On Writing

Description (noun): a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object or event

Let me start out by saying that I loathe writing description. With the passion of a thousand hot suns. Or perhaps the fiery burning fury of a formerly quiet toddler whose favorite toy has been yanked away by another child yelling, “Mine!”

I can write an entire scene of a story with the characters being in a vacuum, unmoored from time and place. And if I go back into the story to try to add description, I try to find things the character can be doing. Picking up a glass, fiddling with something, playing with their hair…to the point where it becomes more of a tick and distracting to the reader than nice, quiet ambiance that sets the character in a time and space.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard for me. I wonder if it has to do with my not being very visual. I have difficulty “seeing” faces in my head or picturing places. I don’t see very well in my own life, due to my glaucoma and my bad eyesight. The visual picture isn’t all that pressing or interesting to me.

But I love the crackle of dialogue. I love plays on words. I love the right word at the right moment. And that sort of thing, I don’t have problems with. I don’t struggle with that at all.

But I do feel as if I need some description to balance things–to pull in a more visual reader.

What do you do? What kind of tips do you have that makes a description more powerful and interesting?

And for those who are interested, I found this little article about not using description in your writing. Of all the hundreds of articles out there that likely talk about how to better use description in your writing, and I found the one that talks about not using it. A bit of confirmation bias? *angelic smile*

I’d be interested to know your tricks and tips! Anything to get me past sentences like “He ran his hands through his hair.” every other paragraph.


8 Comments

  • Dana

    I love your descriptions; you know that! I know you don’t like it, but you really are very good at it!

    I also tend to write in a vacuum, but when I go back, I see where I need description and add it in.

    One thing I do, before I get into dialogue, because that’s when I forget about everything else, is set the scene. I put as much description as I can upfront, so then I can lose myself in the dialogue, and then go back and edit it and add description in around the dialogue.

    The author who absolutely kills me with his descriptions is Jonathan Kellerman. I just read his latest over the last couple of weeks or so as I was traveling, and once again, I am just blown away by his descriptions.

    So, when I am doing mine, I think about what I like best about his and I don’t copy or emulate (because then it wouldn’t be my voice, natch!), but I use it as a guideline, if that makes sense.

    • Susan

      You’re very nice to me, sweetie. It’s so hard to get them out and on the paper. I feel as if I really have to pull and strain to get anything coherent. Where dialogue, on the other hand, flows naturally without me even having to think about it much at all. I work on the description, but it’s never going to be easy like dialogue is to me. I’m glad you think that what I do write in description is good, though! Thank you!

      You’ve got some good ideas and suggestions! I have never read Jonathan Kellerman. Maybe I’ll have to give one of his books a try and see if I can’t look at it from a writer’s POV and get some descriptive chops from observing his!

  • Mary

    I have the same problem. When I was getting my degree in Creative Writing, I was always getting called out on having my characters “talking in space”, and he/she didn’t mean outer space, more like the vacuum of it. LOL If I get on a dialogue roll, I just go with it. I try to go back and think of the five senses: touch, smell, etc. That helps me come up with stuff to ground scenes.

    Without a doubt, the most challenging thing for me is to describe rooms, houses, buildings, etc. A real god-send are real estate websites that have lots of descriptions of houses and properties they are selling.

    • Dana

      “A real god-send are real estate websites that have lots of descriptions of houses and properties they are selling.”

      That’s how I found the little bungalow that Lexi lived in in California where Brian found her, lol!

      Coffee table books with images of historic things are my go-to for those sorts of things!

    • Susan

      Those are great ideas, too, Mary! I have pulled up some of those real estate ads, especially when I am describing a place they’re in. It helps me if I have an idea in my head of what the place looks like. I’m not much of a visual person, so having something in front of me to describe really helps a lot.

  • Julia Stephanie Tasker

    As you all write descriptions exceedingly well, I find this fascinating. I guess I’m the same. Most of the time the dialogue sings in my head and then I have to go back and wrap it in physicality. One of the things that helped me, was going back to some of my favorite writers, including Julie Campbell, Mary Stewart and Barbara Michaels. I realised that one of the things that grounded me as a reader was food. It drew me in and made the scene real. I’ve taken plenty of stick over my use of food in my writing, but as I grew more confident (largely thanks to certain Jixsters) I thought ‘yah boo sucks to you’. Most of my interactions with friends and family take place over food. A coffee, a glass of wine, a meal. Maybe me and mine are weird, but we don’t just stand around chatting without it. Unless we’re walking on the beach, and then I have beach to describe. Also, and this is for you, my dear, overwhelmed Dana, I have used my love of Country Living magazines to help create interiors-plus, my life long love of frocks helps too. Interesting topic, ladies.

    • Susan

      Thank you so much, sweetie! *hugs*

      I love the idea of food. Giving people something to do with their hands gives a lot of movement to the scene. And then they add to the room, too–setting something on a table or picking up a tray from the counter, munching on a bag of chips sitting on the couch, etc. It gives a sense of place, too. Great ideas!

      And I love Mary Stewart!! I am a fan of Elizabeth Peters, one of Barbara Michaels’ alternate egos. I have never read her Michaels’ series. Maybe I should try sometime!

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