Five minutes' fun
Real readers won't notice?

How would you describe it?

Aspiring writers often seem to agonise about the thing they call Description, as if it was a whole, separate kind of writing from the rest of the narrative. They know they should have some, but they can't seem to get it right: it's "floppy" as one such writer put it, or "slows things down" as one of my students said. And most of all, there's the looming fear of cliché, of off-the-peg words or settings, which every aspiring writer knows they should be trying to avoid, without actually knowing how to do so.

I think the problem has two faces. First, you need to exercise your decribing-muscles, and since fiction takes the bits and pieces of the world and spins them into a new form, you need to exercise both seeing the bits and pieces, and doing the spinning. This is the first step in learning to avoid cliché, too, because it's about getting back to the actual experience of things: you and the thing and no one else's words - second-hand words - trying to express it. Then, you need to be clear about what you're trying to do in this project, because it's that clarity which will mean the right words come.


Try taking an object and spending a minute writing down notes on everything about what it looks like - what you can see. Then hold it and write down everything about touch - what you can feel about it (that little dent in one side, the scratchy bit at the bottom). Then everything it sounds like (touch or bang it if you need to), then smell, then taste, (unless it's that old tin of rat poison) and finally what I call the sixth sense, which is proprioception, or body-sense: weight, balance, how something feels when you throw it or catch it, how your body feels as you lift it, and so on.

From that, move on to observing sensory information in a whole scene. Try noting down a journey while you're doing it, purely in terms of sound (what do you mean, you always travel with an iPod?) Or smell. Or maybe just list the abstract shapes you can see, the way an artist might: the rectangle of windows, the triangle of the little green where you stand to catch the bus, the pyramid-shape of that bag-lady in her dark coat.

And, yes, as you're experiencing these things practice figurative language for them - similes, metaphors - but your own, not the off-the-peg ones beloved of journalists. Here, you're just starting to spin something new: does that red bendy bus remind you of a lizard or a dinosaur or your favourite toy that your brother stole and put on the bonfire? How about the smell? The sound? What's the right verb for a skip lorry going too fast over a speed-bump or an old man with a severe hernia climbing the swimming-pool stairs? 

Then you need to practice re-calling, re-creating, re-imagining these things - a familiar journey, an object you know well - when you're away from them, so do all those little exercises about things and places again, but at home with a notebook.

Then move a step further into the real, re-creative imagining: think of an object which you've never seen, but know existed: the terraced house your grandfather lived in, the medals your great-aunt sold. And a milieu you've never seen but know existed: the school your brother went to, the factory your mother served her apprenticeship in. Don't just copy out what you know from films or other people's writing; the gold-standard for description is what you could write if you knew these things in real life, so make me believe you know them, by how vividly you re-create them.

Then stretch your imagination: How would a shell-shocked war-veteran experience your mother's factory? How would an ex-prisoner see the medals your grandmother wept as she sold? How would a fifteen-year old on her way to dump her girlfriend see the terrace which your grandfather's house is part of? And here we are, writing fiction.


And, as that last bit suggests, when it comes to writing the actual piece, it really helps to think about why you want to decribe this thing or place, and why just here in the story. How does its function in your storytelling affect what and how you write it?  Does the narrator choose to tell us about the terraced houses, as well as the grandfather? Why? Or are we in the fifteen-year-old girl's point-of-view, and does she notice the house as a house at all, and if so, in what terms? Does she think about how stuffy and tidy the houses look, with their gardens laid out with a ruler and the lawns shaved? Or how cosy and friendly they are, and now she'll never live in one? Or is she too busy working out how to dump the girlfriend, in which case she might only notice how long the girlfriend takes to answer the door? 

That's why it's also a mistake to think of Description as a lump of scene-setting which you have to put in, so that the dialogue and action will make sense once the reader's allowed to get there. Description, too, should be part of the forward-movement of the story. How do the characters-in-action inter-act with the setting? Is the reader's experience of the place or person active, deliberately shaped to affect that experience: to ramp up the mystery, or give a sense of creeping evercloser? 

And you'd be amazed how little you actually need: this isn't a film-set which must fill the picture with the literal details of something. You need to think like a theatre director with an empty stage (page). Maybe you only need the chair he sits on, and the candlestick she kills him with. Maybe we need more: more things, more colours, more re-creations of place and substance... but which bits of the myriad possible kinds of more?

And it's not just about what you say being shaped and coloured by the point of view through which it's perceived; this scene is a building-block in the larger patterns and pace and rhythms of the piece, so what difference might that make to how you write it? I explored the business of clarifying your purpose in Singing the Story, so I won't go on here.

Instead, I'll end with a classic exercise, which I can't recommend too highly: You write a paragraph of description of a place - real or imagined - which has a very strong atmosphere - spooky, cosy, threatening, joyful. Your aim is to write it so that atmosphere builds, sentence by sentence for the reader, to the end. But you're not allowed to name the atmosphere, or any other emotion: you can only describe the actual, sensory content of sights, sounds, smells, shapes, textures etc. Then, when you've done that and got it as evocative as you can, you give it to another reader, and ask them to guess what the atmosphere-word was?

PS A couple of related posts: 6 Questions to Ask Your Description is just what it says on the tin. The Scent of a Snuffed Candle is about what you well might need to add, if your first drafts tend to be too pared-down and descriptionless. Over-done, Over-written and Over Here is about what's going on when you're over-writing.