Painting a picture with your words so the reader can see the story in their mind
There are three main parts of writing in fiction: description, action and dialogue. Very simply, action is what the people do (or what is done to them) and dialogue is what they say. The job of description is put the reader in the story in all senses of that. Let’s look at an opposite example.
Jeff ran across the field.
“Watch out!” he shouted.
Tina turned and saw him. She ducked out of the way as the thing approached them.
“It’s found us at last,” she said. “That sucks.”
There is a lot of action here (even if we don’t know exactly what is going on from this short section) but when you imagine this, what do you see? Maybe a green field since it mentions a field, but it could be a football field. Is it day or night? How old is Jeff or Tina? What are they wearing? We can fill in the details but if we do not know anything else, it kind of seems like the action is happening in an empty void.
They say that a picture can be worth a thousand words and while that is a cliché, it is a lot easier to show a scene if you have a picture. In a movie or TV show, you can see exactly what things look or sound like in an instant. That is one place where movies or TV shows have an advantage. However, writing has a lot of advantages in other ways over movies and TV shows. We are going to look at them here.
Types of description
There are many types of ways of describing a person, place, thing, etc. This is not a full list, of course, but here are some main ways.
Ex. The rusty axe leaned against the side of the house.
Ex. His hands were rough and there was black dirt under his long fingernails.
Ex. The engine whined higher and higher as the car sped up.
Ex. The cat’ purring intensified and it flicked its tails against my shirt with the swish of fur on silk.
Things you can feel through your skin, including temperature and pain
Ex. The morning grass felt cold and wet on his bare feet.
Ex. I landed hard on the pavement and hot, sharp pain burst in my wrist.
Ex. The smell of cooking meat filled the house.
Ex. The cheese smelled like a sock that had been worn all football season, then buried in a compost heap for a month.
Ex. The smooth taste of the chocolate pie filled his mouth.
Ex. Her lips tasted like cherries with a hint of Colgate toothpaste.
This is any feeling that are inside the characters.
Ex. Disappointment filled my mind like a dark cloud.
Ex. Rage swirled like angry wasps, promising to burst out and attack the next person that looked at her.
This is any invisible feeling or atmosphere. Think of it like the music in a movie. The music can make the feeling of the scene be happy, excited or scary, etc. The people in the movie can’t hear the music, of course, but it is to help us feel what they are feeling. In a story, we don’t have music but we can use description to do the same thing.
Ex. An air of sadness hung over the house.
Ex. The school seemed tired, as if six decades of rowdy teenagers had made it lose any life it once had.
As you can see, there are many things we can describe in writing (and more than this, I’m sure). However, movies and TV shows can only use sight and hearing, although they can use these to make you imagine the others (like how seeing cooking meat will make you imagine the smell or seeing someone’s angry face will let you know they are angry).
How to describe things
When you think of description, you probably think of adjectives, since they are used a lot for description. But there are many other ways too.
This is the main way to describe things but don’t use too many. Although you can say, for example, “the big old red wooden bed”, usually you only want to use one adjective at time, two at the most. If you have two adjectives, pick the one that gives the best picture. It is even better if you can use a different noun that means the same thing. For example, it is often better to say “the giant” than “the huge man”.
Adverbs are like adjectives except they are for verbs (or adjectives) instead of for nouns. Most of them end with -ly, like “happily” or “crazily.” There is a lot of disagreement about adverbs. Some people use them often but some writers think you should never use them. I would say it is okay to use them but don’t use them very often. If you can, use a verb that has the meaning of the adverb inside it. For example: instead of “talk loudly” you can say “shout”.
We can use verbs and action to describe things. This is really good for two reasons:
- it does two things at once: painting us a picture and also telling us what is happening so it is more efficient.
- It is an example of showing, which means we just tell the story and the reader figures out what is happening through the action, instead of us telling them exactly is happening.
For example: “Mark put the letter down and wiped at his eyes.” This does not have any adjectives, just two verbs, but if we picture him wiping his eyes, we can guess he was crying, meaning something in the letter probably made him sad (or maybe happy). This is much better than if we had said. “Mark read the letter. It made him sad. He started to cry.”
This is a way of comparing the thing we are describing to something else. It is very useful for describing things that no one has seen before but is also good for describing things in a different way.
Jenny ran quickly through the hallway.
Jenny ran through the hall like a cheetah.
The first one tells us she was running fast, but in the second one, we can imagine just how fast she is going since cheetahs run really fast. Anything that paints a better picture in a small number of words is good.
There are different types of this kind of comparison language. Ones that use “like” or “as” are called similes, such as in the example above. We can make comparison without these words too (these are called metaphors too).
Example: The truck was a whale.
This does not mean the truck was an animal but it is comparing it to a whale, so we can picture the truck as huge and slow, probably.
How much description should you use?
A long time ago, stories used to have more description. Maybe that was because there was no TV or movies then. Today, stories don’t have as much since it can slow the story down if you spend a long time describing things.
How much description is enough is going to be different for different writers, but in general, use enough so people can get a good picture of the story without using too much. Like a lot of things in writing, less is often better. You also want to use description to help the story, so describe things that matter to the story.
Now it’s your turn
Try describing the following things. This is the sort of thing you might do in an English class but this is about using description in fiction, so it has to be relevant to a story. I will tell a bit about the person or thing and how they are important to a possible story. It is your job to paint a picture of them in a few sentences and help show the details I mention through the description. I’ll give an example for the first one.
- A person
Mr. McHenry is an old man. He lives next to the main character. He is very nosy and is always trying to overhear what people are saying when they come in. He is the one who saw the robber leave. So, we want to emphasize that he is old, around all the time, likes to overhear things and hint that he could be someone who could see things.
Mr. McHenry plodded around the lobby in thick slippers that made almost no noise on the tiles. His bent frame seemed to be pointed towards the ground, but his ears stuck out like radar dishes. The mail came once a day but the other tenants swore that he crossed the lobby to check his mailbox once an hour.
- A person
Alissa is a teenage girl. She is cheerful and friendly and makes friends with the main character after she starts going to the new school. The two girls start working at this girl’s family’s grocery store.
- A place
The train station is old and very fancy. It used to be very busy but is not used as much now. It will be the scene where the two main characters meet at the end of the story to say they love each other.
- An object
This is a flashlight that the main character gets from her dad. It is made of metal and is one foot long. It is going to help her as she travels through the cave system under the city to rescue her classmates. She will also use it as a weapon.
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