A Handful of Thoughts on Writing an Effective Description
This is a tutorial: I figured I'd put up a page here, explaining what makes me like or dislike a desc you've written. Please share your own thoughts on the subject. -- Siege
The rules as I see them
- Be clear.
- Be correct.
- Be concise.
- Lead me.
- Touch me.
- Teach me.
First, be clear.
When I'm done reading, I need to have a mental impression of what I've been looking at. If you couch your character in vague, indirect, or de-emphasized terms, then it's that much harder to pick up on anything memorable about your look. For some characters, that's appropriate. For most, definitely not.
You look around and there's a fox, except it's ugly and kind of stinks.
What a terrible sight! This red fox is covered in mange, and he seems to bring a hazy aura of sickness wherever he goes.
Next, be correct.
This really should go without saying. I still tend to notice errors in a lot of folks' descs, however. If you can write a truly effective description without the proper use of grammar and spelling, you should consider shopping your work around to some "avante-garde" publishers.
u dont need ne fuknxampels lol u suk
This example should be unnecessary.
Then, be concise.
No need for tons of material just to make a point. If something needs emphasis, there's almost always a better way to phrase it than simple repetition. The caveat: Some writing styles work better with more words; just be careful that thy florid prosody not wax more girthy than the Earth nor more lofty than the Heavens.
Dude, this guy has badass shiny armor. Its glare is amazing. Even in the dark it glows. You're blinded by the glare in full light. In fact, it's so shiny you can't even see the guy inside it, and it reflects particle beams and lasers. [Blah blah blah, so on and so forth for another six paragraphs without leaving any lasting impression of the guy inside the stupid shiny armor.]
This is Kharls, hidden behind the visage of his reflective, luminescent battle armor. The incredibly high albedo allows others to spot him miles away, even amongst a crowd of lights; yet somehow, it obscures vision to the point that without aid, most people have trouble even locating him when he gets close. Should he remove that smooth silvered helm, the craggy lines of his dark flesh suggest a man who's loved living his life on the battlefront. The light of those pale yellow eyes is like a pair of stars in his head; and even his broken smile glitters like he's been eating glass. Kharls does love his shinies.
Now lead me.
This skill is hard to grasp. Essentially, I want you to draw me into the image you've created. Don't lead me by the nose; just present important and interesting features where they'll make best dramatic sense. Sure, if you prefer to describe things to fit a particular pattern or convention, I'll still read it. It just won't necessarily present your character with the flair sie deserves.
It's a kitfox. Its ears are big and pointy. They scan its surroundings looking for threats and prey. Its face is long with a little black nose which is shiny and wet, and there's an unusual black splotch of fur around its left eye. Its fur pattern seems to be a blend of kitfox and ferret, actually. Its belly is pale, its back has a dark stripe, and its paws are dark. The rest of its fur is colored like sand, with a black tip on its tail.
Hayl the kitfox! All hail the ferrety foxkit! Those big, pointed ears, currently pointed at a noise of interest; that long foxy face, with shiny black nose and bright pointy teeth; the sandy fur with dark stripe down the back and dark ends on every limb; the pale yellowish belly, so fluffy and soft when rubbed. Hayl wants to play. Don't you?
Now touch me.
This isn't just about involving the senses of your reader, it's also about involving the emotions. Find a theme for your description; as you write, this theme will affect your phrasing and your word choice. A description might have multiple themes, in fact. I should also note that a nonphysical theme tends to really make a description memorable, as well as to help in expressing your character's personality. The theme of a machine's description could be "rusty", when "ancient", "patchwork", or "forgotten" would do much better at painting an emotional picture for your readers.
My ugly old car is full of rust holes, including rusty doors and rusty fenders; the door handles even have rust on them. (Themes: disgust, encrustation, neglect) - note also the repetition of "rust".
The body of my crusty, beat-up small-block Ford looks like someone built it out of corroded metal and then drilled a few new holes for the rust to grow on. Even the door handles feel like someone glued dirty old iron filings to them. The scent of mildew permeates its interior. But it's mine. (Themes: abuse, neglect, unclean, pride of ownership)
- N.B. (Nota Bene, meaning "note well"): This is the ultimate secret behind any good writing, from commercial advertisement to violent erotica. Know your themes. Once you can recognize and consciously choose the themes in your writing, you can take into account your audience and adjust your work to get precisely the reaction you want.
And finally, teach me.
Don't just babble on and give me nothing new to go on. Use your knowledge. If you don't know anything about your character's profession or hobbies or special markings, how they're made or where they're from, then that's going to come across as you describe them. If it doesn't mean anything to you, then it won't mean anything when you write about it. Show me your meaning, let me into those secret mental spaces, the things your character loves and hates, the ways your character expresses zirself. Don't tell me how to fix a car, though; just let me see how excited your character can get over making dead motors live again.
Joe is dull and lives a dull life. He wears an ordinary business suit and tie every day. They all look the same, all bland and grey. He carries a bunch of papers under his arm, and now and then he looks them over.
Plain old Joe and his numbingly bland life have walked into your life for a while. Joe has a closet full of the same plain grey business suit, with a variety of sharp black ties. Today, he's wearing a bowtie. He always seems to have a very nice black ink pen in his coat pocket; and he's rarely seen without a sheaf of accountancy papers which he likes to look at occasionally, shaking loose pages into order with a proud snap, as if cracking a whip over any numbers which might have chosen to stray while he wasn't looking.
A note on editing
To achieve any of these effects, your descriptions will almost always go through several edits. Sometimes a single word will be enough of a change, but usually you'll have to figure out why a given sentence or paragraph doesn't feel right, and what you should do about it.
I had to edit Kharls' desc several times in order to drop some redundancy and better express his themes. At some point, however, I had to declare it 'good enough' and move on, or I might be fiddling with it even now. Joe's needed some clarifying as well. On the other hand, I was satisfied with Hayl's improved desc on the first revision. Note that zir gender (or lack thereof) isn't even mentioned in the second version due to an utter lack of prounouns, yet that description expresses the character's body and personality quite clearly.
With proper use of these techniques, you, too, can wow people with your writing skills and have them following the themes which you express. Your readers may as well be eating out of your hand; they're certainly more likely to follow you wherever you wish to lead them.
Write well! -- Siege
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