Saturday, February 28, 2009

Six Principles of Description

Whenever I talk about description, I always end up repeating the same basic principles in different ways. Use all five senses. Pick strong action words (“throttled forward” instead of “drove.”) Things like that. I thought it would help if I compiled them all in one spot, to help those struggling with their descriptions and in the need of a reference. 

Here we go. The six principles are –


One: Put yourself in the scene.

Putting yourself in a scene is more than imagining what it would be like. It’s placing yourself there, in such a way that the details of a moment hit you, new and fresh and surprising. Like the first day on the beach, or an amazing sunset. We suddenly wake up to everything in that experience, feeling it and embracing it with every pore.

Imagine that you have stepped directly off a plane onto the exact moment of your scene. Better yet, think of a time you experienced such a scene, and the way you felt when you first entered that environment. What are the things that hit you right away? What did you feel in that moment? Get inside the scene’s head like you would get inside your character’s head.


Two: Focus on what defines the moment.

You remember two weeks ago when I said that descriptions define the thing being described? It’s like creating a 3D box. Every bit of description adds up to something, helps us make the picture. What you choose to describe alters the shape of our box – changes the picture we create in our minds.

So when you begin describing, think about what image you want to create. Is this scene scary, or contemplative, or loving? Then choose what will flesh out that idea. Don’t do a checklist description, starting with the room, then furniture, then accessories; pick the few things that matter most.


Three: Use different senses for a rounded effect.

It helps if each description is based on a different sense - maybe one is what you see, one is what you smell, and the other is what you feel. Taste and smell are powerful senses but hard to use regularly. Try paring one odd sense with two normal ones. For example, you see the popcorn stand, feel the sweat trickling down your spine, and taste butter thick on the air.


Four:  Pin down the exact feeling.

What helped me improve my description was trying to and pin down an exact emotion, thought, or association instead of settling for something that just “worked.” Lots of people like the smell of fresh cut grass, but how does it make ME feel? What does it remind me of, exactly? How can I condense that? How can I compare it to something else that will take people there with me? And finally, is that the image/mood I want to set my scene with?


Five: Choose words with emotion in mind.

I think word choice is hugely important. So you feel the breeze, but what kind of breeze is it? Does the breeze waft? Trickle? Hiss? Spin? Each one has a different feel as well as a different emotional subtext. Waft = light, aromatic, slow and relaxing. Trickle = tepid, maybe nervous, uncertain, leaves you gulping for air. Etc.

Don’t get bogged down by what is possible or impossible. If you say the winter wind smelled bitter, we’ll all know what you mean, even though bitter is a taste and not a smell.


Six: ground the descriptions with concrete details.

Too many metaphors or personifications can make a scene unreal and far-fetched. You want to ground those thoughts in reality by connecting them to something we can easily process.

For example. You want to describe the wind, so you say, “the breeze hissed.” That’s your metaphorical thought. Now tie it to something concrete in the scene. You could say, “The breeze hissed through the grates,” or  “The breeze spun around her ankles.” That puts us firmly back in the scene. 


Description is like taking a snapshot of a moment. Good description says, this is how it feels to be here, this is what I’m seeing, and this is what it means. Our ability to describe a moment directly relates to our ability to imagine it ourselves. This is a visceral process. If we aren’t feeling it, how can our readers? Hopefully these principles can help you ground yourself in the scene.


-Creative A 


Similar Posts:

Edgy Techniques

Description and Selection


Annie King said...

I especially like the way you discuss grounding a metaphorical description with concrete details, and putting yourself in the scene. I'm re-reading parts of THE MAKING OF A STORY by Alice LaPlante, so I particularly enjoyed your post.

Creative A said...

Thanks Annie. For a while now I've wanted to find a way to explain the idea of grounding the metaphorical in the concrete, and I was really excited to have thought of a way. I'm glad it translated well.

I don't think I've ever heard of "The Making of a Story." Is it good?


Angela said...

Another great breakdown of description! Thanks!

Annie King said...

Hi Creative A, I published a list of writing guides I can recommend on my blog, with some of my thoughts about them. Thanks again for your post.

Here's the link:

Creative A said...

Thanks Angela!

Annie, thanks for the link. I'll check it out :)

Anonymous said...

Rafael here:

And I thought you retired! Great post btw!

Creative A said...

Nope. I'm blogging all March. After that, I'm retiring.

Glad you liked my post. :)


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