Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Secrets to Effective Descriptions in Novels

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When you, as the author of a novel, describe a scene, character or setting, you’re painting a verbal picture for your reader. You’re using sensory detail to immerse your reader in your words. A well-written description should do the same thing as dialogue; it should move the story forward and add to characterization. 

The secret to presenting descriptions in a novel is all about discipline and imagination. It may seem odd to relate those two things, but it’s important for the successful author to understand this association. The discipline, I’m afraid, is the responsibility of the writer while the reader gets the fun part, the imagination.

As writers we must discipline ourselves to give readers what it is they want to read. And this takes us to why people purchase novels in the first place. After all, they know its fiction, and therefore a lie. Don’t we spend most of our lives trying not to buy someone else’s lies? Why then would the reader put up his hard-earned money to purchase a stranger’s lie? It’s because novel writers take the reader on an adventure, someplace they can never experience, but only imagine. The reader uses his imagination to create personal pictures your words represent. These mental pictures are relevant to him and him alone, making the story more realistic and personal. His imagination does most of the author’s work of transporting the reader to that netherworld he craves.

Consider, if you will, a warm, sunny day with you racing down the open road in a sleek convertible. Your favorite music is blaring as your hair whips in the wind and the love of your life snuggles next to you.

Oh, I forgot to mention, the convertible is pea-green.

I just gave you too much information, didn’t I? The enjoyable picture you’d fashioned in your mind just slipped a notch, didn’t it? It might have been ruined altogether, because of one word too many. So it is with descriptions in your novels.

It’s all about their imagination, not your writing skills. You may be able to paint a wondrous image with your words, but its’ not about your words. It’s about the pictures the reader creates.

So, the true secret to describing anything is to discipline yourself to describe only those necessary things, and then to describe them with no more words than necessary to evoke the readers imagination.

Here are some tips on how to create your descriptions.

Blend, don’t list, characteristics. That is to present details within action. Instead of telling the reader about the many multicolored wildflowers in the field, have the protagonist picking the flowers. Have him mention the many colors, hand the multicolored bouquet he’s gathered to his love, etc. Unless they’re important to the story, don’t just describe the flowers use them within the actions of your characters.

Don’t describe too many things. Descriptions slow a story and the more of them you have, the worse your writing will appear.

When you do describe something, consider the not so obvious details and offer the reader something to spark their imagination. For example, you might mention not only the bright light seeping into the room from between the slats of the blinds, but how the plants on the desk arch their leaves toward the limited sunlight.

I’ve already mentioned descriptions slow scene. You might use one, however, if you wish to retard the action and give your readers a breather.

Use nebulous rather than specific words. This allows the reader to use their imagination. For example, she doesn’t have eyes the size of silver dollars, she has oversized eyes. The reader will determine for himself what “oversized” means.

Avoid flowery language, especially the abuse of adjectives and adverbs. His “gangly approach toward the cusp of manhood” might be reworded to say “he turned fifteen.”

A rule of thumb is a description should be kept to no more than four or five sentences. Never use five when two will do the trick.

Describe those things that differ every time you see one. There’s little need to portray a red rose, as it’s pretty much a red rose everywhere you go. (Yes, I know there are a million varieties, but when you write, “rose,” the identical image come to almost everyone’s mind.) An antique pocket watch, however, is unique almost every time.

Effective descriptions are difficult to master, but mastering the technique will lift your writing to a new level. Best of luck.

Until next time, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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