3 Literary Techniques, Part Two: Description

4:12 PM

Welcome to part two in my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

Last time I talked about exposition. This time, I’d like to talk about using description in storytelling.

Description is an important part of storytelling because it helps you to paint a mental image of the particulars in your story.

A lot of people have a problem with this though. It’s easy to think of dialogue because you can imagine a conversation. But we don’t often make a habit of describing our surroundings or the people we meet, and if we do, it’s very simply, which doesn’t work too well in a novel.

You can’t write a story the same way you would tell a story. When writing description, it helps to remember that the reader isn’t you and has no idea what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling.

Describing Characters

Gifted author Ayn Rand, best known for her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, always described her characters at their first appearance because she wanted the readers to perceive the scene as if he were really there.

In her book, The Art Of FIction, Ms. Rand tells us that she decides how long a description should be by the nature of the buildup beforehand. If there is appropriate buildup, the reader will be willing to read the description without impatience.”

“Never pause on descriptions, whether of characters or locales or anything else, unless you have given the reader a reason to be interested.”

She goes on the say, “When I introduce minor characters, I usually give them a single line naming something that is characteristic of the type, like a “woman who had large diamond earrings” or “a portly man who wore a green muffler.” By implying that one brief characteristic is all that is noteworthy of a person, I establish his unimportance.”

Quality Not Quantity

When it comes to description, more is not necessarily better. The number of details necessary to describe a place or event depends on several things, such as how familiar your readers already are with the place or situation. The more unfamiliar, the more description you’ll need to give.

For example, if you’re writing about an alien race living on a far away planet, you need to describe that planet in great detail. A story about modern life on earth would require less detail because we already know what everything looks like.

Specific Details

Challenge yourself to see how specific you can get. Don’t just say a man is wearing a coat. Tell us he’s wearing a charcoal gray peacoat with black buttons.

Documenting only the most obvious facts is not enough. We want to see the broken zipper on the woman’s dress, the tear in her stockings, and the shocking blue eyeliner that matches her shoes. Tell us what makes this woman different from every other woman around. Don’t try to describe everything though. Instead try and focus on two or three significant things that can define a person, place, or thing.

Use All Your Senses

Using the five senses is another great way to make your story come alive.

People interact with the world through their senses. We notice the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking. We grimace at the smell of a dirty diaper. We feel heat and cold. We feel pressure. We hear echos and the humming of a refrigerator. All these little details can help describe a person’s surroundings, letting your reader immerse themselves in the world of your novel.

Do you have anything to add? Hit me up in the comments.

Until Wednesday...


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