"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." - Walt Disney

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Any author, editor, or agent will tell you description is essential to a story. It’s what draws the reader into the story world, and gives them a sense of the person, place, and things you are sharing.

Teachers demand you appeal to the five senses and cause an emotional response in your reader. I believe this technique is misrepresented and usually not taught well. I’ve seen too many writers get bogged down in description and let’s face it: many readers will skim or pass over long passages without dialogue.
Instead of trying to get an emotional response from your readers, you want to cause a PHYSICAL reaction. We want to evoke such strong feelings of mood, atmosphere, and a defined moment that your reader physically reacts. A tear let loose, quickened breath and pulse, verbal expression… these are all physical reactions the reader experiences when caught up in a story.

So how do I cause this? First, remember it isn’t enough to see the details of a person, place, or thing. You need to share character feelings. Then, take it a step further and show the conflict in those feelings.
Anyone can describe a bride on her wedding day. Listing visions of white, cream, pink, smells of flowers and candles, hearing soft strains of music, the feel of the gowns material, the smell of perfume in the air… All of the senses are employed, but have I made my reader care? Unless I’ve hit a description that reminds her of one specific event then no, and even then it may not be the emotion you wanted from the reader.

Now, I need to share the characters emotions. Is she excited, nervous, scared, tired? Any of these would be understandable, but the best way to gain the readers participation in the event is to show conflict.
Perhaps the bride is excited about her wedding. She’s madly in love with the groom, but she’s never seen a marriage last. No one in her own family or circle of friends has stayed in a union for more than X number of years. She thinks about the children from such a union, and what it does to them during and after a divorce. She has second thoughts.

Or perhaps, she does not love the groom. Maybe a baby is the reason for the occasion. She’ll be thinking about pros versus the cons of marrying to give the baby a name and family while sacrificing her own dreams.
As Donald Maass, Literary Agent asserts in Writing 21st Century Fiction, “it isn’t enough for the character to own a home, we want to see it on Christmas morning when the roof collapses.”

You see? It isn’t just the descriptions appealing to the five senses, or the protagonists feelings, or the conflict of the scene. It’s the totality of the three that evokes a physical reaction. The scene will no longer be a place, but a personal world.
Does your own writing merely relate details dryly? Or does it engage the reader and cause a physical reaction?


CA Verstraete said...

Description is my favorite part of a story. If it's done right, it makes the story come alive. Thanks for stopping by our blog!

Gwen Gardner said...

I don't write long descriptions because it breaks up the story instead of moving it forward. Short descriptions are great, though, because it sets the scene.

It's great meeting you, Sylvia - I followed you back :)

shelly said...

Ooo... very good. This morning I'm working on a coughing seen while my character struggles with an itchy spot in her casted leg.

All I can say is, thank God for beta readers and critters.

Hugs and chocolate,

DearKrissy said...

Great post!! This is definitely something I'll be watching for in my own writing. :)

saniya said...

A very good post. Describing characters/scenes only works if the reader cares for them. Thanks for sharing! :)

S.P. Bowers said...

The problem I have with description is finding that line between building the world and helping the readers connect and putting in so much it slows down the momentum of the story. That line is different for every person and every story so you just have to pay attention and hope we get it right.

Rebecca Green Gasper said...

So true...it's the emotional response that is so great it causes a physical one. I like description in a story...but you're right, I hate to get bogged down by it.

Nice to meet you- happy a to z <3

Bob/Sally said...

Thanks for stopping by - happy to return the follow.

I find that my first draft lays down the facts of what happened, to whom, where, and why. It's only in the later drafts that I manage to create that bigger picture.

Pratibha said...

This was a good one !
thank you for the engaging read :)

Patrick Stahl said...

My rule of thumb is that every piece of description must: a) move the plot; b) reveal a major aspect of the setting (time of day, era, season, culture, etc.); c) reveal things about a character(s). Usually a paragraph or two is all I have between conversations, with major additions and body language worked into the dialogue tags or otherwise just after the dialogue.

Crystal L. Kirkham said...

Great advice! I can't wait to see what you have in store from the rest of the challenge!

Wendy Jo said...

I love this. I struggle with description soooo much. I just can't get it right -- it's either not enough (most of the time) or way overboard.

Unknown said...

This was a very helpful and informative piece. Thanks for posting this great advice.

Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT post, Sylvia.

Krista McLaughlin said...

This is so very true. Many times I have skimmed long paragraphs of description because it was too much and I wanted to get back to the dialogue and action. It's much better when the writer incorporates the two in a good balance. :)

Sylvia Ney said...

Thank you all for the comments and kind words.

I love decription when used properly. As many of you, I'm still learning the craft and this is something that has really stuck with me lately.

Dana Martin said...

Soooooooo helpful!!!!! I love the quote at the end about seeing the home at Christmas time when the roof collapses. That's a real palm to the forehead moment that I can grasp.

Nice read. Bookmarking this page for future references for my writers groups.

Waiter, drink please!

Boss Mare Eventing said...

Thank you for stopping by my blog! I am very happy you came by. Looking at yours...I am seeing so much information and knowledge I can use as an aspiring writer.

Good luck with the A to Z challenge :)


Carrie Butler said...

This post deserves a high five! :)

Jack said...

This makes a lot of sense and clears up some things I've been debating about. I am going to keep this in mind and try it out with my own books.

Thank you for the comment and the follow! (And you didn't miss much by not watching the Dragonheart squeal.)

Kelly said...

That's a great quote from Maass. Talk about descriptive writing!

Unknown said...

Great post! Happy blogging on A-Z!