A Deep Dive into Description: Tools of the Craft

Why is description so very important?

Watch this TED talk by Nalo Hopkinson:

How do other people write description so well? 

Let us take a deep dive into crafting description well. I can’t say that I’m an expert at it yet, but I’ve been paying attention and reading up on this for quite some time now. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned. 

Philosophies on Description 

There are vastly different philosophies about writing description. Some like Earnest Hemmingway prefer sparse description–fewer adjectives and adverbs sprinkled in the writing make the rare ones stand out all the more. Stephen King says The road to hell is paved in adverbs. He speaks of it more extensively in his book, On Writing. He does include plenty of other descriptions; he uses adverbs only rarely. (The same can’t be said of me.) 

Other writers like  L. M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, love over-the-top flowery description. 

You’d think that over the years of debate, there’d be a consensus, but you’d be wrong. In the fantasy genre, you have authors like Kerri Maniscalco (author of Stalking Jack the Ripper), Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, and so many more write beautiful prose full of creative description. 

Others are more sparse. Brandon Sanderson started out rather barren of florid description. Over the years he has added more description to his writing style. I’m not sure if it is merely part of his growth as a writer. Perhaps a conscious decision on his part to improve his writing in this area? Is he writing to the market? It does seem like many books that win certain awards have flowery descriptions. I suspect it was about writing improvement to create a better reading experience for his readers.    

I believe we have not come to a consensus because there is no consensus to be had. They are preferences, not a right or a wrong. I admire beautiful prose and the creativity it takes to write it well just as one admires a Monet painting. 

I also like to read stories that leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. If you give me a hint about the scene, I am perfectly capable of filling in the gaps. Here is an example in Secret Soldiers “A blush tinted George’s freckled cheeks as he fished the extra shilling from his pocket and dropped it into Bagger’s open palm.” (24% into the novel) I can infer that since he blushes easily and has freckles, he probably has red hair. I know this boy is digging tunnels from the trenches of no-man’s-land, so I can assume he is in a uniform and covered in mud.   

I dislike writing that tells me what color shirt the character is wearing if it adds nothing to the story. If the author says she wore purple hair to the funeral to celebrate the life of a friend rather than mourn her loss, that tells me something about the character. Please don’t give me a rundown of every person that walks onto the scene, a red shirt, blue jeans, tennis shoes, a blue shirt, jeans, and flats. I’ll get more into that when I talk about character description.

I have noticed over recent years that YA books at least have begun to lean more toward the florid description side of the spectrum.  

Tools of the Craft

What tools do you have at your disposal for writing excellent description?

Tools of the Trade
  • Adjectives 
  • Adverbs
  • Alliteration
  • Allusions
  • Cadence
  • Flashbacks
  • Foreshadowing
  • Hyperbole
  • Metaphors 
  • Personification
  • Parallelism
  • Similes
  • Symbolism

You have probably noticed that most authors prefer using some of these items more than others. Sanderson uses many metaphors in his writing. Stephen King avoids adverbs like an undead dog.

Don’t feel pressured to use all of these tools all the time. Identify the ones you already like using and work on improving them. 

What are the tools that you love using? 

Alliteration

I happen to love alliteration. I don’t need to use alliteration at all times. I need to reserve it for when I want to emphasize something important. Perhaps to point out an important detail. See now that I’m thinking about alliteration, I am accidentally slipping it in everywhere. If I didn’t want to prove a point, I’d edit this to emphasize only the important details. Do you see how they stand out though? Not really important is it? Now, look at this sentence… 

“The light retreated swiftly, shrinking upward, drawing long fingers of shadow from the angels and gargoyles who guarded the library’s rain-streaked parapets.” 

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, P.1

See swiftly shrinking and gargoyles guarded

  • She could have said quickly shrinking, but it wouldn’t have been as memorable. 
  • She could have said gargoyles and angels who guarded but that would have put more distance between the alliterative words. 
  • She also could have said angels and gargoyles who protected but again it wouldn’t have been as memorable or pretty. 

I haven’t read very far into Sorcery of Thorns–just 5 pages–but I’m supremely impressed so far. There is a reason this book is so popular and has won so many awards. I have a lot I can learn from this author. 

Other Tools

I’d like to briefly talk about these tools just in case you have forgotten them from your school days.

  • Adjectives- are modifiers that describe a noun. (can be a single word or phrase)
  • Adverbs-  modifiers that describe a verb, adjective, or other adverbs. (can be a single word or phrase)
  • Alliteration- repetition of an initial sound (not always the same letter)
  • Allusions– referencing another creative work with only a few words.
  • Cadence- the rhythm of the words. 
  • Flashbacks– a scene that happened earlier in the story (told in the story after it happened).
  • Foreshadowing– a hint at something yet to come. 
  • Hyperbole– an extreme exaggeration.
  • Metaphors– a comparison of two, unlike things. 
  • Personification– a comparison of something not living to something living. 
  • Parallelism– a structure, phrase, or story element that repeats itself in the story.
  • Similes– a comparison of two, unlike things using like or as. 
  • Symbolism-

I was taught incorrectly about this when I was a kid and I hope to prevent the same for you.

  • Metaphors–  A metaphor is a comparison of two, unlike things. 
  • Simile-a comparison of two unlike things using like or as
  • Personification– a comparison of something not living to something living.

What I didn’t know until I was an adult was that metaphor was an umbrella term for many different types of comparisons. Simile and personification are merely two different types of metaphors. You might say that your teacher or the state test always asked if the example they gave was a simile OR a metaphor. I know. *puts head in hands and shakes head* Let’s just say test writers don’t know all they think they know. I have to teach my kids to answer the question as specifically as they can. Simile is more specific than a metaphor, so if it applies, go with that answer choice. Only mark it as a metaphor when no other category applies. Buuut, hopefully, you are beyond those days. 

(Pardon me while this English teacher Nerds out on you!)

Personification is an interesting tool that is more complex than you were probably taught in school. For more information about personification look here. 

Anyhow, I could go on forever about these things. I don’t want to bore you. If this kind of thing fascinates you, and you want to know more, take a look here https://literarydevices.net/anthropomorphism/ It has a list of several dozen literary devices you could pour over for hours. 

I hope you continue to join me on this journey as we delve into description for the next few months.

Homework Options 

  1. Take a piece that you’ve written. Highlight or mark the descriptive language you used. 
    1. Do you notice a pattern? What appears to be your favorite tool(s)? 
    2. Is it used effectively? 
    3. Could you do better? Play with a few different devices. If you used a simile, can you replace it with adjectives or personification? Or vice versa? 
  2. Type up a page or two of your favorite novel. Highlight or mark the descriptive language the author used. 
    1. Do you notice a pattern? 
    2. What appears to be their favorite tool? 
    3. Is it similar to the tools you use?

For either option, notice where and how did you/they use it? 

  • Was it to describe a person, a setting, an action? 
  • Look at why the author chose to spend valuable page space for this description.
  • Was there a symbolic purpose? For example, “She was a remote, elegant woman with ice-pale features and hair red as flame.” P. 2 Sorcery of Thorns. Ice-pale could be symbolic of a cold heart, yet flame-red hair could be symbolic of passion and a fiery personality. The effect of this contradictory description is that she is a mystery, but regardless I don’t think I’ll like her. 

Talk to you next week!

3 thoughts on “A Deep Dive into Description: Tools of the Craft

  1. Good post! I think the impact of a book’s style also depends on a reader’s mood at the time. There are times when I don’t have patience for wordy descriptions… and there are other times when I’m happy to let the author give me the deluxe grand tour.

    Liked by 1 person

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