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Description

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Like nearly everything else, description lies at the heart of writing. A hero bravely facing a dragon is one thing; a hunchbacked, club-footed, seminary-school reject flipping a marauding dragon the bird while muttering darkly to himself is quite another. Especially if the only reason he’s on top of the castle in the first place is because his best friend found a way to convince him that chicks would dig it.

Attention to Sensory Detail

Attention to detail is very important for a writer. Most people float through life trapped in their own heads, rarely noticing what’s actually in front of them. Part of an artist’s job is to make the familiar new again, and writers do that by highlighting the oft-overlooked, yet nevertheless vital, aspects of people and things. That starts with being able to see the oft-overlooked details.

These details include the normal sensory perceptions...

  • sight
  • sound
  • smell
  • taste
  • touch (texture, temperature, pain, etc.)

...as well as what happens when things move and change.

For example:

  • The man wore a coat.
  • The weary man wore a worn, red coat.
  • The smelly hobo smiled.
  • When the hobo smiled, the smell of garbage got worse.
  • The expensive handkerchief was very soft on the nose.
  • The handkerchief was richly embroidered but still soft on the nose.
  • There was a swamp.
  • The swamp was covered with cold mist. It was hard to see more than a few feet away.

Diction

Diction, a.k.a. word choice, is another major facet of description. As Mark Twain said, "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." It's not enough to place details in your writing; you need to strike a balance between precision and brevity as well.

Things don’t have to be simply "big." They can be "house-sized," "huge," "oversized," "titanic," "planetary," or "f**king ginormous as hell."

Similarly, people can be "nitpicky," "fault-finding," or "captious;" "old," "aged," "hoary," or "critically over-the-hill;" or "spontaneous," "random," "capricious," "whimsical," "impulsive," or "unpredictable."

Also, descriptions don't have to be limited to one word: "nitpicky to a fault," "impulsive when drunk," or "bigger than a dog has any right to be."

  • The man wore a coat.
  • The weary man wore a worn, red coat hung loosely over his shoulders.
  • The weary man wore a shabby, red coat draped over his shoulders.
  • The smelly hobo smiled.
  • When the hobo smiled, the smell of garbage got worse.
  • The expensive handkerchief was very soft on the nose.
  • The handkerchief was richly embroidered but still soft on the nose.
  • The chromatic magnificence of the handkerchief’s embroidery belied its silky texture.
  • There was a swamp.
  • The swamp was covered with cold mist. It was hard to see more than a few feet away.
  • The swamp lay shrouded in cold mist. Anything more than a few feet away simply disappeared, engulfed in the blank expanse.

It's also true that a bumbling, awkward style of phrasing has come into fashion recently, and I blame Bruce Campbell because it seems like the kind of thing he’d be responsible for. The style sounds a bit like this:

The mansion was huge. I mean, it was huge for a mansion because mansions are huge by definition. And by huge I mean huge. If it weren’t for the events that unfortunately transpired there, its hugeness would go down in memory. Legend, even. Yes, its hugeness would definitely go down in memory and legend. It was just that goddamn huge.

Words can’t begin to describe how huge this mansion actually was before it burned down. Even "ginormous" doesn’t cut it...

This is usually done for comic effect. It gives the impression of, well, a Bruce Campbell narration. Done well, it can be extremely funny. Still, unless that's what you're aiming for, it's good to get practice with other modes of description.

Analogy

Analogies, which are figures of speech which compare two things, are one of the most important skills a writer can have. When done well, they make descriptions more interesting by adding a level of detail that can't be conveyed effectively in other ways. They highlight the connections between things and can offer additional insight into what something is.

There are two basic kinds:

similes
similes are surface-level comparisons. You take a quality that one thing has and apply it to something else
you can usually regonize them by the words "is like," or "is as <something> as <something else>"
"Bob is as strong as a tank," "Working at that job is like having your teeth pulled."
metaphor
metaphors are deep comparisons. In effect, you're saying that at a profound level two things are the same.
"Bob is a tank," "That job is a carnival funhouse."

A longer explanation of similies begins with the fact that, in English, things have attributes. (More technically, nouns can be modified by adjectives.)

Bob

When you write a simile, you're taking an adjective from one noun and sticking it on another:

Bob is as strong as a tank

In contrast, when you write a metaphor, you're combining two nouns into something new. Each of them brings along some of the adjectives they used to have:

The Bob-Tank

Adding analogies to the previous descriptions:

  • The man wore a coat.
  • The weary man wore an worn, red coat hung loosely over his shoulders.
  • The weary man wore a shabby, red cost draped over his shoulders.
  • The man wore a coat the mottled red of old brick buildings. It was as tired and worn as he.
  • The smelly hobo smiled.
  • When the hobo smiled, the smell of garbage got worse.
  • The hobo smelled like urine, old Chinese take-away and Efferdent. When she grinned, it got worse.
  • The expensive handkerchief was very soft on the nose.
  • The handkerchief was richly embroidered but still soft on the nose.
  • The chromatic magnificence of the handkerchief’s embroidery belied its silky texture.
  • The chromatic magnificence of the handkerchief’s embroidery belied its silky texture. It was a cloud come to earth, a piece of an angel's robe, a caress woven into solid form.
  • There was a swamp.
  • The swamp was covered with cold mist. It was hard to see more than a few feet away.
  • The swamp lay shrouded in cold mist. Anything more than a few feet away simply disappeared, engulfed in the blank expanse.
  • The swamp lay shrouded in mist. Anything more than a few feet away simply disappeared, engulfed in the blank expanse. Clammy and cold, it clung to skin like a disease, setting teeth chattering and tempers on edge.

And since I mentioned it earlier, other examples of humor-specific techniques that are widespread on the interwebs are anti-similes, such as:

The car ran like a well-oiled machine. Because it was.
Bill's like a rock star, except he isn't.

And Douglas Adams’ classic from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

Still, unless you’re going for a sardonic tone and biting humor, it’s often best not to use this kind of writing style.

Exercises

Detail – Objects

  1. Pick five common objects.
  2. Describe them each, making sure to involve all of the senses.
  3. Finally, read each description out loud three times, paying attention to how it sounds and feels.

Detail – Setting

  1. Go to one of your favorite places.
  2. While you’re there, look around and try to notice things as if you were there for the first time.
  3. Then, describe this place on paper. You’re trying to capture that specialness and make it shine through to someone who’s never seen it.
  4. Make sure to involve all the senses.
  5. Finally, read your description out loud three times, paying attention to how it sounds and feels.

Diction – Synonyms

  1. Take the descriptions you wrote for the five objects in the first exercise.
  2. Using a thesaurus, see if you can swap out any words or phrases for words you like better. Go for at least two replacements in each description.
  3. Read each sentence out loud three times, then read its thesaurus-enhanced version out loud three times. Try to notice the change in sound and texture.

Diction – Words in Context

One of the things that sometimes happens when people discover thesauruses for the first time is that they get thesaurus crazy. While all the words are synonyms, not all fit in every context and every style. Some also have alternate definitions which can be the cause of unintended humor. (Making a colorful quilt requires bright strips of cloth. Making a psychedelic one probably involves illegal drugs.)

  1. For each replacement you made in the previous exercise, look up both the original words and their replacements in a dictionary.
  2. Write down (or type out) the definitions of all the words involved. Did the replacements mean exactly what you thought they meant?
  3. Finally, try to find the replacement words in another piece of writing. Certain words tend to appear together and contribute toward a particular feel or particular stlye. This is one way to start finding those correspondences.

Analogies

  1. Take one of the five objects you described in the first exercise.
  2. Describe it using an analogy, either a simile or metaphor.
  3. Set the analogies aside for a few days, then re-read them and see if they still make sense.

The Google Says...

Thesaurus.com – Free online thesaurus
Difference Between a Metaphor and a Simile also describes metaphors and similes.
Be a Better Writer – Page with many exercises
http://www.lisaselvidge.com/Writing%20Exercises.htm – Yet more exercises