Using strong details in your writing makes the difference between language that springs to life and words that remain flat and uninspiring.
Wherever you use details in your novel – and particularly in passages of descriptive writing – always try to find a stronger, more unusual, more arresting detail.
Why are they so important?
All novels are elaborate lies – writers know it and readers know it. The unspoken deal is that writers will attempt to make their stories as life-like as possible so that readers can at least pretend that what they’re reading actually happened.
And the way writers achieve this, primarily, is through the use strong, concrete, authentic details.
Here are three things to keep in mind…
1. Use the Best Details You Can Imagine
When you sit down to think of the right details, the ones which come readily to mind will most likely be commonplace.
These are no good to you.
You need to search harder to find specific, original and interesting details to use in your writing. In other words…
- Don’t describe a waitress’s eyes as blue – say they are as blue as the neon in the flickering sign outside Frankie’s Grill.
- Don’t have a businessman smoke fat cigars – have him smoke Montecristo No. 2s.
- Don’t describe a boy as being obsessively in love with the prettiest girl in class – show him scratching her initials into his forearm with a pencil sharpener blade.
Also, try to find unusual or unexpected ways of describing something…
If you’re describing an approaching storm, for example, you could mention the angry clouds or the wind bending the trees – the obvious details that everyone uses. But…
A more powerful piece of descriptive writing might concentrate on the frightened reaction of the character’s horse to the storm.
2. Don’t Use Too Many Details
It is quality that counts in descriptive writing, not quantity.
Yes, you must work hard to come up with those specific, original, interesting details to use in your fiction. Once you have, have faith in them… don’t feel the need to back them up with a dozen unnecessary details.
Here’s why over-using details in your writing is a bad idea…
Part of the pleasure of reading books is that it allows us to use our imaginations. If I picture the most beautiful woman in the world, for example, it will probably be a very different image to the one in your mind’s eye.
If we see a character described as the most beautiful woman in the world on a television screen, we’re forced to share the same image (and to one or both of us, the woman may not be all that beautiful).
But by each picturing a different image in our minds, when we read a book, both women will be beautiful to us.
So here’s the thing…
If I use just two or three striking details to describe a fictional character’s physical appearance, you, the reader, will be free to paint the rest of the picture for yourself.
But if I describe every possible physical characteristic of this person, I will have done all the work for you and robbed you of the opportunity to create a picture more to your liking.
To illustrate that, let’s return to the waitress working at Frankie’s Grill I mentioned earlier. I’ve already told you that her eyes are as blue as the neon in the flickering sign. Here are a couple more details about her appearance…
- She looks as fresh at the end of a nine-hour shift as she did at the start.
- Just one of her smiles is all it takes for the boys to want to marry her and for the older men to wish they were young again.
And that’s all I intend to say about this fictional character. You’re free to paint the rest of the picture for yourself. You can make her blonde or a redhead, short or tall – it’s up to you.
That is the magic of reading fiction!
Precisely the same thing applies to describing characters through their actions…
If a character is violent, say, you could demonstrate this by having him kick the dog when he walks into the house. (Okay, maybe dog-kicking isn’t particularly fresh and interesting as writing details go, but it will do for now.)
The dog incident demonstrates that he’s a violent man perfectly well – there’s no need to also have him slap his wife, throw the TV out the window and punch a hole in the wall when his spaghetti is cold.
There will be more violence to come, of course, before the story is over.
And because you were restrained early on and didn’t use too many details in the early stages of the novel, the violence will be all the more shocking when it arrives.
What about describing settings using a minimum of detail?
You do it in exactly the same way – use just two or three vivid brush strokes and leave it to the reader to create the rest of the setting. So if you’re describing a spooky cottage, for example…
- Begin with an overall impression – a large, isolated cottage being choked by ivy.
- Add a few more specific details as the character goes inside and walks around – the cobwebs swaying in the breeze, the damp chill in the air, the broken staircase.
- But don’t go too far. Provide just a few telling details and the readers will create the majority of the picture for themselves.
3. Some Details are Better if they “Move”
Throughout this whole section on description, I’ve talked about writing being like painting a picture. I’ve said that fiction is not a visual medium, but that through the skilful use of language writers can nevertheless make their readers “see”.
But painting a picture isn’t a perfect analogy.
Pictures are static and unmoving, which is fine for artists and photographers but not so great for storytellers. For us, painting pictures for readers is a good start, but those pictures will be all the more powerful if they have the added dimension of motion.
Take a look at this description of a house in a novel…
Oak Tree Cottage had been uninhabited for more than a decade now. The once-white walls had turned the same dirty green as the pond out front, and the paint around the windows had either flaked or already been taken by the wind. Many of the terracotta roof tiles were missing, too – presumably smashed on the bricks below, though it was impossible to tell with the path ankle-deep in last season’s leaves.
Now compare it to this description, which moves a little…
Oak Tree Cottage had been uninhabited for more than a decade now. The once-white walls had turned the same dirty green as the pond out front, and the paint around the windows that hadn’t already gone was hanging off in flakes that swayed this way and that in the strengthening wind. Many of the terracotta roof tiles were missing, too – presumably smashed on the bricks below, though it was impossible to tell with the path ankle-deep in last season’s swirling leaves.
Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the first description. Static descriptive writing in a novel can still be vivid and catch the reader’s eye.
Showing details in motion, though, can truly cause a “word picture” to come to life.
I want to finish by running through an example – a description of a kitchen in a house – which highlights the most important points. As I’ve said, the trick here is to…
- not provide too many details
- use only the best details.
So I’ll restrict myself to mentioning just five things about this fictional kitchen. (It’s up to you, dear reader, to complete the picture for yourself.)
- It has a stone floor.
- There is a table in the middle.
- The sink is full of last night’s pots and pans.
- A clock is ticking.
- The room smells of home baking.
(Note that the first three details appeal to the sense of sight. The next two appeal to the senses of sound and smell. This seems to me about right, given that I mainly want you to “picture” the setting, but I also want to add an extra dimension or two. See Part II of this article for more on sensual writing.)
From these five facts, you should all be able to picture this kitchen. I didn’t tell you about the work tops or the windows, but you should nevertheless be able to see them.
Our pictures will all look somewhat different, of course, but they should all be similar to the picture that I would have painted if I’d described every last detail.
And that is the whole point of descriptive writing in fiction – getting the readers to visualize (more or less) what you, the writer, want them to visualize… but using the minimum of words to do so.
Why so few words?
Because it’s the story and the characters that are important, not the setting. The more concisely you can describe the setting, the sooner you can get back to what really matters.
Back to describing the kitchen in the novel…
Although we should all be picturing (and hearing and smelling) a vaguely similar room in our minds, the details I used just now were not strong enough to guarantee that you’ll see what I wanted you to see.
The impression I wanted to create was of a warm, homely, lived-in kitchen – the kind of place you’d be happy to spend a cold winter’s evening. Did I succeed?
- The table (a place for people to come together and eat) and the smell of baking helped to achieve the right feeling, but they were pretty vague.
- The sound of the clock was also too vague, and added little to this homely feeling I wanted to create.
- And the stone floor and the pans in the sink helped to create an impression of a cold and dirty kitchen.
So here are some better details to use in the description…
- A white labrador is sleeping on the flagstone floor.
- In the middle of the kitchen is an oak table laid for supper.
- An old lady is standing at the sink washing pots and pans.
- Hank Williams is playing on the radio.
- The air smells of freshly-baked ginger cookies.
If these were details in a novel I was writing, I’d probably play around with them some more during the revision stage, trying to dream up better details until I had them “just right.”
How would I know when I was done?
- When I was happy I’d used the minimum number of details necessary to enable the readers to successfully fill in the rest of the picture for themselves.
- When I believed they were the best details – specific, unusual, interesting – that I could come up with in a reasonable period of time.
- When I was sure they were all contributing to the overall impression I was trying to create, with nothing “off message.”
Details in writing (not just descriptive writing, which I’m concentrating on here, but in any kind of writing) always have a double job to do…
First, and most obviously, they’re there to ensure that the events do not take place on a bare stage, so to speak.
Second, they have to help to create an accurate overall impression…
- The sleeping dog, for example, is more than just a dog. It creates a more general sense of warmth and homeliness and contentment.
- The flagstone floor and the oak table were chosen to create a more universal sense of solidity and rusticity.
- The ticking clock said nothing, so I scrapped that sound and introduced country music playing on the radio.
I chose every detail for a reason, and I ensured they were all pulling in the same direction.
If I’d described a flagstone floor, a modern glass-topped table, and a 1950s red telephone, you would have been confused. Instead, the details I used enabled you to effortlessly create the rest of the picture for yourselves.
All of your pictures would have been different in small, inconsequential ways – some would have had net curtains at the windows, some wooden shutters. But they would have been virtually identical in terms of the feeling and mood I wanted to create for the upcoming scene.
Do that, using as few details and words as possible, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master of descriptive writing!