Writing 101: Creating Effective Description

Writing description can be overwhelming at first. What do you choose to describe? How do you describe it clearly? How can you make your reader experience your setting? Find the answers with these techniques!The purpose of description is to help readers experience your story both with their senses and emotions. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not there to look pretty or be flowery. Sure some writers can write very beautifully, but pretty prose isn’t necessary to bring your story to life. Sometimes, beautiful writing can even get in the way of or distract from the story itself!

So what tools do writers possess for bringing a setting to life through description? Let’s break down the different techniques.

Sensory Details

First, the senses. You’re probably familiar with them: sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. Sight is the easiest to write and the one we think of first when setting up a scene, but you want to get into the habit of putting yourself into a scene and feeling it with all your senses.

What might your character be hearing? Like the whistle of a kettle or a dripping faucet? What about physical sensations, like the warmth of the sun on his skin or the feel of damp sand between his toes?

Readers want to experience what your hero is experiencing. Going beyond sight grounds readers in the story and makes the setting feel rich with detail in their minds—and this in turn makes your fictional world feel more realistic.

Manipulating Mood through Word Choice

Now that we know how to make readers experience a story with their senses, how can we make them experience it emotionally using description? This writer’s magic trick is accomplished through the subtle power of word choice.

That’s right, friend, by being intentional about the words you choose you can make the reader feel whatever you want them too—without them even realizing it! Pretty neat, huh?

But you don’t want to choose any mood for your scene. Whenever you introduce a setting, your hero should have an emotional reaction to it, and this should influence the words you use to describe it. After all, readers want to experience what the hero is experiencing, right? This means his feelings about his surroundings too.

Does the hero find this place scary? Beautiful? Peaceful? Choose words that communicate what the hero is feeling—or even better, ask yourself, “What words would my hero use to describe this?”

Let’s take a look at the power of word choice with this quick example:

The castle loomed atop the cliff, its sharp spires slicing through the clouds. The iron bars of the gate had been wrenched open and now resembled the mangled ribs of a skeleton.

Notice how I didn’t say the castle was scary or creepy, though that’s likely the impression/feeling you got. Instead, I used words like loomed, sharp, slicing, wrenched, mangled, and the comparison to a skeleton’s ribs all help create a creepy, foreboding mood.

This is also an example of showing vs.telling. Instead of telling you the castle was creepy, I showed you through my word choice. Whenever you can, opt for showing over telling when appropriate.

Film Shots

“Wait, why are we talking about film?” you ask. “What does this have to do with writing?”

Allow me to explain.

A story plays out like a film in the mind, yes? Because of this, we can steal a few film tricks and apply them to our descriptions.

When you watch a movie and a new setting is introduced, it will usually be done with an extreme long shot that includes a large amount of the landscape such as a city or farm so the viewer can see where the action will take place. This is also called an establishing shot.

Then, the camera will narrow its focus to a normal long shot, which might show something like a house, kitchen, train station, etc. where the scene will take place.

Narrow the focus again to a full shot, and this allows the viewer to see more details of the character’s costumes and their surroundings.

Narrow the focus yet again to a mid-shot and we see the characters from the waist-up, allowing us to focus on their facial expressions and emotional reactions.

Narrow the focus one more time and we have a close-up of characters facial expressions or important objects.

So how does this translate into writing? We can use this technique to organize our descriptions and help them flow clearly in the reader’s mind. You do this by starting your description with a wide “establishing” shot, and then narrowing your focus.

For example:

The barn was tucked away in a meadow between two oaks, its tin roof rusted and black paint peeling. Sam shoved open the door and glanced over the rows of empty stalls and then upward at the vaulted loft filled with moldy hay. He kicked aside a rotting bucket and a mouse darted into the shadows. Wrinkling his nose, he crouched to examine the droplets of blood soaked into the earth among the spilled grain and mouse droppings.

Notice how I started with an establishing shot and kept narrowing the focus until we had a close-up description of the blood splatters. This not only helps the reader get their bearings in the scene, but it follows the natural way we experience a place—we notice the overall picture before we begin to zero-in on tiny details.

Specific Nouns

Getting as specific as possible with nouns in your description will make your world feel more realistic and create a much sharper image in the reader’s head.

Instead of “red flowers” say “poppies,” and instead of “fancy car” say “Lamborghini.”

Also, this requires you do your research. You should be able to specifically name things in your story no matter the culture or time period, such as the character’s clothing, the food they eat, the weapons used, etc.

If you’re writing a sci-fi story and your hero walks into a room full of “scientific equipment” not only is this a lousy mental image for the reader, but its lazy writing. What sort of equipment are they using? What is it called? What does it look like? It’s your job to find out.

Balance

Finally, one of the important parts of good description is balance, or knowing what to describe and when.

For example, the middle of an intense action scene is not a good time to unload a bunch of description. The reader simply won’t care and it will just get in the way. Save the description for the slower parts of your story where you are setting up a scene or introducing a new setting, character, important object, or what-have-you.

Also, you need to be discerning about what you choose to describe because you can’t (and shouldn’t!) describe everything. You’ll end up overwhelming the reader and weakening the description because they won’t be able to remember it all. So what should you focus on?

Here are 3 things to consider:

1) Choose the most important details, or the details that make the place interesting or different.

2) Choose specific details in order to set a certain mood.

3) Choose the details your character would notice. (For example, a hunter might admire a collection of rifles while a bookworm might admire a bookshelf in the same room. Different people notice different things).

But how much description is too much? This will vary based on your writing style and the type of story you’re telling.

For example, literary fiction can have longer passages of description because readers of that genre will expect and even enjoy it. But in a Young Adult action novel you’re going to want to go light on the description because your audience will have less patience.

Basically, a good rule of thumb is to tell the audience just enough to give them a clear picture and avoid any confusion. How much detail that entails, however, is up to you.

What’s your biggest challenge when writing description? What sorts of details bring a story to life for you? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue), and Part 6 (Setting and Worldbuilding).

Ready for Part 8? Click here to learn about Tips and Resources for the Grammatically Challenged Novelist!

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Writing 101: Let’s Talk Dialogue

Part 5 in the Writing 101 series for new writers! Today, we're discussing the basics of dialogue. Learn the best speech tag to use, how to punctuate dialogue correctly, and the difference between spoken and written dialogue!Dialogue is a tricky little beast when you’re a new writer. From punctuation to making it sound realistic, there’s a lot that can go wrong. When done well, dialogue can be a true delight for the reader and make a story shine. But mess it up and, well…it can really put a damper on things.

Today, we’re going to look at some dialogue basics to get you started off on the right track. If you’re confused about punctuation, speech tags, or the difference between spoken and written dialogue fear not–keep reading and we’ll tackle them together!

Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), and Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot).

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is the spoken words between two or more characters, which is signaled with quotation ” ” marks. Most of your story will consist of dialogue. Dialogue not only moves your story along, but it also helps reveal who your characters are.

However, dialogue in fiction is not the same as dialogue in real life. When we write dialogue for a story we are actually creating an artistic imitation of real speech.

Why? Because no one would want to read real-life dialogue. In real speech, people stammer, um and uh, talk over and interrupt each other, get distracted, forget what they were going to say, bring up random stuff, chit chat about the weather… Trust me, no one wants to read that! It would be a mess.

To really see the difference between real and written dialogue, take a look at this piece of dialogue I’ve transcribed from an interview with Doctor Who actor David Tennant:

“Obviously it’s–it’s eh every exciting to be around for eh the big celebration episode, you know. Ehm, it–it–it’s something that’s being talked about (sighs)–I mean the–the expectation has been I–I think since I left eh that I’d end up in this somehow because there is the precedent I guess for old Doctors coming back for a visit around the anniversary time. But ehm, but it was really only relatively recently that–that it-it became a definite thing so uh I-I-I was thrilled cause it’s a huge–it’s a huge thing for Doctor Who.”

You can watch the interview here if you’d like to hear it spoken. Now, can you imagine reading an entire book like that? And in a conversation with two people there would be even more interruptions and overlapping speech.

So how might the above dialogue look in a story? Probably something like this:

“Obviously it’s very exciting to be around for the big celebration episode. Since I’ve left the expectation, I think, has been that I’d end up in the episode somehow. There’s a precedent for old Doctors coming back for the anniversary but it wasn’t until recently it became definite. I was thrilled–it’s a huge thing for Doctor Who.”

See the difference? It reads smoother and easier while still sounding like real speech. Some of the wording and sentence structure has been altered, and the stammering and ums have been omitted.

I would highly recommend hopping on Youtube and watching a few interviews, paying attention to the flow of real conversations. Listen to how people talk in real life, and then grab a book and study the dialogue to see the differences.

In short, dialogue in fiction is carefully crafted with purpose in mind. That purpose is to: 1) Move the story forward, and 2) Characterize your hero and supporting cast with what they say and how they say it.

Speech Tags

As you learn more about writing, you might come across the term “speech tags.” A speech tag identifies which character is speaking. It usually involves words like said, asked, shouted, or whispered. Like so:

“Can we go to the movies?” Sara asked.

“Not until you’ve finished your chores,” her mother said.

New writers often fall into the mistake of thinking said is too boring and repetitive. They try to make their writing more colorful by using speech tags like bawled, affirmed, intoned, inquired, fumed, etc. The problem is, most of the time these words are redundant or unnecessary and only clutter the writing. We should be able to tell from the dialogue that a character is fuming, you shouldn’t need to tell us.

I highly recommend using said whenever possible because it’s invisible. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and readers don’t notice it because it’s used so often. This will also make your writing seem more professional. For a more in-depth discussion on why said is the best speech tag to use, check out my article here.

Punctuating Dialogue

When I first started writing, I was confused and intimidated by how to punctuate dialogue. Since I’ve always found books to be the best teachers, I grabbed books off my shelf and studied how the dialogue was formatted. I still remember scouring the pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone wondering, does the comma go inside the quotations or outside?

Ah, memories.

Now I can punctuate dialogue with a thought–and eventually you will be able to do the same. With practice, it will come as natural as breathing. I’ve written a more in-depth post on formatting dialogue which you can read here, but for this post we’re just going to cover the basics.

Rule #1: Quotation marks are for spoken words only. A quotation mark signals to the reader that someone is speaking, so don’t use them for a character’s thoughts!

Rule #2: Ending punctuation, such as a comma, period, question mark, or exclamation point, always go inside the quotation marks. Like so:

“I don’t think we should go that way,” Jane said.

“Are you sure about that?” Ethan asked.

“I’m positive.”

Also, only use one punctuation mark at the end of a line of dialogue.

WRONG: “Is that the new dress you bought?,” he asked.

Rule #3: The first word after a line of dialogue is capitalized if  1) It’s a name 2) It does not describe who is speaking or how the dialogue is being spoken (aka a speech tag). Observe:

“What do you think you’re doing?” Ryan shouted.

“I was just trying to help.” The girl backed away.

WRONG: “I was just trying to help,” the girl backed away.

The first word after a line of dialogue is lower case if it’s indicating the speaker using an improper noun (he, she, it) and/or describing how something was said.

“Hand me that paint brush,” he said.

“You could at least say please,” the girl said with a huff.

Now It’s Your Turn

Now that you know the dialogue basics, it’s time to put them to work in your own writing. The best way to learn how to write better dialogue is with practice! Keep at it and you’ll be a pro in no time 😉 Have any questions about dialogue? Post them below!

P.S. Ready for the next part in the Writing 101 series? Click here for Part 6, Setting and Worldbuilding!

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