Some people love it, others hate it.
Used poorly, the story’s pacing tanks and readers set the book down. But used effectively, description brings the characters and story alive, drawing the reader in and keeping them emersed in another world long after they should have turned off the lights and gone to bed.
So how does one use description effectively? Below are four suggestions.
World building: Although this term is usually applied to Science Fiction and Fantasy, every writer needs to ground the reader in a time and place. For example:
Jane sat at the table and stared at her plate.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the sentence, but does it really convey what the reader needs to know? Does it tell us what genre we’re in? Here are different versions of the same action.
Jane perched on a rickety wooden chair and gaped at the single black potato on the chipped blue plate. This was dinner?
Jane sank onto the cushioned high backed chair. The emerald green tablecloth crackled with static electricity where is rubbed against her silk ball gown. Regiments of sparkling crystal, shining silverware and towers of bone china reminded her that she was an interloper in the halls of the beau monde.
Enchancing mood: Snoopy typed out those magic words, ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ and I knew exactly what he meant and shivered in anticipation the story to come. Gothic romance is known for its brooding heroes and atmosphere. But whether you write dark suspense or romantic comedy, your description needs to amplify the mood.
Night crept into the room, swallowing the candles’ light before it reached the shadows lurking in the corners. The old mansion creaked and shuddered under the storm’s onslaught. Rain tapped on the window panes of the French doors, demanding entrance, while beyond the flagstone balcony topiaries twisted into grotesque monsters lurching ever closer to Jane’s sanctuary.
The sun beamed down from the clear blue sky like a giant smiley face. Droplets from last night’s shower caught the golden rays and cast rainbows about the park. Along the gravel path meandering through the verdant expanse, children splashed in the clear puddles. Jane laughed as a Chocolate Labrador tried to catch the diamond spray.
Echoing Emotion: How we react to people and things around us is often a reflection of what we feel.
“I wouldn’t have you if you were the last man on Earth,” Jane said.
“As far as you’re concerned, I’ll be the last man you’ll ever have,” he replied.
Quite bland really. Now try this…
“I wouldn’t have you if you were the last man on Earth.” Jane wiped her palm on the arm of the overstuffed chair. The sweat coating her palms
changed the gray microfiber cloth to charcoal. Tears filled her eyes and the gallery of family photos on the opposite wall morphed into a kaledioscope of lies.
“As far as you’re concerned,” He raked her from head to toe with a scathing glare then marched acrossed the eclectically furnished livingroom and twisted the brass knob on the front door. “I’ll be the last man you’ll ever have.”
“I wouldn’t have you if you were the last man on Earth.” Jane flattened herself against the drywall. Her palms bumped over the orange peel texture and her racing heart seemed to transmit along the white wall, rattling the framed photographs hanging not far from her.
“As far as you’re concerned,” he braced his hands on either side of her head, boxing her in while peppermint scented words caressed her bare shoulders. His body heat buffeted her, melting the ice encasing her deterrmination. “I’ll be the last man you’ll ever have.”
Action/Reaction: Everything your characters do has an effect and what better way to avoid musty, stale blocks of description than have your hero/heroine interact with their world.
Jane checked the flower arrangement and the place settings.
Jane’s fingers fumbled with a scarlet cabbage rose, pulling it to a place of honor amongs the others arranged in the Waterford vase. After adjusting the trajectory of one cattail, she smoothed the siilk tablecloth and centered fans of black linen napkins on their gilded plates.
Jane’s fingers fumbled with the black-eyed susans and daffodils in the mason jar. After adjusting the angle of a sprig of fern, she centered the makeshift vase over a burn mark on the scarred table and centered the triangular paper napkins over the mismatched plates.
Notice the verbs are the same in both sentences (conveying similiar emotions) but by choosing different words the luxury or lack thereof in each paragraph is different.
Of course great writers make things seem quite effortless and we’ll gobble up the words with little thought of the effort it took to get them on paper. If you had to edit the following sentences, how would you change them?
Jane looked out the window and sighed. It’s going to be a nightmare getting home.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jane declared.
“Wanna bet,” he replied.