Description is a thing one should know how to do…

Hello gentle readers! Happy 2021! Thank goodness 2020 is over. Maybe now we can get back to being moved by minor ecological destruction like all of Australia burning down. Ha. Ha. 😦

I was having a good think about what I should write my next newsletter about. Boyfriend suggested the connection of how plot drives character and vice versa, but that felt a bit large to discuss in <1000 words, so I picked an entirely different thing, which is ~*~description~*~.

Description in a novel, much like characterization in a novel, is not an all-encompassing, atomic-level manifestation in words of your subject. Description is the author choosing what to draw the reader’s “eye” to, and what to leave out. Just as you don’t need to know what every character’s favorite color is, you also do not need to describe the way a room’s wallpaper tastes. (Unless it is necessary to the storytelling.)

Humans have the uncanny ability to pull together an image and sensory details in their mind from even the smallest nudges of descriptive imagery. Think of it like impressionist paintings–you’re dabbing color into the concept of what a thing is, and their mind fills in the space between the brushstrokes, rendering your intended image.

But how does one choose WHAT to describe and HOW? Decisions! WHAT DO?

I have three pro-tips on how to describe things in a book:

  1. Focus on what is most important to the plot
  2. Or the POV character
  3. From that, focus on the most defining details of the image

Let’s go through a real-life example from Magic Princess Academy and I will show you what I mean by these three steps. This is a segment in which I describe a bunch of dragon eggs:

The eggs in each nest were about the size of soccer balls, and each one had its own distinct color and pattern. There was a marbled blue one, one covered in what almost looked like silver coins, a red-orange one that seemed to beat like a heart…  Ivory eggs like the carved edge of a folding fan and gold eggs laid with ormolu designs. Their shells ranged from perfectly smooth to spiked like a medieval mace….

So first. Eggs. The reader’s “eye” is drawn to the eggs. Why? Because they are important to the plot i.e. what is happening. The young princess students are choosing the egg of the dragons that could be their lifelong partner. These are the stakes of the scene. The eggs are the point.

Going from large to small–what are the eggs like? I describe them with 1) size 2) color 3) pattern. It’s not to say that size is more important than color etc, but I think that putting the ending focus or the majority focus of a sentence/paragraph lends more weight to it, and I definitely wanted to focus on their seemingly innumerable variety.

So we’ve focused on what’s important to the plot–but what is important to the POV character? Lumina (our protagonist) doesn’t play soccer, per se, but as someone living in Connecticut in 2005, she knows what it is, so since the narrative is from her POV, it makes sense for Lumina (and the narrative) to compare the eggs to the size of soccer balls. Same with medieval maces–she lives in a world where the medieval ages occurred, so this is not an out-of-hand comparison. (Although it may not be the greatest one either.)

It would probably be a stronger description if I managed to work in Lumina’s hobbies, which are drawing and theatre. I.e. “the eggs were luminous as stage lights” or “As colorful as her pencil set,” perhaps. It would be a weaker description if I used concepts that Lumina (the voice of the narrative) has no reason to know about, i.e. “the dragon eggs were the height of an abacus” or “they smelled like the phosphorescent tinge of a shot-off photon blaster.” Since most children don’t know what an abacus is, that isn’t as good of a use of narrative description, and since Lumina doesn’t live in some soft sci-fi arena, the photon blasters don’t work either. (But they might if she were a huge sci-fi fan.)

After narrowing down what must be described to make the plot function and describing it within the confines of the narrator’s interiority, we come to point three, defining details, which almost sounds like a tautology so I will rephrase: For descriptions, focus on descriptive keywords that are the impressionist brush-strokes that will convey your idea into a reader’s mind.

What do I mean by keywords? I like to think of this like an eBay description, or a forum topic, or SEO. You’re using targeted words that the reader will understand to convey an image or idea of your product–in my case, a table full of eggs. And I don’t necessarily mean you should describe, for example, a woman as “the woman wearing a size 12 Talbots navy day dress with polka dots” because the keywords you use on eBay aren’t the ones you would use to describe human people, but I do think there’s some merit to this analogy in that it brings to center the idea of describing something so the audience can understand it more quickly and with relative ease.

In my youth (lol I am 29–but like, my youthier youth), I had the misplaced conception that writers, to create good prose, couldn’t describe things much, because “adverbs were out” and “more than one adjective was unnecessary” and I feel like I’ve done a pretty violent 180 on this matter. True, it can be a bit wordy to say “the small, timid, squash-faced, black and white cat” but those are all words that serve a function in conveying different parts of the cat. Doubly so, you can use phrases or clauses to add description so its less listy, like:

“Rusty was a small, black and white cat with a squashed face and a penchant for hiding under the couch when strangers visited.”

If not poetry, that is technically description that creates an image in your mind, and that’s the point here. In my own practice I’ve moved from emptily sparse prose to prose that conjures fairly specific images. All writers have their own level of imagery that they are comfortable with, and so it’s important to feel out intuitively what level works for you.


What about you? Do you have any pro-tips on description? How do you choose what to describe for your reader and what to leave out? And how do you choose your narrative voice? Let me know in the comments!

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