Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Five Steps to Writing Better Sentence Level Description

Over the last few weeks I've noticed my Writing Wednesday posts have been getting a bit broad of topic. This is fun for me, I love nothing more than a good wax poetic, but these WW posts are supposed to be about the craft of writing. So, for the next few weeks, I want to get back to basics and really dig into the nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts issues of putting together a good piece of fiction on the sentence and paragraph level.

Why go so small? Well, because there's already tons of information out there on how to do the macro stuff. Just on my blog I have multiple posts about character creation, plotting, tension and pacing, hooking your reader, and so forth.

But despite the obvious importance of these big issues, the problems I see most in books by new authors are not the big ones. It's the little stuff--dull prose, uninspired description, mediocre dialogue--that puts me off first. The book may have major character issues further on, or it may be a work of perfection, but if the sentence level writing is bad, then I'll never get far enough to find out. Life is simply too short to read a badly written book, especially when I have so many other excellent choices as a reader.

Fortunately, these little problems, though book killers if ignored, are some of the easiest to solve in our profession. Motivation, dramatic timing, proper pacing, imaginative plotting, great characters--this stuff is hard. This stuff is art. Learning to writing a nicely put together, functional paragraph? Easy peasy!

This isn't to say writing deathless prose is easy. Quite the opposite. Prose composition is one of those "easy to learn, hard to master" kind of things, which is why you hear stories about literary writers spending years on one paragraph. That said, this level of artistic effort is most definitely not the standard, nor should it be. Some readers love that deep, prose-as-poetry stuff, but there's a vast audience out there that just to read a story told competently and interestingly in a style that doesn't distract from the words are there to say, and that's what we're going to be focusing on in this blog series, which I'm calling Prose Summer Camp!

 'Cause summer. And I love naming things. :)

Ready? Let's tackle the first and perhaps biggest bear on the docket: sentence level description.

Writing Wednesday Prose Summer Camp: Five Steps to Writing Better Sentence Level Description

I've talked about description twice on the blog before: once in a broad "what does description actually do for you?" sort of way, and once with a specific focus on how to describe things in your text without resorting to the dreaded info dump. Everything I said in those posts still applies, but today we're going to look at the fundamentals of writing good description (ie, telling your reader what stuff looks like/feels like/does in an interesting and concise way) as they function on the sentence and paragraph level.

First though, a disclaimer:

**This is how I write. All of the tips below are drawn from my taste and experience as a writer. If you don't like my writing style, knowing how I craft sentences might not be useful. This is fine! Everyone writes in their own voice. I hope, of course, that you will still find some it helpful, but please don't take any of this as me setting down the One True Path of Writing. I'm just telling you what works for me in the hopes that it might also work for you.**

Now that's out of the way, let's talk details.

What is Sentence Level Description?

Sentence level description is exactly what it sounds like: describing the events, surroundings, and people in your novel within a sentence. Probably the most famous example of this is the often mocked "It was a dark and stormy night" by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. For the record, the full opening line goes:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
- opening of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830.

This opening is often called the worst example of overwrought, overly florid, purple prose in the English language. It even inspired a yearly contest for bad opening lines in the author's name. Personally, I think all the hate for Edward Bulwer-Lytton is a bit much. I've read way worse than this, and I would point out that this is the same Edward Bulwer-Lytton who gave us every writer's favorite quote "the pen is mightier than the sword." For some reason people always think that was Shakespeare while poor Mr. Bulwer-Lytton gets stuck with Dark and Stormy Night. Truly, there is no justice!

English major fist shaking aside, there's no arguing that the quote above is, in fact, a perfect example of very bad description. This is not because the writing isn't poetic or even lovely in some places (I particularly like the flames in the lamps struggling against the darkness), but because the description itself is so thick, you can't actually tell what's going on.

This, not its florid prose, is Dark and Stormy Night's greatest sin. There is nothing inherently wrong with ornate descriptions just as there's nothing inherently wrong with terse, minimalist ones. Both are stylistic choices, and which kind works best comes in a given paragraph depends on personal taste, authorial voice, and the needs of the story. But any description, long or short, that fails to describe is a brick wall to your reader. Even if they can get around it, it will stop them short and knock them out of your text, and that is absolutely what we don't want.

So how do we avoid this? Obviously (unless they're competing in the Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest), no writer sets out to write bad description, but how do you know if you're doing it right? How can we make sure we don't suck?

Sadly, there is no test for this other than sharing your work and paying attention to people's reactions. Preferably ones who don't have a personal stake in your happiness and can be trusted to be honest (unlike your mom, significant other, or friends, all of whom care more about making you smile than the objective quality of your writing).

But just because there's no way to know for sure your writing is good until you actually give it to a reader doesn't mean you can't give yourself a leg up by following the known fundamentals of good description construction. For me and my style, that starts with the five basic principles listed below.

Step 1: Know What You're Trying to Describe.

Like most of what I write on this blog, this probably sounds like common sense, but I am ceaselessly amazed at the number of writers who, like Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the quote above, try to describe everything at once and end up with a confused mess that actually describes nothing. This why, when I set out to describe something, my first focus is to just describe that thing

Don't do this.

If I want to tell my readers what the weather is like, I tell them what the weather is like. I don't start with the weather and end up with the situation in parliament. For example, if I was describing a dark and stormy night in 1830s London, I'd do it something like this:

"The heavy clouds hung low in the sky, dumping their torrents of rain on the dark city until the water ran off the sharp peaked roofs of the factory row houses in dirty, sullen waterfalls."

This is still a very florid and probably too long description, but do you see how much clearer a picture it paints? This is because I kept the focus on the subject of the sentence: the heavy clouds and the rain they currently dumping. You'll notice that I also worked in details about the houses and the dark to emphasize that this rain is falling on a dark and gritty urban scene (a trick I'll cover in detail in a bit), but these details are just that: details. The focus and purpose of the sentence--the thing the verbs "hung" "dumping" and "ran" are all referring to--is the clouds and the rain they're currently shedding. The stormy night, ie, the thing this sentence is meant to describe.

This isn't to say the thing you're describing always has to be the subject of the sentence. For example, if you're describing something by having a character experience it. ie, 

"Mike had been stung by a bee before, but never with such vigor, and never in such a tender spot. He yelped in surprise, smacking the insect off his privates. A move he immediately regretted when the red hot pain shot through him like a bullet of yellow and black insectiod revenge."

In this example, the character is the subject, the one doing the acting, but the the focus is still on the bee sting, the thing being described. Think of it as throwing your reader a ball and asking them to catch it. Their chances of successfully doing so are much higher if you're only throwing one ball at a time, so if you want your description to be clear, keep your focus tight. 

But describing important things one at a time can be a little boring if you let it, which brings us to step 2.

Step 2: Tell Your Reader a Story

As you saw in the bee example above, one of the easiest ways to make description interesting is to frame it as a story (in this case, a man getting stuck in the nethers. Keeping it classy!). I actually also did this in my stormy night example. It's not as obvious, but if you follow the sentence, you'll see I'm actually telling the story of the rain as it left the clouds, hit the roofs, and rolled off into the street. 

The two most important aspects of successful description are clarity and interest. Keeping your focus narrow will greatly help with clarity, but if you want to make it fun and interesting to read, you can't just say "X was Y." You have to make it interesting, and interest depends on context.

This is why the story construction is my absolute favorite way of describing things, because if there's anything we love as a species, it's a good story. "It was raining" is boring, so is "it was raining hard." Both of these are accurate, clear descriptions, but if tell your reader how it was raining (buckets, drizzles, aggressively misting) and what that rain was doing (flooding a farm, obscuring the road, soaking a passionately kissing couple to the skin), everything instantly gets more way more exciting. This is because you've given your rain (a common weather occurrence almost everywhere readers live) context and importance within your story. "It was raining" tells us it was raining. "It was the first rain in twenty years" tells us the story of the rain. See the difference?

This isn't to say you have to write a novel within a novel every time you want to describe something, or that every weather detail has to be a once-in-two-decades occurrence to be worthy of note. These are just examples of how you can frame setting information within context to make readers care. 

For example, say you want to tell your readers that a character is getting soaked by summer rain and thus can not be lit on fire later in the scene. You could just say "The summer rain got Julius wet as he walked down the street." This is very clear, but also boring. Better would be, "Julius walked down the street, ignoring the soft, warm rain that soaked his hair and plastered his shirt to his chest."

Not only is the second one more descriptive, it ties the important detail--wet from the rain--to Julius, our character. The description is not just a statement, it's the story of Julius and how he interacts with the summer rain. The addition of the character and his opinion, even though in this example he's ignoring it, makes the rain infinitely more interesting to the reader because it now has context. It is its own little story, and that is that makes us want to read more.

Step 3: Focus on the Non-Obvious

Steps one and two, clarity and context, are probably the most universally important to writing good description, but as I'm sure you noticed in all my examples, the actual words you pick to describe things matter just as much as your construction. You can keep your focus tight and tell stories all you like, but if you only ever give us boring, obvious information, your description is never going to rise above, well, boring and obvious.

Let's go back to Julius in the rain. You'll notice that I never said he was actually wet even though the stated reason for having him in the rain in the first place was so that he'd be wet later when someone tried to light him on fire. This is because we all know rain makes you wet, which means there's no point in saying it straight out. Instead, I implied he was wet by talking about the warm rain soaking his hair and plastering his shirt to his chest.

This is what I mean by "focus on the non-obvious." When you're describing a character or a setting or whatever, you never want to waste your words on what readers already know. For example, I would never say "getting stabbed hurt" because duh. So, instead of wasting time saying "thing that hurts hurt," I move one step out to the less obvious, and far more interesting details. How does getting stabbed hurt? What does the wound look like? How does the character react?

These details are what the reader really wants to know, and that means they are the ones you should be describing. The obvious stuff--it hurts, there's blood, character is injured and might die--can all be covered through implication, as in the example below.

"The sword went in so fast, he didn't feel it at first. There was just a sharp pressure followed by cold as the metal sliced cleanly through the muscles of his stomach. Even when he took a ragged breath, it was still mostly out of shock. It wasn't until he looked down and saw the red stain spreading across his shirt that the pain finally arrived, shooting out from the wound in all directions with enough force to send him to his knees."

As you see, I've told a little story of the stabbing (step 2), focusing on each detail as I went (step 1). There's pain and blood and all the things you'd expect, so I don't bother interrupting the drama to describe them. Instead, I focus on what makes my stabbing unique--the speed of it, the shock, the way the character reacts. Everything else the reader can imply, which leave me free to only keep the actually interesting bits.

It goes without saying that you can take this too far. If you focus too hard on the multiple steps removed details that make your situation unique (ie, only talk about the shapes the blood makes as it hits the ground without ever telling us where it's coming from), you might not leave enough actual info to allow the reader to make the implications needed for the scene to make sense. Remember the lesson of Dark and Stormy Night! It doesn't matter how beautiful a description is, if your readers can't tell what's being described, you have failed.


That said, readers are very smart and can follow you through some pretty tall leaps so long as you give them proper set up, but it's up to you to execute this correctly. If you write a soaring literary description you're super proud of and your beta readers tell you they got lost, then you have to go back and make things more obvious. Doesn't matter if you hate it or feel adding more obvious details butchers your scene. You're not writing this for you, you're writing for your readers, and if they can't follow you, that's your failing, not theirs. A description that fails to describe is a failure, plain and simple.

Step 4: Layer Your Information.

One of my favorite writing sayings is actually one I made up for Eli.

I apply this quote to all aspects of my writing, but I particularly like to use it in description. Let's go back to my own (non-faithful) version of the famous "it was a dark and stormy night."

"The heavy clouds hung low in the sky, dumping their torrents of rain on the dark city until the water ran off the sharp peaked roofs of the factory row houses in dirty, sullen waterfalls."

As you can see, this is a description of rain falling on a city, but there's a lot more in there. For example, the fact that we don't just have houses, we have factory row houses with sharp peaked roofs. The water isn't just running off, it's dirty. All of these little additions are there to do what description does: paint a picture of the scene in the reader's head. But we're not just telling people what things look like, we're also implying a great deal of information about the city itself. For example, just from this sentence, I can imply that we're in a working class part of town because factory row houses aren't built in rich areas. It's also dirty, which implies a certain level of seediness and tone. If the next sentence were to mention the fluttering gas lamps of the original, we'd have just about everything we need to imagine the dark, narrow cobbled streets of a sketchy British Industrial Revolution neighborhood on a rainy night despite the fact that almost none of that information has been said out right.

I call this technique layering, and it's a combination of steps 2 and 3: using non-obvious, specific details to tell a story about a place without actually coming out and saying it. Think of it as the ultimate in show, don't tell. Instead of just saying "It was a dark and stormy night in a bad neighborhood in 1830s England." we're layering in interesting details to pain a picture that implies all of that without ever having to actually break the flow and say it.

Again, as above, it is entirely possible to go too far with this. Step #1 still applies: you don't want to cram in so much information your reader can't figure out what's going on. But this is where the art part of writing comes back into play. Being able to write a sentence that layers in tons of information without losing its clarity is a high art, and one of my favorite parts of description. But then, I have an ornate style. If your style is more stream lined, you probably don't want to layer in quite as much, but that doesn't mean you have to avoid layering entirely. How many details you add in is not nearly as important as which details. Take my favorite description ever from Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”

On the surface, he's just describing a unicorn: what she looks like, how old she is, and so forth. But there is so much more. In this paragraph, we don't just learn that she's old and a particular shade of white, we see the evidence of her loneliness, and also how little she cares about it. We see her character and her world, the grace and magic inherent to all unicorns all layered into the language of the description itself. In this one paragraph, Beagle hands us his world like a pearl on a cushion, inviting us with ever word to peer closer and closer until our nose is pressed right up against the book and we have no hope of escape.

Obviously, not all of us are going to be Peter S. Beagle, but open any book by a good writer and you'll see layering in action. This is because writers everywhere have an abhorrence of waste. Whether their writing is clean and minimalist or cluttered with curios as a Victorian inventor's house, good writers fit in description of all kinds whenever and wherever possible. They don't stop, describe a house, and move on, the use specific details that put it into the larger context of their setting and story.

I talk about using a lager scale version of this technique for exposition in my post on Info Filling vs. Info Dumping, but it's the same basic idea. It's not easy knowing which details paint the world and which are just distracting, but my rule is to always think of my reader. I focus on prioritizing the information my reader needs to understand my world and characters, and then squeeze that information in wherever possible. If I'm describing a fantasy city, I don't just tell you there's a white wall, I tell you there's a white wall cutting the city in two between the beautiful, even whiter stone buildings of the upper ring and the smaller, wooden construction of the lower. By layering these together, I use necessary description of "what does this city look like?" to imply a world of social conflict inside it. Maybe not as well as Beagle, but you get the idea!

Step 5: Give Readers the WHOLE Picture

I realize this is another one of those "no shit" steps, but again, I am ceaselessly amazed at how many writers waste their words and my time with boring descriptions. I'm not talking about "she had red hair" verses "her hair was like a river of flame in sunlight." That's just a matter of style and personal taste. I'm talking about using descriptions that only describe one aspect of something.

The most obvious example of this is writers who only describe what things look like without ever using any of their other senses. Another is writers who have their characters stop for a detailed self inspection in front of the mirror but then never give us any kind of description about what those characters are thinking or feeling.

Writing is a unique medium in that it is almost entirely non-sensory. There's no pictures, no sounds, no actors, nothing but words. It's up to the writer to create all of that stuff and describe to the reader in a way that feels real, and any time you cheat your readers out of part of that experience is a bad time for everyone.

This isn't to say you have do a five sense run down for every single thing, that would be way too much. But you do want to focus on giving your reader a fully realized version of your world and people. Part of that is bringing all the senses into your descriptions--having characters feel breezes and taste the sweet crunch of apples and so forth--but an equally important part is describing the emotional lives of your characters. Unlike movies, we have no actors with body language. We have to describe all of that stuff ourselves in the text, and we have to do a good job of it because body language is hugely important to human communication. Don't forget to put it in!

But it doesn't stop there. We also have to describe the political and social situations of our setting. Bad authors do this by stopping the story for an info dump on the local history, but good authors work all of that stuff into description and dialogue. For example, if you have a scene in a city that's been at war for twenty years, layer in some descriptive tidbits about how torn up the place is. Show weary people and badly repaired walls and homeless wounded soldiers. Even if it's not directly related to your scene, just adding in a detail or two about the obvious implications of war adds a subtle weight of reality to your setting. It makes it feel real, and that's what good description is all about.

I could go on and on, but all I'm trying to say about this is that you never want to describe only what's directly in front of your characters. Again, you don't have to describe everything, but for your story, setting, and characters to feel real, you have to give people enough details that our imaginations can fill in the rest. A great way to do this is to mix your descriptions between physical, character, and setting. For example:

"She was the kind of angry you still remembered twenty years later. Five furious feet of barely restrained violence wrapped in a badly fitted suit of cheap armor and carrying the biggest sword the merchants sold, stomping up on the slave seller's sun baked wooden stage like she meant to bring the whole thing down with rage alone."

Other than her sex and her height, I have told you nothing about what this character looks like, but I bet you've got a pretty clear picture of her in your head. I bet you can also see the stage she's about to bring down and the sword in her hands. You can feel her scowl and her rage. You probably also know it's hot (sun baked), and I bet if I mentioned the crowd fell silent in the next sentence, you wouldn't be surprised, since a stage implies a crowd.

I'm not saying this is the best description ever, but I feel it's a good example of how you can say a lot about all the different parts of your story--the characters, the setting, what things look like, what they fell like--without actually saying a lot. By mixing physical descriptions with the description of her anger and the implication that maybe she hasn't thought this through very well and the fact that she's walking onto a slaver's stage, I've painted multiple pictures--sensory, emotional, cultural--that when stacked together, combine into a whole that feels real despite lacking an enormous amount of actual information about what things actually look like. (Hey, there's only so much you can put in two sentences!)

From here, how I expand these descriptions depends on what kind of scene this is going to be. I was going to have a fight after this, I'd use my description over the next few sentences focus on physical descriptions: how the stage is arranged, the burly shirtless guards she's going to be up against, the jeering crowd watching her, and so forth. On the other hand, if she was going up there as part of a plan to distract the slaver while her partner freed the slaves behind him, I would focus my description on the characters themselves to show the reader how her ploy was going. Wherever I decided to take this, though, I would always be describing multiple aspects of the physical setting, characters, and social significance of what's going on. Does the crowd boo her or cheer her? Is she good with her sword or does she hold it awkwardly? Is she all anger, or is there a smug smile hidden behind her snarl? Are the guards hesitant about attacking a small girl or are they cocky?

These are all decisions I make as an author and then show through my description to the reader to create a wholly realized world. If I ignore any of these aspects--if I were to, say, only describe the technical moves of the fight without describing how the characters involved reacted or the crowd responded--then the scene would lose an enormous amount of depth and significance.

I realize this sounds like a lot, but part of the burden of description in a novel is that you have to actually describe all these angles. It's up to you to pain the whole picture, because you are the only source of information your reader has. If you don't describe something at least enough for them to imply the rest, they don't know, and if they don't know, they can't get as excited about the dramatic events of your story. Obviously, you want your reader to be as excited and involved in your world and story as possible. You want that investment, that desperate need to keep reading past bedtime, and the only way you get that is if you do your job as a writer and describe what's happening to your reader on all levels.

You don't have to do all of it all at once, but over the course of all the descriptions in your book, you have to pain a whole picture. If you ignore one aspect--say the political situation--and then stop your story to explain all that stuff only when it becomes important, there's nothing you can do to make that not feel like an info dump that interrupts the story, because that's exactly what it is. I think I speak for all lovers of good story when I say don't do that. Instead, focus on layering that information and describing all aspects of your world, characters, and setting in little touches all through out your description. If you're going to tell us what someone looks like (physical), drop a hint about their social standing as well (cultural). If a political situation is important to your story (ie, that 20 year war we mentioned a few paragraphs up), show the fallout in your setting. Have the place be wrecked, describe war refugees walking past even if your character is doing something else.

You want to always be building that world, always painting that whole picture in your descriptions. Put your reader into the story in all ways--physically, emotionally, culturally--and I promise you will be rewarded not just with better writing, but with happier, more involved readers who gobble up your books.


Thank you all so much for sticking with me through all that! Again, please remember that this is all just my opinion. There are as many ways to write good books as there are people on this planet, so if any of these steps don't work for you or your style, please ignore them. You are your own writer! Do what feels right to you!

That said, I sincerely hope what I've learned about writing good description over the last twelve years helps you with your own stories. At its heart, Pretentious Title is all about sharing information so none of us have to reinvent the wheel or repeat the same mistakes. If you found this article helpful, or at least interesting, please let me know! And if you want to see me cover a specific prose craft issue for Prose Summer Camp, please let me know in the comments below!

Just in case you missed it, Trav posted an amazing over view of audio books--how to make them, how to pick a producer, the money behind them, using ACX, etc--last Monday. It is super awesome and you should definitely check it out if you're self published or thinking about doing so. If this all old hat to you, remember that new author business and craft blogs go up every Monday and Wednesday! If you're not already, please follow me on Social Media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+) to never miss a post!

As always, thank you all so much for reading, and I wish you nothing but the best in your writing journey.

Yours always,


Anonymous said...

This was super helpful and really illuminates how you make your writing so descriptive.

The question I have is, would layering like that work for someone whose voice is less ornate? What about someone writing in first person, where all the description needs to be things the character notices?

Elizabeth Cromwell said...

Thanks lady, great post as usual. I always mean to comment and tell you how much I enjoy your writing posts, and finally have! I feel re-energized and excited about the art of writing after reading these ( I particularly like this post).

Elizabeth Poole said...

Loved your break down, it was great! One thing I also noticed is in the descriptions that you have a "mini story" there's also conflict and tension. Flat description not matter how prettily put together is boring because there's nothing going on. Telling a mini story within the description gives it an extra punch that makes it leap off the page and into your mind.

Amy J. Murphy said...

Next level stuff here! Great new insights as always.

Kessie said...

Aha, another puzzle piece falls into place. If good descriptions are stories, then great descriptions end with a cliffhanger. Check out this great one (among many) from The Raven Boys:
Two narratives coexisted in his head. One was the real image: the wasp climbing up the wood, oblivious to his presence. The other was a false image, a possibility: the wasp whirring into the air, finding Gansey’s skin, dipping the stinger into him, Gansey’s allergy making it a deadly weapon.

Long ago, his skin had crawled with hornets, their wings beating even when his heart wasn’t.

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Anonymous said...

I think you read my mind, because I was just recently lamenting on how horrendously bad I am at description and wondered what to do to fix it. This post helped me so much. It was clear and concise and I can easily start putting your tips into practice. Now i have to go back over my first draft and cringe at how bad everything is. At least now I know how to fix it.

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