“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”- Anton Chekhov
When I think of descriptive writing, the first thing that comes to mind is the popular board game, Clue. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing Clue, it is a murder-mystery, whodunit game where the players are tasked with figuring out the “who”, “where”, and “with what” of the crime.
Description, like Clue, is solving the mystery of a story by answering the questions of “who”, “where”, and “with what”.
Going further, descriptive writing should give the reader a clear picture of the scene, as though they were watching it happen in their minds. As Mary Jaksch of Write to Done says in her article, How To Show (Not Tell): A Writing Lesson from John LeCarre: “A skillful storyteller sets the scene by showing – not telling.”
1. Using Description to Show While You Tell
In order to show readers a scene, you have to give more clues than just who, where, and with what. If you were playing Clue, the answers to those three questions could be simply:
Who: Colonel Mustard
Where: The library
With what: The candlestick
With this information, you can visualize the crime scene to a certain degree. If your answers are correct, you win.
In contrast, if you were reading a murder-mystery novel, you may be slightly underwhelmed with an ending like:
“It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.”
That sentence leaves the reader asking questions like:
- What does Colonel Mustard look like?
- Where is the library? Is it a public library or inside of a house?
- What does the candlestick look and feel like and what is its significance?
These are “clues” that Clue leaves out but as a writer, it is important to cover all of the details down to the feel of something and even the smell.
2. Think Like a Reader
Literary agent, Mary Kole, discusses creating an experience for readers in What ”Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means, a Writer’s Digest guest column. She says that “by showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper.”
In my experience, most writers are also readers. When writing, it is helpful to take off the “writer hat” and put on the “reader hat” every once in a while. Thinking like a reader will help you write something that a reader would want to read. I’ve attempted to think like a reader with the above scenario (Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick) and rewritten it in a descriptive manner:
- The murderer was Colonel Mustard—a tall, stately man with a commanding silver mustache and round rimmed glasses. He was wearing a dark brown pinstriped suit with a double breasted coat and a gold pin on the right lapel. In his coat pocket was a red silk handkerchief. He wore freshly shined alligator skin boots that creaked a bit when he walked. Colonel Mustard was wearing a heavy amount of his favorite cologne which smelled of aged bourbon, sweet lilacs, and tanned leather.
- The murder was committed in the Library of the Boddy Manor which is a smaller rectangular room between the Billiard Room and the Study and smells of dust and old leather bound books. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books of all shapes and sizes. There are two ladders, one on each of the longer sides of the library that slide on rails from one side to the other. The far side of the room features a magnificent window with drapes that were imported from a European castle. The floors are polished Mahogany and several hand-woven grand Persian area rugs accent the seating areas. The Library feels like a room straight out of Downton Abbey with its dark colors and expensive antique furniture.
- The murder weapon used by Colonel Mustard to kill poor Mr. Boddy in the Library of the Boddy Manor was one of the two tall silver candlesticks which were given to Mr. Boddy and his late wife, Mrs. Boddy, as a wedding gift by the Earl of Manchester Manor. The candlestick is made of solid silver, weighing approximately 6 pounds, with intricate designs etched into the base. It tapers up to the top, with a wide, cylindrical base and a considerably smaller, yet similarly shaped top.
As you can see, descriptive writing makes a difference in how the reader thinks, feels, and connects with the story that is being told. In the Write to Done article, How to Use Vivid Descriptions to Capture Attention, N. Strauss tells writers that “using specific details in your writing will guide the reader’s imagination, helping the reader to imagine a scene the way you have imagined it yourself.”
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”― Stephen King, On Writing
3. 5 Basic Questions to Ask Yourself While Writing
When writing descriptively, there are several questions that a writer should attempt to answer:
- Who? (which character or characters are you talking about, give names and describe each character in terms of physical build, hair color, skin tone, and personality traits, etc.)
- What? (what is happening in your scene, give a description of actions and events)
- When? (i.e., time of day, specific date, time of year, season, etc.)
- Where? (where is your “what” taking place, describe location in relation to other places, physical attributes such as trees, buildings, flowers, roads, etc., if the place is fictional, more description may be necessary to give the reader a better grasp on the location)
- How? (how is the “what” happening, give descriptions of any tools used and who uses the tools, show the reader how the event is occurring)
4. Taking It Further with the 5 Senses
Once you have answered the first five basic questions, try to touch on the five senses with answers to questions like these:
- What does it feel like?
- What does it smell like?
- Does it have a taste? If so, what does it taste like?
- What does it look like through the eyes of your characters?
- What does it sound like?
Enhancing the Reading Experience
Every writer has his/her own way of using descriptive language which I think is something that makes writing so unique. If every book were the same, there would be no reason to keep reading new ones. These guidelines are very basic and descriptive writing takes a bit of practice but if you answer these questions in your writing, you will help your reader have a deeper connection with your story and ultimately have a higher quality reading experience.
“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but, most important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” ― Hazel Rochman
If you are a writer, how do you use descriptive writing in your storytelling? If you are a reader, what do you like most about books/stories that use this writing technique? Let me know what you think in the comments!
Until next time…
J. G. McNease