Description, more than a pretty scene

Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it’s likely  the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and create atmosphere. Now, I know  everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end is a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.

A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil was rich and fertile and the crops were ready to harvest. There was only one town in the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:

Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them.

The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch it fluttered and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over the thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but there was something she couldn’t name that kept her eyes lifting to the mountains that towered on all sides and wondering what was on the other side.

At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. It lay weightless and delicate in her hand. She could see the tiny veins that ran through it, yet already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne turned to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew change had found her.

Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.

Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.)  None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”

Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.

The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.

John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. The night deepened; the streetlights lit  as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. Not caring he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life he loved, and he messed it up.

John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. DogThing was licking his face. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.

The final point for this article is the difference between passive and active description.

Passive description has nothing to do with passive voice (that’s another article). It is what I call description in which the character (and thus the reader) stop everything to look at the scenery.

Anthony stepped through the door. The butler stood on his left, a look of disapproval pasted on his face. All around the great hall hung the portraits of Anthony’s ancestors. Each with varying degrees of disgust trapped in paint on canvas. The floor was polished marble; he used to get in trouble for sliding in his stocking feet. Straight ahead the staircase spiraled up to the gallery. His mother stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on her son.

That’s a lovely setting, all kind of emotional things going on in the background. We learn a lot about Anthony just by the way he sees the hall. What is he doing while we read the description? Standing in the doorway, frozen in time until he takes the next step. If this is part of a highly emotional homecoming, he have had to work himself up to knock on the door. We expect an emotionally laden dialogue with mother dear, and in between -he’s stuck in the door. There may be times we want that ‘stuck in the door’ moment, but it means we need to use it to forward the plot.

What I like to do is have the character interact with the setting. Thus, active description.

Anthony stepped through the door. He nodded at the butler with disapproval pasted on his face.

“My coat.” Anthony offered his threadbare garment. The butler lifted it with one finger and carried it away, probably to burn.

The paintings still hung around the great hall, Anthony strolled along the line of his ancestors, each with varying levels of disgust captured in paint on canvas.

“Sorry, Father.” Anthony stopped in front of the newest portrait, trying to feel anything but relief.


Anthony turned to the grand staircase where his mother waiting. For a mad moment he wanted to kick off his shoes and slide across the polished marble floor. His mother’s frown deepened as if she’d read his thought. He dragged himself over to stand at the foot of the stairs. As always, she stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on him.

All the same elements are present, but the plot moves forward. We see the emotion in the hall, but also feel Anthony’s shame and reluctance.