There are certain phrases from a good book that stay with you. My most recent read, Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, was full of them. Most of them had some kind of description.
All five of them were short and bowlegged, making them look like a chorus line of wishbones. (8)
She examined her hands, the useless, boneless things dangling off the ends of her wrists. (47)
As day drifted into night, the sky shucked its oranges and purples for black and blue. A sickle moon threaded itself into the silk. (142)
He went to the bathroom and looked at himself. He saw a mussed thatch of black hair. (270)
The scent of her, the bright sun scent of her, lingered in the air long after she left… (279-80).
I love good descriptions. When I read one that really gets to me, it sticks in my bones. It echoes.
I see a lot of writers struggle with descriptions. And that’s okay. There’s a lot that goes into a story, and description is just one part of it. But phenomenal descriptions can pull in the reader and make them taste your world. Decent descriptions can accomplish this too, but the great ones really make the reader remember your story.
So how do you take your descriptions from okay to awesome?
Go back and read the sentences from Bone Gap that I quoted at the beginning of this post. Analyze them on a syntactic level. What parts of speech are used? What effects do they have? How do they paint the subject of the description in your mind?
You might notice three particular parts of speech in these examples: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Adjectives, of course, are obvious; their job is to describe things. But a good description isn’t all adjectives.
I think some of the best descriptions are those that rely on verbs. But verbs are action words. How can they describe?
Consider these three simple sentences:
I stomp into a room.
I traipse into a room.
I flee into a room.
All have the same basic idea: Someone enters a room. While all three verbs in these sentences have the same basic meaning, they each convey a very different manner of walking. The first, stomp, suggests anger. Traipse suggests happiness or lightness. Flee suggests terror and being chased.
If I used walk instead of any of these verbs, I would take away each of those connotations, and have to use another word, maybe an adverb, to convey the message I wanted. But if I use a strong, specific verb, it paints a specific image in my reader’s mind. It can tell them something about the character doing the action.
And it flies under the radar. Not only does a good verb give your reader a specific picture with little effort, it might, if done right, be almost invisible to them. It’s an automatic reaction your reader has based on their knowledge of that word’s meaning—which is why you shouldn’t go overboard and pluck just any old word out of the thesaurus. Pick one that fits the action and that isn’t too obscure.
Let’s return to the third example from Ruby’s novel.
As day drifted into night, the sky shucked its oranges and purples for black and blue. A sickle moon threaded itself into the silk.
We have some specific (but not too obscure) verbs here: drifted, shucked, threaded. But in that second sentence, there are a couple of key nouns, too: sickle and silk.
Not only are these two nouns alliterative (along with the self in itself), giving the sentence a lyrical feel, but they also paint a picture. Ruby could have just said that the moon was visible and a crescent, and it would have given us the same general idea—but not the same image.
The sickle evokes farm and agriculture imagery (and maybe communism, depending on the reader), and a small farming town is the setting for Bone Gap; so here, Ruby’s description hearkens back to the culture that saturates her novel.
The silk evokes delicateness, softness, and to a lesser extent, expense. There’s also something ancient about it—it calls to mind the “Silk Road,” for example. This word allows her to paint the sky as both something eternal and something fragile. The purpose of this image is up for interpretation, but it’s both evocative and memorable to the reader.
Both of these are metaphors, and they go a long way to spice up Ruby’s prose and draw her reader in. If you want to improve your descriptions, metaphors can be very useful, but try to refrain from clichés; invent your own.
Let’s look at one last part of speech that is a fundamental part of description, and the most obvious: adjectives.
When we think of description, our minds probably drift first to adjectives: small, generous, free, soiled, elegant. These words are fundamental to the English language, and we can create some pretty useful descriptions from them in our stories. But if the adjectives we use aren’t quite right (too vague, too bland, too many), we’ll struggle to really paint that vivid picture we want our reader to see.
How do we make adjectives count? First, don’t use too many of them, particularly with forms of to be. This might sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. Usually, these fall into sentences like this: Her eyes were blue, where blue is what we call a predicate adjective. It’s perfectly grammatical and very common, but it’s not always (pay attention to that word, always) the best way to say something, especially if you want your description to stick with the reader. (Its prevalence in our everyday language is one reason it isn’t very memorable.)
Adjectives that come before the noun they modify are called attributive adjectives, and they can be much more useful this way when it comes to vivid description in your story. Let’s use the example from the previous paragraph, but instead of relegating the fact that her eyes were blue to its own clause, let’s make it just one part of a larger whole.
Her blue eyes flashed violet in the fluorescent lights.
When we put the adjective before the noun, we have more room in the clause (and sentence) for action and detail. Now, the blue of her eyes is not the whole of the sentence; rather, it’s one piece of a larger sentence describing how her eyes change when the fluorescent lights shine upon them. And while this might not be very realistic, it tells us a lot about how the narrator or POV character views the character being described here.
Lines like these are more unusual in everyday speech, so they stick out to your reader, and hopefully stay with them after they’ve finished reading.
I know I’ve spent many paragraphs telling you to make your descriptions vivid and specific. But know that you don’t have to do this with every sentence. In fact, I recommend you don’t. If your scene is fast-paced, a more simple description will probably suffice. Even in a slower scene, too much specificity might overwhelm the reader.
Using these tips in moderation is the key to making your descriptions count. Sprinkle the vividness in here and there to add flavor to your story, but don’t go overboard. Ultimately, it’s a matter of practice and judgment. Go with your gut, get second opinions from betas and editors, and do it over and over again until you’re satisfied with what you read.