Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Art of Description

I'm a fiction writer.  But I learned how to write description by living in Japan and boring my family with 10-page long emails about all the new things I encountered.  Practice makes perfect.  Describing nonfiction honed my observational eye, developed my style, and gave me "cheat sheets" of experiences I could pull out later and incorporate into my novel.

So go out into the world and start describing things!


Find Something That Strikes You

If you're bored, your writing will be bland.  If you're enthusiastic, your passion will shine through.

Therefore, chose the subject of your description wisely.

When you describe, start with the thing that strikes you most and why.

If you don't know the reason why it strikes you, keep describing until it comes.

If you finish describing and still don't know, note your emotions and move on.

Description must have a purpose. When you discover the reason the subject captures your interest, you figure out your reason for writing.

Look for Different Angles

When people go on a trip and see an ornate mansion, they first snap a picture of it head-on.   As a result, there are thousands of the same head-on pictures of that ornate mansion.  This is boring.

Artists create interest by looking for different angles.

Writers create interest by describing unexpected details.  A white building is not interesting.  But the chips in the pillars might be.

This does not mean you cannot start with that same head-on shot of that mansion.  Sometimes you need to write down the plain facts.  Just don't stop there.

Be In the Moment

First, be aware of the moment you're in.  Second, try and write it down as soon as you can.

If you are not aware or only half-aware of where you are and what you are doing, nothing will go into your head and what little is in your eye flies out as soon as you see something new.

Pause.  Focus.  Memorize.

If you need to, make a mental checklist of what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, both physically and emotionally.

Taking pictures, making recordings, and writing notes can either enhance the experience or detract from it.  Do not be so busy flying from photo opportunity to photo opportunity that you forget to see what you're taking pictures of.

Better you observe 5 things well than 50 things poorly.

After observing, make space to jot down your experiences.  Do it sooner rather than later.

I find I can remember things for about 2 days without memory aids (pictures, recordings, pamphlets) or 2 weeks without them.  Afterwards, events start to get blurry.

Details First, Narrative Later

Write down everything.

Don't try to sound pretty.  You'll move your focus to your writing and lose whatever it is you're trying to describe.

If you can write down everything and consistently write well at the same time, congratulations.  But this happens rarely.  If you must chose between details and proper syntax, chose details.

Stream of consciousness can be your friend.

Write quick and thoroughly, but also make sure you can read your own writing.  If it's nonsense to the world, you're on the right track.  If it's nonsense to you, you're in trouble.

Re-read your notes soon after you write them.

Re-write your notes, this time focusing on clarity, narrative structure, and logic.  What that means is that if you were to send your description to your mother, she would know what you're talking about.  Form complete sentences.

Pick the Quirkiest Details

Most of the description is superfluous.

Superfluous description weighs down the whole narrative.

Choose only the details you vitally need or you find quirky and interesting.  Something unexpected.  Something which cannot be discerned from a photograph.  Something that ties to your voice or your feelings.

Get rid of all the rest.


Please note: In all of the exercises, seek out the novel, not something you're familiar with.  There's less chance of ennui and you will usually get an emotional boost of coming into something new.  You want something that will spark your enthusiasm.

No Cameras Allowed

You go to a museum and discover that the beautiful art inspires you.  Unfortunately, no photography is allowed.  You want to capture the beauty of these pieces, but all you have is a pen and paper.


Walk around the exhibition, taking in the art.  Find 3-5 exhibits that sparks thought or emotion, pieces you keep coming back to.  Study them again.  Really take in all the details.  Form a picture in your head, then write it in your notebook.

In theory, you have as much time as you need.  In reality, other museum-goers will want to look at the piece, too, so you may have to be quick.  Go back as many times as you need to.

After the museum, go back to your notes.  Can you still form that picture in your head?  Organize your notes so that others can see that same image.  Try to tell a story about it, to make others want to read it.

You can post it on your blog later, if you want.


Details.  You are expanding your observant eye.


If museums bore you, chose any place where you can sit down and observe for a period of time without embarrassment.  A garden is fine. So's a car show.  Whatever gets you going.

The New Restaurant

It's new to you.  Not only have you never been to this restaurant before, they're serving food you're unfamiliar with.  Maybe it's a little upscale.  Maybe it's a little ethnic.  At any rate, you promised your pen pal you'd tell her everything.


Go inside.  Notice the layout of the restaurant, the music, the chatter.   Sit down.  Is your seat comfortable?  Order.  Take in the sights and the smells of the food.  Are you getting hungry?  Or is your stomach roiling for a different reason?

Now how does everything taste?  How are the textures in your mouth?  Does it remind you of something you've eaten before?  Or is it completely new?


Sensory Details.  The more senses you incorporate, the stronger the reader's experience.


If you have dietary troubles, you can try focusing on another kind of unused sense.  Describe a concert.  Go to a perfume store.  Find a petting zoo.

Water Slide

You get to be a kid again.  Climb to the top of the platform.  The wind blows, setting goosebumps to your skin, and the platform wobbles.  As you wait in line, you look down and your stomach churns.

Then it's your turn.  You push off.  Water gets all over your hair.  The tube twists and turns.  You move your body with the curves.  Faster, faster.  You plummet into the foot deep pool with a splash.  Water gets in your ears.  You shake your head.  You stand and stumble for your towel, a huge grin on your face.  Again!


As you recreate the experience of sliding down the water slide, really concentration on your verbs.  Whenever possible use an active verb (push, wobble) instead of a passive one (is, has).


Not all description is static.  Incorporate action into your description, and the reader will feel like they're playing alongside you.


I used a water slide as an example, but really any kind of activity is fine, whether going to a dance or jumping out of an airplane.  Just make sure its something you participate in.  Going to a baseball game is fine, but watching one on T.V. is not.


Description is hard work, but it need not be monotonous. If planning exercises stifles you (as it does me), carry around a pen and notebook and be spontaneous.  Incorporate description into your everyday life--in emails to family, records of fun trips, reviews of restaurants.  This shouldn't be a chore.  Have fun with it.

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