In my opinion, there are two primary pitfalls of descriptive writing: 1) the overload of complicated, blocky descriptive passages, and 2) sparse description that is vague and makes it difficult for the reader to imagine a scene or connect with the book. The following points suggest tips for avoiding these pitfalls by creating compelling narrative. If you have any further ideas, or examples of descriptive passages that you think are particularly effective, please do comment below.
- Ensure a balance between description and speech. Times are changing, and the modern reader is more likely to skip over lengthy realms of description to avoid a laborious read. According to the Medial Daily (2015, article accessible here: http://www.medicaldaily.com/human-attention-span-shortens-8-seconds-due-digital-technology-3-ways-stay-focused-333474), the human attention span has been decreasing over the years, so much so that a goldfish actually has a better average attention span. It may make sense to use heavy chunks of description for your particular genre type, but if you do write in this style then I’d recommend varying your sentence length, making every word count and ensuring the narrative flows in a way that catches the reader’s interest.
- We are blessed with several different senses: vision, touch, taste, smell, and sound. Use them! When I think about description, I create a spider diagram and jot down ideas that automatically jump to mind for all the senses ie. if I was writing about the ocean, the smell of salt may be noted down. This is not a tactic that will work for everyone, but you may find it useful to try so that you’re not limiting description to just sight.
- Try to show your reader a scene, as opposed to just telling them. Allow them to view something through a character’s eyes. What is relevant to your particular character? What would they focus on? If you’re describing a location that is familiar to your protagonist, then maybe their line of vision would be different…they would focus on anything that is different ie. recent refurbishments etc. In addition, think about how your character interacts with the surroundings. Instead of saying it’s warm, maybe you can talk about a character’s ice cream melting in the humidity.
- Narrow your focus. Instead of describing an entire building, for example, focus on a particular object your character finds interesting. Highlight minor details of that object that make it important or unique, or suggest its history. Think about texture, colour and shape, and how these properties interact.
- Blend your description so that the narrative flows and it’s appropriate for the type of scene you are writing. For example, if you’re writing an action scene you probably want to add drama and short snappy sentences. A character is less likely to focus on how the stone cobbles of the street glitter in the moonlight, and more likely to focus on the pain that erupts when their head is slammed against the hard surface during combat. Alternatively, if you’re building suspense, you may use more elaborate description to keep the reader yearning for more information.
- Try to select adjectives that are appropriate and powerful. Avoid those which are used so commonly that they’re almost cliché. Instead of choosing to overload your text with lots of modifiers, cut out the irrelevant words so that you highlight the most impacting adjective.
I hope you find this blog useful. Stay tuned for further Friday reads. My next blog post will look at a particularly ugly subject: motivation. It’s easy to start a book, but how do we finish it? And how do we kick our inner critic to the side-line during the initial creative process? This is perhaps the biggest challenge in the creative industry, and I will conduct research and discussions before suggesting a motivational plan.