Saturday, 4 November 2017

A simple guide to writing . . . Description

Anything that is not dialogue in a book or story, is description. Character – inside and out - scenery, plot, action. Everything is description. All of it. Description is the movie of your story you see inside your head. Everything you hear, the voices of the characters, the noises made in the world in which they live, how things feel, how people feel, even what things taste like.
All description.
All of it.
The aim of description is to enable the reader to experience the same pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. that you experience in your head. Or as close as. The world and the characters inside your head are as real to you as the world and the characters of your daily life – or at least they need to be.
In a thousand years, perhaps, telepathy will render the writing of books meaningless, but until then the only way of transferring what is in your head to the inside of the head of the reader, is through the art of description using words.  
            I have already alluded to the five senses – touch, smell, hearing, sight, and taste. These are some of the means through which the world inside your head is transferred to the inside of the head of the reader. But that does not mean every single thing needs to be described with reference to these five attributes. Description – like all writing - is all about balance, it is all about saying the salient things.
The things that matter.
            What we are talking about is physicality. Making it real. With words. Your words. To have any chance of transferring that picture in your head to that of the reader, making it real has to be your goal. To do this, you must be specific with your words. To say a character is angry is not enough. What gives you the idea the character is angry – his movements, his actions, his face? What actually is it? If it is his face, what about his face gives his anger away? What movements? What colours? What? What? What? If it is the way he is moving, how is he moving? How? How? How?
You must constantly ask yourself these questions. Adjectives, such as angry, quite often do not provide the clarity required for the reader to picture in their head what the author has in theirs.
Vagueness is not enough. Vagueness transfers a fuzzy picture to the reader. Specificity transfers clarity.
            On the subject of adjectives, and adverbs come to that, these are to be avoided at all costs, if possible. I am not saying never use them, but if you can find a way not to use them, so much the better. Adjectives and adverbs are the enemies of specificity. Always. Of course, too much specificity – describing everything as it is – runs the risk of your writing being dry and mechanical. As we have already mentioned – balance is key.
            A way to enliven your writing – balance out that specificity – is through the use of metaphors and similes. Metaphors and similes have the same aim – to make your writing stronger by creating images in the reader’s head. The two – metaphors and similes - differ only by degree: a simile describes something as being like something else, for example ‘her eyes were like broken diamonds’. Here, the reader gets the idea the character’s sparkling eyes are like tiny sparkling diamonds. A metaphor goes one step further, describing something as actually being something else – not like something else – actually being. For example, ‘the Professor was a dinosaur’. Here we get a much stronger image of age. We know the Professor is not actually a dinosaur, but describing him as if he is creates a much stronger image.
            A quick note about similes and metaphors – beware the cliché. A cliché is a simile or metaphor that has been used so many times, it has become tired. Literally. The test is, if you have written something you have heard or read described before in a certain way, it is probably a cliché in some degree. Coming up with original similes and metaphors is part of the fun of describing things. Be creative, just don’t be too obscure. Don’t forget, the sole aim of description is to transfer a concrete image from your mind to the mind of the reader. If the simile or metaphor is too obscure, chances are, all you will have transferred is confusion.
            So, to summarise - senses, metaphors, similes, and the overriding concept – balance. And there’s another thing. In a piece of writing, be it short story or novel -or anything in between - pace is key. In short, description slows a piece of writing down, dialogue speeds it up. So, be careful you are not choking the life out of your writing with too much description. If when you read your piece out loud and it tends to drag, check to see if you have overdone the amount of description.
The old Victorians loved a bit of description, after all, there was no telly or radio to impart images outside of their own lives into their minds. They liked to know to the nth degree what something looked like, sounded like, felt like, etc. They had very few reference points from their own lives. The modern reader, however, has a million reference points. This being so, you do not have to describe everything about something, just the salient points – the points that tell the reader what the reader needs to know.
Metaphors and similes are not the only ways to describe that image in your head. A couple of other interesting techniques are the use of onomatopoeia and synaesthesia. Onomatopoeia are those words that sound like the thing they are describing, such as giggle, bang, clatter, whoosh, fizz, etc. Onomatopoeia can be used to really bring a description to life in terms of sound. Poets love a bit of Onomatopoeia. They are also quite partial to a drop of synaesthesia every now and then. Synaesthesia is a technique whereby one sense is described or characterised by another. For example, the taste of fear or the smell of victory. Don’t be afraid to be a bit imaginative in terms of describing something as having a quality it doesn’t actually possess:  the sound of dreams shattering, etc. Be creative.
Don’t forget, the only point of description is to clearly impart the image in your mind to the mind of the reader. That is all. Impart it in a way that is interesting and original, and the reader has a new reference point for the thing you have described.

So far we have spoken about describing things external. The internal life and world of a character is arguably just as important to describe, if not more so. Don’t forget, your job as the writer is to make the reader feel what it is be that character. You can only impart this feeling clearly if you know what it is like to be that character. Do not be afraid to access your own experiences and emotions in describing the fears and hopes of your characters, and find the best words you can to describe them.  Describe them till those feelings come flooding back. Attach those feelings in words to the character you are describing, and the reader will thank you.
Be brave in your writing.
Be courageous.
Be creative.
Do that, and you will have transferred to the inside of the head of your reader the film of the story playing inside your head - a film only you have ever seen.
And that, that is a magical, magical thing . . . :)


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