The Art of Descriptive Writing

A fabulous, forest nymph with long hair

The invocation of literary magic lies in mastering the basic elements of storytelling. I’m sure one of these must be your forte:

  • Emotionally attaching the reader to the main character and creating plausible character arcs
  • Vivid descriptions of the setting, which derives from worldbuilding
  • Being the wizard/witch of atmosphere and mood
  • Creating high stakes and mastering the build-up and release of tension
  • Writing dialogue which grabs the reader by the collar and pulls him into your story never letting go until he reads the last line.

Each of the above-mentioned demand descriptions which release only the necessary information. I respect the northern nature because I hunted with my father. My loving memories of him tone my chapters on untamed fells and sacred ponds. I went overboard in my first draft—nothing wrong with the passages per se, except they dragged on with excruciating detail. The reader wants to get on with the plot. You’ll bleed when you delete carefully crafted passages, as I did, but Kill Your Darlings applies to descriptive writing. If you write fantasy, your text feeds on worldbuilding, and the art of choosing becomes a matter of literary life or death. The same applies to historical fiction. As you researched expertise grows, you risk boring the reader with excessive facts.

The greatest classics of mankind can’t be used as a reference on how much to describe. The literary competition has changed since the times of George Orwell and Vladimir Nabokov. Different genres have separate rules on the desired length, and I write thrillers, so you don’t have to agree with me but let me introduce a few interesting theses.

Start With The POV

All fictional descriptions start with the selection of the Point of View. Remember to filter the setting and background through the eyes of your character. Describe what your character would notice, otherwise, you break the spell and cast the reader out of your magical world.

Third Person

The third person is the weapon of choice for most modern authors, and you can choose between omniscient and limited 3rd. Omniscient 3rd: the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. Limited 3rd: the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally.

An example of the third person:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

George Orwell, 1984

Notice how Orwell binds the setting to the movement of the MC? He uses verbs to describe. And he wrote dystopian—a genre which demands compelling worldbuilding.

More information: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/third-person-omniscient-point-of-view-1277125

First Person

Although the first person has become unpopular in literary fiction, it’s the right glove if you need to punch the reader with what the MC goes through. The 1st person limits what the main character observes through your descriptive ammo. Be careful and remember to invoke emotions.

An example of the first person:

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door, and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

Marguerite Duras, The War: A Memoir. Translated from French by Barbara Bray.

Duras’ short, repetitive sentences convey her traumatic stress. The setting comes through as the objects she touches and the doorway a portal where her imprisoned husband might appear. The text centers on the heroine’s mental state—and that’s the beauty of the 1st person.

The Framework of Sensory Perception

The human species relies on visual perception and that’s why writers tend to concentrate on what the MC sees. A tiger might listen and the dog would rather smell if you wrote their POV. When your character turns into a werewolf, remember to incorporate the canine way of taking in the world.

Our senses fail the objectivity test because the brain translates perceptions to fit the overall world view. If you write historical fiction, the cosmology of the era might define if the MC believes his own eyes or not. If a modern doctor stepped into the scene of exorcizing a demon and gave the patient a cocktail of antipsychotic medicines, how would the people of a Middle Age village react? I’m pretty sure none would explain the miracle with the function of neurotransmitters.

The use of due historical language can make your text hard to wade through. Even if you use modern English for the most part, remember that religious communities didn’t allow cursing out loud. The 21st-century heroine can scream ou F**ck and what not but people were God-abiding folks before the scientific/industrial revolution, and everyone attended the Sunday Mass. The reaction to sensory perception minds time and place.

If you write flashbacks, remember that remembering obeys emotion. The smell is a powerful conveyor of memories across decades, and people tend to weapon-focus during torture and battle. The framework guides you which sensory details to choose into your descriptions.

The Big Five

I’ve addressed the five basic senses before in my blog but here’s a list:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Smelling
  • Tasting
  • Touching

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which I quoted in my blog post about worldbuilding? If not, check it out:

https://rebeckajager.com/2018/11/22/give-your-characters-hell-a-crash-course-in-world-building/

Nothing stops you from making up senses of your own (Spiderman). If you write within the fantasy or supernatural genre, your MC exercises a variety of abilities like levitation (what would he see from the bird’s POV?) and foreboding (find a unique way to write the MC’s sensory experience during the premonition.)

“Allowing our characters to use their senses will take our writing to the next level. We hear it all the time: show—don’t tell. This is when we make our words come alive as we invite our readers to experience our story—not just read about it.”

Source: https://thewriteediting.blogspot.com/2016/03/using-sensory-perception-in-your-writing.html

List of Other Senses

  • Pressure: if someone grabs you, you can feel it.
  • Itch: everyone knows this one.
  • Thermoception: the ability to sense heat and cold. Follow this sense into writing physical reactions.
  • Sound: sound doesn’t mean only hearing, but detecting vibrations.
  • Proprioception: This sense gives you the ability to tell where your body parts are, relative to other body parts.
  • Tension Sensors: muscle tension. This one is important if your character experienced a beating or battle.
  • Nociception: In a word, pain. There are multiple types of agony and don’t forget the psychological dimension.
  • Equilibrioception: The sense that allows you to keep your balance and sense body movement in terms of acceleration and directional changes. This sense also allows for perceiving gravity.
  • Stretch Receptors: These are found in such places as the lungs, bladder, stomach, and the gastrointestinal tract. A type of stretch receptor, that senses dilation of blood vessels, is also often involved in headaches. Welcome migraine!
  • Chemoreceptors: These trigger an area of the medulla in the brain that is involved in detecting blood born hormones and drugs. When your character vomits, this automated sense is firing.
  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Magnetoception: the ability to detect magnetic fields.
  • Time: and this one is beneficial for a writer!

Source: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/07/humans-have-a-lot-more-than-five-senses/

Make Description an Active Part of The Story

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Descriptions that just sit there are generally known as “narrative lumps.” The medicine for them is show, don’t tell, but remember that you can go overboard with showing. You need traditional narration to move your plot forward, to foreshadow events and to give the readers a sense of character. Avoid info dumps and sprinkle the description evenly. Remember to bind the descriptive parts into action.

Ways to make the description part of the action:

  • Choose the best descriptors and delete the rest
  • Describe what your characters would notice while they do something else, move or speak
  • Use strong, concrete words to describe—active verbs are your allies.
  • Choose which senses fit the scene. What if your character gets blindfolded?
  • Start from basics while you write the first draft and refine through revisions. Make a note to check the use of other senses beyond seeing.

Use Character POVs For a New Angle

Your writing might become repetitive as the plot progresses past page 250. Use the introduction of new characters to change the way you describe. Strong secondary characters have their separate opinions and help you introduce a new side of the MC. Write a scene where the significant other or sidekick disagrees with the MC on which way they should turn. How does the antagonist perceive the events? It takes skill to rotate POV but check out other writers who master the skill. Also, if your world is extremely violent and cruel (like mine), the reader might attach to a person similar to herself.

Foil and Mirror Characters

Foil characters share few or no values or traits. Maybe one character is lazy and boring, and his best friend is energetic and a go-getter. These are foil characters. Put them together, and they’ll highlight each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The most common foil characters are the heroes and villains, who stand for different values and want to achieve separate goals.

Mirror characters are used for a similar purpose. They tend to share several qualities and are used to complement and highlight each other’s traits. Common mirror characters embark on parallel plots, sometimes to achieve a single goal, which tests them and highlights their traits in different ways.

Source: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/literary-devices/

Mirror Characters and Compassion

  • Using clearly stated comparisons allow readers to see what the protagonist sees and better understand the inner conflict and, therefore, theme.
  • Presenting at least two mirror characters will give the protagonist more opportunities to learn and will strengthen his/her evolution with the theme at hand.
  • Remember that the chief role of mirror characters is to show how they’re thematic opposites.
  • A character arc succeeds when readers see how a protagonist’s behaviors and thinking patterns have changed.

Source: https://diymfa.com/reading/how-mirror-characters-can-illustrate-literary-themes

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Character Development to The Extreme

frozen moment

This time I’ll address the critical questions in developing your MC, or the other central characters of your WIP. I’ve talked about character questionnaires before, but if you haven’t read my blog, you can check out this one: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire#basic

Or: https://www.freelancewriting.com/creative-writing/questions-for-creating-character-development/

What you see when you read a book is the tip of the iceberg. A fraction of character development ends up in the final text. The more work you put into building your character, the more natural he/she is during dialogue, action, and reaction.

Most writers start the difficult task of character creation from the physical features:

  • The color of eyes, hair, and skin.
  • Age, sex
  • Voice
  • Body type
  • Hands
  • Facial expressions

Choosing who goes through the difficult path of your story is a major decision.

“Am I still on the path of truth? Have I found fair equivalents into which to transpose the habits, the professions, the relations of feelings? For an act has by no means the same meaning if it is performed by a rich or a poor man, by a bachelor or a father of six, by an old man or a young girl.”

Joseph Kessel, Army of Shadows.

When you meet a person for the first time, you pay attention to their physical features like hair and eye color. When you meet a love interest, you’re bound to notice eye color, but what if you’re applying for a job? Do you remember afterward what the person interviewing you looked like? I’d bet you didn’t take note of his eye color but you might recognize his voice, or mannerisms during the interview because you read his movements subliminally. You searched for clues: did he like you or did he hate your guts?

The situation

If you sit in the interrogation room and you face a powerful opponent who holds all the cards, what do you observe?

I see the body language of my opponent. I search for signs that he exaggerates what he knows. I’d wait for his hand to form a fist, in which case, I’d raise my arm to block a hit. Okay, the interrogation scenes in my books are bloodbaths, but your local sheriff might go easier on the suspect. Again, this depends on your worldbuilding.

Body language is essential

I cannot stress this one enough. I use the interrogation as an example because the power balance is unequal and offers the writer possibilities to bring out the worst and the best in people.

The body language depends on the character’s goals: does your hero have something to hide? What’s at stake? The fate of his comrades? If your MC is a professional soldier who received SERE training, he filters his reactions. If your heroine stands amidst her enemies, she might use different means to survive or impress her opponents. Her goal in the scene defines her responses.

Who is the attacker and who tries to block him? These positions cause our body language to change. Is your suspect a serial killer or a wrongly-accused ex-spouse? High- and low-power poses in the images below are just examples. The interpretation of body language is a science, and if you write a crime novel, studying this field pays.

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Source: https://blog.bufferapp.com/improve-my-body-language-secrets

The same unspoken language rises to the surface if two persons negotiate a deal in the middle of a bazaar, or if a husband and wife engage in an argument. What their mouths say, and what their bodies tell, are two different things. Body language is ancient—it predates speech. Our brains interpret these patterns instinctively, whether you like it or not.

In Retrospect

Your character wasn’t born ready. He learned a few tricks along the way and his family and friends had an effect on him. He belongs to society: defending the status quo or fighting to topple it. That’s why the questions about his past are essential. Character questionnaires will guide you to develop a history for your MC.

Examples of questions which dig deeper:

  • What are his biggest secrets?
  • How does he display affection?
  • How competitive is he?
  • What are his political views?
  • What will he stand up for?

You might never offer the reader a complete history,  but you’ll choose a few star moments for painful flashbacks or golden memories… bitter chalk of defeat which fills your heroine with anger at the right moment. Build a past, and use it.

Each person comes with a past and future: an arc of development. You can’t create believable literary characters without the dimension of time, the essence of change. We age. We might become different persons because of painful trauma. What we expect from the future says a lot about our personality.

The Action

The writer faces a terrible dilemma. You must fit so much into a single scene and remember your plot outline. Most of your troubles might not even survive into the final manuscript.

Tips for writing dialogue that connects your characters to their world:

  • Use background action to add tone and mood
  • Add movement to dialogue to keep the story moving
  • Use mid-dialogue actions for tense interruption
  • Reveal character relationships through movement and action
  • Add dramatic emphasis to characters’ emotions in a scene
  • Use movement, gesture and action to reveal personality

The Now Novel article is pure genius. Source: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/movement-action-in-dialogue/

The job is impossible, I know. I’ve shed tears on my keyboard because the puzzle refuses to decode. That’s why I turn to writer thesauruses:

Emotion-Thesaurus-2nd-Edition.jpg

https://www.amazon.com/Emotion-Thesaurus-Writers-Character-Expression/dp/1475004958

masterlists

https://www.amazon.com/MASTER-LISTS-WRITERS-Thesauruses-Character-ebook/dp/B016U2K20O

The scene and the character are inseparable. Otherwise, your character becomes an info dump upon entrance, and his presence remains shallow throughout the chain of events: the scenes.

I also advise you to write your characters bit by bit. Polishing through rewriting makes them perfect. What is a thin film, in the beginning, can evolve into a master portrait of a human being after the edits. The readers will love or hate your character. Both are equally desirable because you want to arouse an emotional response.

If you get stuck, take a look at an iconic character in your favorite author’s book. What traits catch your eye? Make a list.

The Art of Choosing

As you write a scene, you see every little detail with your mind’s eye. You notice the light reflecting from the heroine’s honey blonde hair, and you know she’s got blisters in her palm from wielding the massive sword. You feel the temptation to write every single detail into her movements, and the objects she uses, because you want to convey the movie which plays in your head.

But here comes the hard part. You should concentrate on significant action: on the parts which move your story forward and tell the reader what she needs to know. Remember to leave room for the reader’s imagination.

Trust your readers.

One of the most misunderstood rules among newbie writers is “Show, don’t tell.” Mastering that law is a basic lesson in writing, but you can’t show everything! Your book would stretch on forever as the plot would go nowhere. You must choose your battles. Picking what to tell is something you’ll learn only by writing and rewriting. Also, peer critique, beta-readers, and a skilled editor will help you get there. Separating the important stuff from useless junk is impossible if you sit in your hermit’s chamber alone.

The things which matter most to you might be the wrong ones! Hence the rule: “Kill your darlings.”

As you see, the theme of character development runs through the fabric of the book. Every essential element of storytelling has something to do with the character. Even the setting, which you might think is a standalone complex, must be shown through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If you show something the heroine couldn’t possibly observe, you break the spell of the POV.

Character Movements

When the character travels through the scenes, describing his movement is essential. When you’re on page 305 of your manuscript, you’ll feel the temptation to repeat the same key motions. Turn to the thesaurus for inspiration. Open your favorite book and write down the mannerisms of the characters amid different situations.

An excellent article by K. M. Weiland on character movements, with examples:

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/common-writing-mistakes-describing-character-movements/#

And remember:

“You’ll note that correctly describing character movements doesn’t necessarily mean you have to describe every single detail.”

—K.M. Weiland