Dialog and description. What people say and what they do in the world they inhabit. There would be no stories without them.
I know there are thousands of articles and books about writing description out there in this big ol' wide world, so why waste my time with one here on this mostly unknown blog by a D-list indie writer of pulp and genre fiction?
Because I'm both vain and stubborn, I guess.
Now that that's out of the way, the real reason is that since we each have different ways of approaching our work, I figured it might help someone else out there if I shared what worked for me. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.
Description, defined personally, is the art of putting a place to your work. It's where the world is created with words and each item in that world worth mentioning is created as well. But there's a fine line between not enough description and too much description. How do you know if an item in or a detail of that world is needed or not?
I go to my toolbox. I have one for description and one for dialog. The description toolbox contains three key tools that help me answer that question for my writing. These are, in effect, my hammer, screwdrivers, and wrenches for my stories. For most situations, they get the job done for me, in spite of any additional fancy, schmancy gadgets I may also have access to.
Tool #1: Journalism School (The Four W's)
I come from a background in both fiction and nonfiction writing. I cut my teeth on magazine and newspaper articles, and as such, I had to learn quickly the most important questions for informative nonfiction. They've been called the "W's" for years.
Now, I know it's tempting to add "Why" to this list, but hold off on that for now. Honestly, if we can't detail a clear picture of these four questions, then why doesn't really matter to your story. We need to know who is on the set, what is on the set and what is happening, when it's happening (era or time of day or season, etc.), and where it's happening. Once those details are clear, readers will have all they need to ponder the why in their own minds and in Literature classes for time to come.
Most writers devote more time to who and what than anything else, but it's important to remember that each is equally important to your work.
Without a who, the plot is meaningless. The story only happens because it happens to somebody. And that somebody is either short or tall, lanky or stout, male or female or trans, blonde or redhead or raven-haired. That person has a personal style of dress, or stuff important to them, etc. Plot happens to characters, not to placeholders in the shape of one.
But it's not just your antagonist and protagonist. You also have to think about your other characters, even to the point of onlookers. One of these coolest tricks in filmmaking is to add a third person in a scene between two important characters. It's not just a way of breaking up the monotony of talking heads, it also can supply comedy, tension, suspense, or that moment of relief as the viewer sees another character react to those two primary leads for the scene. It's a trick we can apply in our fiction too, a breakaway from the key action to describe something in the background, something that may have importance or not -- the reader won't know yet. It could be important or it could be red herring.
Without a what, nothing happens? Characters do things in a way that tells the reader something about them. The things they touch, the way they walk, the words they say. the drinks they drink, the colors they choose for their living room decor -- all those whats establish identity and place a real character in a real place, at least in the theater of the reader's imagination.
A lot of writers, particularly beginning writers, tend not to even think about when. I can't tell you how many times I've read a short story without any sense of day or night, winter or fall or spring of summer, or the year. Some might say that's not nearly as important to the plot, but I disagree. If you didn't feel the snow and isolation of winter in Ethan Frome (it's pretty much its own character in the story) would the outcome of the novel matter or even make sense? If you could sense the oppression of night in Chander's hardboiled tales, you'd miss the moral ambiguity of the themes. If you couldn't feel the summer heat in Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, you'd missed the exuberance of childhood play that underlines all the weirdness of the stories the boys live.
Where is the one we writers think about almost as much as who. But do we really populate where in a way that makes a vivid picture for readers? Think about the various colored rooms in Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" or the simple living room in Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." The importance of the setting will determine how fully you describe it. In "Red Death," the colors not only exist for opulence and extravagance but also for meaning and symbolism. In "Bergeron" the setting is sparse intentionally because no one in that world has any more or less than any other.
Tool #2: The Senses
Now let's go deeper into our W's. How do we perceive the who, what, where, and when in our real life? Through our senses, of course.
It's the same with our fiction. Sensual (not to be confused with erotic though it can be that) writing simply means understood through or by the senses.
For those who haven't taken elementary-level science in a few years, they are:
On the surface, these are all very easy to work with, but like a screwdriver, they each function similarly but with different specifics, whether flat, Phillips, hex, socket, etc. Let's break them down.
Sight, simply put, is what the writer (and by extension, the reader) sees. It's where details like size, color, shape, number, background, etc. are perceived. It also has an emotional quality to what is seen, but we'll get to that later. In many ways, both in real life and in fiction, it's our default sense. It's the one we use even as a beginner without really having to think about it as we bang out words on a keyboard (or for you old schoolers, write on a notepad).
"It was a dark and stormy night..." is proof enough of that. (Thanks Snoopy!)
Sight descriptions run the gamut from basic (Hemingway, Carver) to uber-detailed (Faulkner, Tolkien) to flowery (Hurston, Garcia Marquez), and each is a valid choice when the writer knows when and where to use it. When it is overused, it is often referred to pejoratively as purple prose (often leveled at the pulp stories from the magazine heydays when writers were sometimes padding the pay per word).
This one is often underused, I've always believed. Maybe it's because I'm also a musician and I hear sound in a perhaps different way from non-musicians. For mean, perception through sound goes way beyond just the message heard, beyond the words.
At the risk of sounding stuffy (too late, I know), a message or setting is communicated more than just in the words said. I also understand meaning and location through volume, pitch, "pleasantness," etc.
For example, a loud speaking voice can be like a cannon or like a droning bug in my ear. And each conveys a different message about the speaker. Loud background sounds can provide feelings of calm or tension, whether cicadas, grasshopper "fiddles," water babbling, or falling timber in the distance. Even urban sounds can have different tones they convey just like nature. And how that message is received by your characters is important. But to experience them, they have to hear them first, and that means you need to write them.
The pitch of a sound also carries meaning to the listener. A high lilt may relax someone in the same way a low, husky, deep voice might relax another. Sharpness in the tone will almost always irritate me and put me off, whereas a softer timbre will put me at ease. Don't forget your characters have these traits too.
Smell and Taste
I like to think of sight and sound as the (sort of) basic senses and as the remaining three as the visceral senses. Sight and sound often tell you what while smell, taste, and touch tell your body how to react to that what.
As such. smell and taste often work together. If you can smell a fresh apple pie or a dead animal on the side of the road, you can almost always taste it as well.
Likewise, when you taste something and hold your nose, you miss out on quite a bit of the experience of tasting in the first place.
Every place your characters go and every person they meet and every new thing they see will have a taste and smell component. Your job will be to determine whether that is an important detail to include. However, don't be fooled into thinking that only food and fragrances are worth tasting or smelling. The thick, iron odor of blood can be a useful detail in a murder mystery or a coming of age tale in the wilderness. The taste of chalk on a vase can tell a detective or a nosy neighbor details about the person who owns the vase.
And, because these are visceral senses, how far you take that taste or smell is up to you and the story you're trying to tell. "The dried beef crawled down my throat like maggots swimming in gravy" tells a far different story than "The cottage pie warmed my tongue with the sweetness of green peas."
I could (and have) done a full tutorial on this sense alone. It's often the first sense that action writers go to for their visceral descriptions. It's the gut punch that twists your guts into a bag of bones and blood and playdough. It's the catch in your throat just before you lurch forward and send the contents of your stomach spewing. It hits like a proverbial sledgehammer.
But it's so much more than that.
It's also the touch of a lover's fingernails on the ticklish spot of your back, the one that causes your hairs to tingle and stand up, the spot that itches and relaxes your muscles all at the same time.
It's also the warmth of your father's palm against your face when he leans in, gripping slightly enough to force your cheeks against your jawbone, then backs away before leaning his forehead against your own and says, "I always knew you could do it."
It's also the gentle brushing of a thousand tiny dancers against your calves and ankles as your walk through the field between your house and your grandmother's place, each step sending the twirling off into the air.
It's also the breeze that makes you shake from the sudden ice cubes hunching across your shoulders and the single drop of rain that hits you on the forehead just as you enter the church for your mother's funeral.
It's touch. And it conveys so much more than just the physical sensation. It also tells the reader how to feel without ever saying how to feel.
Tool #3: The Psyche
We've actually been using this tool throughout this tutorial already because none of those previous tools works without this one. It's the creamy filling inside every chocolate candy we've eaten thus far (and yeah, I'm mixing metaphors; just go with it, we'll call it stream of consciousness if that helps). No who, what, where, or when exists in a vacuum. Each W question you describe the answer to has all kinds of emotion and reaction built in. It's the reason words like gigantic resonant more than big. It's why alluring means more than just pretty. The technical term for it is connotation. If denotation is the meaning all by itself, connotation is the meaning when the word is filtered through the brain.
This deepest tool of description is where we intentionally move our pictures from the outside to the inside. Like I said, we've been doing it all along, but now is the time we do it on purpose, not by accident.
There's a lot going on inside a reader (and a character) we need to tap into. Among them:
- Emotional responses
- Experiential understanding
This is where we not only drink the dandelion wine we've been waiting for, but we also pick up what the drinker feels and thinks when they drink it. But that's not description, you say, that's narration. Duh. It's all narration. Has been all along. It all is.
This is when the particular words chosen have something meaningful to say about what is implied when the narrator says the sun is yolk-like rather than yellow.
This is where the vision seen by the POV characters tells the reader something unique when they see rocks that are like little broken cities of the past rather instead of dried clumps of dirty stone.
This is the place when the way a character sees, hears, smells, etc. another character or a place will differ from how they see, hear, smell, etc. another character or place.
This is when the smell of cheese toast reminds a character of home in a good way or a bad way, like a melted combination of butter and cheese, with the tops all crispy and blackened, hot and sticking to the inside of your teeth or the dead odor of burned cheese and too much butter, thick in the air like the grease would undoubtedly soon be in the reader's mouth.
This is where the most important how in your work can finally come out and play -- the how it makes your characters feel and how it makes them think.
A Few Examples From My Work
Rather than analyze the works of writers far more gifted than me and tell you what I think they intended as they wrote, I'll take the coward's way out and just pull a few examples to examine from my own work.
It begins as always with the crick-cracking of the neck bone where it attaches to the top of the spine. Then there is the delicious constriction as the breath slowly ceases its movement through the windpipe. At last, after moments sometimes but more often after teasingly painful minutes, thick as the dripping of Winter’s oil, the body lies limp and unmoving, lifeless in the metal, springs and gears that have become my new strength.
-- "Death With a Glint of Bronze" (Dreams of Steam: Brass and Bolts)
This story opening is filled with visceral sense imagery using sounds and touch particularly. I can not only hear the crick-cracking but also feel in my fingers what it would feel like to make a neck make that sound.
A high-pitched male voice cut through the throng of onlookers and one of the bobbies fell to the street with a wet thud. A dwarf of a man, five feet tall at his best, stepped over the fallen officer and strode between McKendrick and his assistant.
-- "Death With a Glint of Bronze" (Dreams of Steam: Brass and Bolts)
Here's an example of using description to show a POV character's summation of a character he encounters. Words like "thud" and "dwarf" tell you exactly what he thinks of this interloper.
She reached across her lap and pushed the broken bone back into place then shook her wrist to check the connection. It held, and would stay together long enough to get some gauze and tape to secure the cracked bone. Not that it would heal of course. Those days were over.
“What do you call this bone?” she asked, holding up the arm to show him. “I used to know, I think, but I can't remember it now.”
“Hell if I know,” the man said. “That's what I hire editors for.”
-- "Posthumous" (Zombiesque)
For this zombie protagonist, I wanted to show not the grossness of the bone but the monotony of her having to constantly repair her body when she got angry and broke a bone. The emotion was not an active one, but a passive one in this case.
They were nameless, though they had no trouble distinguishing one another. Short and squat, they smelled like the caves they mined, but that didn’t bother them. They had done so and been so for more than two hundred of the humans’ years, and they looked neither older nor younger than they had a few decades ago.
-- "The Fairest of Them All" (Classic Mutilated)
I wanted to convey the way a fantasy dwarf might describe his kind in this story opening. Rather than the four-color world of Disney's Snow White, I wanted to build a dusty, dirty world of cave living for the seven dwarves.
The door burst open and a small dog with white matted fur bounded in and leapt into her lap, pushing her back onto the bed. Her feet hung of the edge and touched the floor, flat-footed, and the top of her head pressed against the head rail. The dog snuggled into her chest and licked her lips and nose.
-- "The Fairest of Them All" (Classic Mutilated)
When the story needed a break, it was time to bring in the dog, but only in such a way that made the scene feel childish, but not quite, since her feet touch the floor flat from the edge of the bed.
“You do know she's dead, right?” the girl tossed her hair back, flicking a solid streak of purple amid the unnaturally dark black. “Besides that, she wasn't real. She's a movie character.”
“What do you know about String Theory, Gert?”
“God, I hate that I got stuck with that name. Why couldn't my mom have been a hippy instead and named me something less stupid, like Sunshine or Rainbow?”
Reed ignored her, and traced the Hello My Name Is Gert on her cockeyed name tag with his eyes, then let them dart over to her breast for the merest of moments. “Or even better, M-Theory.”
-- And So She Asked Again, (Reel Dark)
In a few minutes the worst of the pain had passed, and I gathered up Elise's purse and overnight backpack just in case the doctor sent her own to the emergency room. He didn't do it often, but frequently enough that we had learned to keep the bag packed with a few toiletries, fresh underwear, and a pair of sweats and an baggy T-shirt and her flip-flops.
She made it out to the car leaning against me for support, and I helped her in the passenger side, careful not to touch her legs more than needed to help lift them into the car. She grinned weakly and said thanks then looked away and grimaced.
-- "The Watching Thing" (coming soon in A Crowd in Babylon)
This is one of my favorite passages of description. The contents of the bag say something meaningful, and then the description of Elise getting help into the car tell us it's worse than even the bag indicates.
Just as he’d requested in the Mid Town Reporter, the flowers were all made of papier-mâché. They were orange. And green. No other colors. The pallbearers wore suits of black, against which the brightly colored paper looked like a gift from a well-meaning, but naïve child, the kind of gift that a parent couldn’t dream of turning down, but clenched still at the thought of accepting.
-- "Foolish Notions" (Show Me A Hero)
I loved the color contrast in this story. It sets up the theme and tone from the beginning.
The woman’s accent was just German enough to get his attention, all dripping with sexy gutturals and thick vowels, just exotic enough to trick a man’s ears into thinking he was having a drink with Marlene Dietrich instead of some two-bit nightclub singer in a no-account New York dive like Belle’s. But the comparison stopped cold at the woman’s voice. She was attractive, of course, but lacked the sex appeal that would have brought sell-out crowds to the local bijou. Her skin was pale and almost sickly, and her figure—while a far sight better than that of the average woman with a nice apartment and radio in her living room—well, it was never going to get her silhouette painted on a playbill. But her eyes, her dark eyes that threatened to go solid black in just the right light, those were something special, and it was those eyes that had convinced him to listen to her story in the first place.
-- "Die Giftig Lilie" (The Ruby Files, Vol. 1)
The whole point of this story opening was to make the reader picture the idea of hard-boiled. I wanted to create the background images and the incidental music without having to say the bar was smoky or that a jazzy soundtrack played over the scene.
Okay, I've shown you the tools, and I've provided a few examples. Now it's your turn. Get to work. Dazzle me.