Alright guys, I think it’s time we talk about description and what it means when writing a novel or anything that requires such. Now, we all know description is simply listing what’s in a room or setting the character is interacting with but is that all there is to it?
The answer: of course not.
So, let’s get into it. I’m apart of a writing group called Underground Writers Unite, where we talk about various topic and joke around for most of the time (we manage to keep it all writing related, so it’s okay lol). The reason I mention this is because this is where I learn most of the stuff I know about writing since I don’t do any research on my own (except reading a lot and writing a lot).
Alright, this segment is going to be pulled mostly from a writer named Janice Hardy who has her own blog and puts it better than I can but I can do one thing that most others can’t, and that’s simplify things to where a six year old can understand, not that you’re six but you know what I mean.
Anyway, there are two different types of description Ms. Hardy puts out, general and relevant. In the general, you’re just listing facts about the setting and world the characters are in an how they interact with it, but the listing is just that. Listing. It doesn’t really get into the character’s mind and express what they think about the world and people around them so, in essence, the reader has no one to relate to.
Except, if you’re writing in third person. In that case, the general will work because the narrator is outside of the characters, recounting the events as they happened, or happen if you’re a fan of writing in present tense.
The relevant, however, is what description really means when writers say show, don’t tell. This type of description can work for either third or first person but works better in first. This is because first person is subjective and you’re looking at the world through the eyes of an individual, and everyone sees the world differently.
People tend to describe only the things they notice and care about while an omniscient narrator may describe everything equally and without discrimination, especially things the Main Character doesn’t notice.
When describing only the relevant things, it’s important to remember that the relevant things are relevant to that character only, not the world at large. Even though you’re God when you’re writing the story, you have to be able ot look through the eyes of an individual and describe only what they see and notice. If you’re in the third person, you don’t have to do this to that great of an extent.
In fact, third person actually requires a fair amount of telling as opposed to showing because there’s a bigger picture that needs to be grasped and understood by the reader.
Alright, enough rambling, let’s get to some examples.
General: Leslie walked into her messy room and looked around, she shook her head in annoyance as she knew she was going to be the one to clean it up. She lived alone. Her mother kicked her out when she was eighteen and hasn’t called her since. Leslie walked in and shoved some clothes on the floor and lay on her bed to take a nap.
Explanation: In this example, I only described what she did and gave very little backstory that didn’t have anything to do with why she felt the way she felt. I wrote it through the eyes of an outside narrator instead of through Leslie’s eyes. Does her getting kicked out have to do with why she feels annoyed and drained? Does she feel drained? it leaves a lot of unanswered questions and doesn’t really invest the reader.
Relevant: I walked into my room and beheld the velvet red and black walls and silk curtains blowing in the soft breeze. I looked down at my bed, which for most of my life was always made up and ready for me to sleep in, to a colorful assortment of clothes that wink at me an blow me a kiss, knowing I’ll be the one to pick them up whether I like it or not.
I drop my bag which lands with a soft thud and think about all the years I took mom for granted before she kicked me out, how she tried to teach me how to clean up after myself and I wouldn’t listen, how she tried to raise me to be a self-sufficient woman but instead I gave her a hard time and now look what I’ve got.
A messy room I don’t know how to clean and a messy life to match. She always told me that your room is a reflection of my mind and my mind is a reflection of my life. Well, if that’s true, then I’m one messy bitch.
Explanation: In this one, you get why Leslie feels the way she feels when she steps into her room, she only describes the things she notices and those things lead to her internal thoughts which give you more about her, making her more relatable to the reader, and although I didn’t get into why her mother kicked her out, the way it was going, it would’ve gotten there very soon and would’ve interwoven into the narrative.
So, hopefully that explains a little bit about description and what it means. Just remember that when you’re writing in the first person, write as that person. In the third person, focus on the larger picture.
Tell me what you think in the comments! I’m always open to feedback and improving my stories, poetry, and insights. I read an reply to all comments and look forward to hearing from you, till next week!