a the world you created.
    Sometimes a good idea and plot is not enough to make your story real and i agree with you on that.

  2. Avatar sjhigbee says:

    I do agree – however, I think speculative fiction writers need to be careful… You love your world enough to make the effort to write it down for other people – but be aware that pages and pages of lovingly described detail could make your work unpublishable in the worst case, and have your readers skimming over those passages to get back to the ‘interesting bits’.

    The way around this is to filter your descriptions through your viewpoint characters. Again, be selective. When you go shopping and cross the carpark towards the supermarket, you don’t stand in the middle of the car-crammed space and do a 360 scan and note the stand of oak trees fringing the northern perimeter (unless it’s a hot day and you’re considering parking along the fence to get the shade). Nor do you particularly notice the building site on the south side. What you’re concentrating on is the number of shopping trolleys left. How busy is the store? Where did you put your list? Are there any special offers. You’ll notice how cold it is as you pass through the doors and wish you’d put on an extra jumper… That’s the way to flesh out your worlds and make them enjoyable and believable. The likes of Lois MacMaster Bujold, Charlaine Harris and C.J. Cherryh have this style absolutely nailed if you want to see how it’s done by the best of the best…

  3. As a writer, letting go of what i see is necessary to an extent – it’s not that important. The reader is going to see something different, so reams of description are counter-productive and – as sjhigbee brings up above – possibly boring. I can only guide their mind’s eye.

    I try to set up the basics before they have a chance to assume – that way, i’m in control, my description guides their ideas. It’s fun when you get it right 🙂

  4. Thanks for filling in for me, Marc! And on a topic that’s tricky for me… Setting is my real area of struggle. I’m great with characters, passable with plot, but setting… I have to really work at it. Great article!

    Amy

  5. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Every time I read description I feel like I should rewrite it. I hate description, important and necessary as it is.

  6. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    I agree description should only come into play as it is something seen through the character’s eyes. Don’t glut.

    I use this writing exercise in my workshops:

    You are no longer a writer. You are a movie director. You can have any prop or any special effect you want. Here’s the catch: The prop guy and the special effects guys are idiots. If you do not describe to them in painstaking detail, the prop guy or the special effects guy will give you the wrong thing. If you want a large armchair with blue upolstry and chewed up legs from when the dog was a puppy, you’d damn well better ask for it or you will get a red rocking chair.

    It practices your sense of detail. And it’s fun.

  7. We have been having a great deal of discussion on this topic on the FB group A Gathering of Fantasy Readers and Writers. I will post this link there. I think you have some good ideas Overlord. Sounds lke a fun exercise Bets Davies. Anything that works and keeps the story readable is a valuable tool to learn to use.

  8. […] will agree that practice is essential to writing good fiction. Recently Fantasy Faction posted an article about improving descriptions in writing. It seems to be a practice where many writers need […]

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  10. […] I dive into dialogue again, I want to thank Overlord for filling in for me last week with his very cool article about how to write description. He filled in at the last […]

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