Quick Bit: Writing Active Description

Your writing needs description to make the people and places you're writing about come alive in the mind of the reader.


But opinions on how much description vary.  Some like a lot, some like a little.  I fall somewhere in between.  I like a lot of description–and I will admit to finding myself skimming through it upon occasion as well.

One way to make certain your description is palatable to the reader is to make it active.  I was reminded of this the other night when reading Stargazey Point by Shelley Noble.  Here's the sentence of active description that caught my eye:

She chattered on while Abbie followed a footstep behind her and tried to decipher the pattern of the faded oriental runner.

It is not the best sentence ever written in the history of the world, but it does illustrate my point nicely. And that point would be this:

The way to make your description active is to have your character interact with it.

As my grandchildren would say: Done! (This must be accompanied with throwing both hands in the air.)

So, have your viewpoint character describe the windows in the old house as she tries to open one.  Or your skateboarding protaganist wax poetic about a street fair as he zig-zags around people and booths.  

Simple and effective.  

And that is all I have to say on the subject.

Do you like a lot of description or a little?


Avoiding the Curse of the Superficial

The superficial, the general, skimming across the top, whatever you want to call it, hear me now, it is not a desirable thing, either in people (sorry, Paris Hilton) or the written word.

I've read several different pieces lately that shared this dreaded affliction.  The words stayed on the surface, never delving deep.  Think about it: remaining on the surface is like flat-lining, no peaks, no valleys, no highs, no lows.  It is like talking to someone who drones on in a dull monotone.  You are lulled to sleep.  This is not a good thing, either when talking to someone or reading something.  You want to keep your readers awake, thrilled with the liveliness of your prose, desperate to keep turning pages.

But how, pray tell, does one do this?

One way is through the use of detail.  For instance, perhaps you might have a sentence such as the following:

They sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

It is an okay sentence, though a bit boring.  How can we make it more interesting?  Unwrap it.  Think of how much fun it is to unwrap a present.  The same is true for unwrapping a sentence.  It is a process of taking it apart and adding more detail, of going deeper in order to show the reader the picture you have in your mind.  You do this by looking at every aspect of the sentence and digging for more details.

So, looking at the above sentence, let's begin with they.  Who?  How many of them is implied in they?  What do they look like?  What is their relationship?  So perhaps you answer these questions and come up with:

The two sisters with blonde hair sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

What about the verb sat?  What did the two blonde sisters sit on?  A porch swing with pillows?  Two deck chairs?  A wood bench?  Did they perch on the steps of the front porch?  These choices affect your narrative in multiple ways.  A porch swing covered with pillows implies a higher level of prosperity than a complete lack of chairs or two old dusty lawn chairs.  If the two sisters are sitting on a hard wooden bench they may not be as apt to linger over the conversation as if they are gently swaying on the porch swing.   So now, after pondering such issues,  we might have a sentence that read:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the front porch and ate breakfast.

Now, onto the porch.  Does it wrap around the house?  Is it a wood deck?  Or perhaps more like a broad landing at the top of several steps?  Or is it a low veranda?  Here we go:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house and ate breakfast.

And now, you guessed it, time to figure out breakfast.  Pancakes and syrup?  Maybe that's a touch too hard to eat on the swing.  How about Egg McMuffins from McDonald's?  But does that fit with the wood swing and the plump pillows?  No let's go with peaches and yogurt.

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house, eating peaches and yogurt.

So there you have it, an unwrapped sentence.

Ah, but perhaps it is just the wee-est bit too much.  Too many details blur the ultimate effect.  So now what you must do is decide which detail you wish to emphasize.  Find the telling detail for this particular scene.  Do you want to emphasize how much the sisters, with their blonde hair, look alike?  Is it a scene set in the south, where the day is going to be a scorcher, and thus you want to emphasize the languor or the day, focusing on the delicate swaying of the swing?  Or do you want to linger on the sensuality of the peaches?

Only you, the author, can decide.