339 – Elements of Good Description
When you’re a writer, you have to use words to communicate what’s happening in your story. But which words, exactly? Are some words better than others? How should you use them? That’s what we’re talking about today; the secrets of describing your story. We discuss how to set priorities, how to employ multiple senses, and what readers expect to hear about first. Plus, some extremely hot takes on the concept of language.
Generously transcribed by Nikki. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host Wes, and with me today is-
Wes: And today, do you smell it? Smells like inspiration. It smells like something’s been embedded into this podcast, ensconced within its every little bit and image and fiber, the elements of good description.
And I’ve just violated so many things. [Laughter]
Chris: Good description smells so good.
Oren:I thought you were going to go for, “Oh, can you smell what the Wes is cooking” That was really where I thought this was going.
Wes: Yeah, And I think I said ensconced. I don’t know if I meant it, or maybe embedded. It doesn’t matter – either way, it was terrible.
Chris: What happens in our intro jokes is what happens, ok?
Wes: It’s true. It’s true, but I kind of wanted to get the whole point out. It’s an audio medium, and I wanted to go with smell. So already I’m not describing something that really works very well for the medium. And then I was mixing metaphors like crazy with… I don’t know if there’s fibers involved in this. Oren, is there fiber involved in audio recording?
Oren: I don’t think so. I mean, there’s probably fiber somewhere in the cables, connecting everything.
Wes: I’m correct, then.
Chris: What I want to know, Wes, was if you think using a description, like the smell of inspiration. In some ways that’s evocative. I would generally not tend to go for a description like that because inspiration doesn’t have a smell.
Wes: [Mock indignation] How dare you?
Chris: Doesn’t really perform its function of being visceral, but it is kind of evocative. What is your opinion on that?
Wes: Maybe we’ll get to that. But I like weird turns like that when you are just mixing and matching senses with ideas. I don’t know, like “It tastes like victory:” what does that mean? I don’t know, but I kinda like it.
Oren: What I’ve been told is that for evocative description, you should use senses like smell and taste, because those are A, often neglected by new writers and also B, they tend to be tied to memory. And so I think that probably means is that your character should just be sniffing and licking everything.
Wes: I completely agree. That’s a way better, interesting way to experience your world. I guess we should state for the record that today we are talking about elements of good descriptions. Description’s one of the many ways you can hopefully make your story come alive, feel three-dimensional. And do you know whether or not you’re telling us whether your main character is wearing an elaborate outfit that you described down to every little bit of detail, or you just like to say that she has a perpetually arched eyebrow. However you choose to describe your world will affect how we experience every single moment of your story, so, hey, no pressure
Chris: And having novelty and good wordcraft in the description does make a substantial difference to just how entertaining the story is. Depending on how much description you use, obviously, but it makes a difference.
Wes: And we’re going to be talking about a few different things today. And the advice on this is very… I think we can home in on some pretty good principles, but yeah, the novelty, the wordcraft, all of those things, they’re highly variable. I mean, one of the more evocative first sentences that gets thrown around is the opening of Stephen King’s gunslinger.
“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger fallowed after.”
It’s not super descriptive, but it works. I think we can talk about why sentences like that can work, and be good examples of descriptive writing that can set a scene, focus in on details, indicate movement, all of those kinds of things.
Chris: Should we talk about sensory description first since we were already?
Wes: Yeah. Let’s talk about sensory description.
Chris: I personally think that as much as it’s good to not just use visuals constantly, sometimes it can go a little too far. [Laughing] Just because based on the practicals of the scene, right? And what you can fit in to each bit of description. I think it’s good to remember, to try to use tactile and smell and sound, but I would think that, you know, use all five senses all the time. Right? Sometimes it feels like that’s what we’re suggesting when people emphasize that a lot. And I think that would be going a little too far.
Wes: We’re basically saying, don’t forget that the other senses exist. Touch, I think, is a fascinating way to explore the world. Iif your character is touching something that’s important. Maybe it looks pretty, but I want to know how it feels: like the weight of it, or if it’s scratchy or smooth, any kind of thing like that. I think could be kind of fun, make it feel like I’m holding it too.
Chris: What you’re talking about, like the weight of it. Besides, just picking something tactile, like how much something weighs, isn’t always included when it could be in interesting ways. Or like temperature, or other things. There’re just more ways to include details that are normally forgotten or neglected besides simply like counting the different senses you’re using.
Wes: Or like when someone hands you something, and sometimes it’s still warm from their touch. I feel like I have encountered that in a story, but I can’t draw one to mind. But I think small details like that add a sense of reality to it. You know, it’s like, oh, it would be warm if someone was touching it. I don’t know why we would need to call that out or what specific important function that would have in a story, but, it can certainly make it a little bit more novel, more textured experience.
Chris: We might get into this more if we talk about metaphor, but I think it’s also worth noting that if the character is not touching something, you can still use description that makes the reader imagine it. Just by saying something is, the right size to fit in the salm of your hand, right, you’re definitely evoking imagery of what it would be like to touch it.
Or if you want to creep them out, using that with something that’s creepy would make it like even creepier, because you would imagine touching the creepy thing. It can be – I sense disapproval – can be used in different ways to create the fact that you want, even if the character’s not literally touching something.
Oren: One thing – I’m not sure if this bothers anybody else to this extent – but I’ve just grown increasingly uninterested in description that is “understood.” We know what it means, but in reality doesn’t actually mean anything. Like saying that there was warmth in her eyes. It’s like, if you say that most people will know what you mean, but that’s actually a nonsense statement. Eyes can’t have warmth – that statement depends on a shared agreement on what that statement means. And.. I mean, I guess all language does.
Wes: Here’s Oren’s hot take against language today.
Oren: Yeah, hot take: words are made up, don’t use them. But there’s a lot of descriptions like that, when looking at people’s expressions. And I get why writers do that because expressions are actually kind of hard to describe in specifics, and there’s a lot of instinct that goes into reading someone’s body language and facial expression, but I sometimes do wish people would get more specific and be, well what does that look like? Like what are you seeing to make you think that there is warmth or trust in someone’s eyes?
Trust is one that I get. At that point, I start to be like, I don’t even know what that means, right. I sort of get an image in my head when someone says a warm expression, but a trusting expression? I don’t know what that looks like.
Wes: Better to just evoke that sense of touch again and just be like, “I could feel the warmth radiating off of her. And I knew because it was so hot that it was inviting.” Right? That’s what it means.
Oren: At that point, maybe she needs to be checked for a fever. I think she might be in trouble.
Chris: I definitely think that’s a case of telling rather than showing. And it is true with facial expressions that we just have limited language about how to describe people’s body language and their expression.
I did a story once where I was putting in lots of body language, and came up with a whole spreadsheet of all of these different body language cues so I wouldn’t use too many of them the same, or repeat the same one over and over again. But there’s so many different things that people do that we don’t have language for.
But at the same time, as much as you can, say there’s crinkles around the eyes, for instance, instead of just saying warmth in the eyes, which is basically telling, I think, instead of showing. It’s better if you can.
Wes: And if you could just pair maybe like a little bit of dialogue with that too, just to – like Oren’s point – just to clarify what’s going on. That’s helpful.
Chris: I would also say that if you’re going to go to the route of telling, in some cases it’s better to at least use a metaphor or something. Cause you’re not showing what about the eyes is warm anyway, or what it looks like, so you might as well get really metaphorical with it. Just like, you know, the smell of inspiration.
Wes: Yes. Oh man. The smell of inspiration is with us all today. It’s smells like… man, there’s not even anything good to substitute in there besides, I don’t know. Oh yes: like a new book. I guess a new book smells like inspiration, maybe.
Oren: Is that a new book smells like?
Wes: I don’t know, Oren. I think this new book actually just kind of smells like broken promises to myself. [Laughing] I’ll definitely read this.
Oren: That’s why ebooks and audio books are great, cause you just download them and then, you forget about them forever and they aren’t sitting on your shelf judging you.
Wes: There’s a good – I think it’s season one of Buffy – when’s Ms. Calendar around and she’s trying to digitize Giles’s library and he’s having a fit?
Chris: Season two?
Wes: Season two, that’s right. I like when Giles talks about how books smell. Because I think that’s a really good… because computers don’t smell, this is his argument. And, you know, they don’t give you as much like tactile sensory feedback as a physical book that you spilled coffee on or all that kind of stuff.
And I think we should digitize and spread information, certainly, but I like the way he talked about books in that episode, and it was quite evocative with how you felt how much passion he had for that physical object. I thought that was really well done.
Oren: One thing that I can mention, because honestly, making a content editor talk about description is real rude – this is not my natural habitat. But one thing that I can suggest, as we were talking about using these rich and evocative details, is to remember the order of things you are describing.
Oren: Because you want to describe the most important thing first. And what’s the most important? Well, that’s context sensitive, but in general anything dangerous is going to go right to the top of the list. And that includes weapons, or someone acting hostilely, or an injury, because an injury implies that more injuries could happen. And then I would also say anything supernatural, overtly supernatural that is. That is also going to be really high at the top of the list.
The example that I’m always imagining is Beyond lies the Wub – I think it’s one of the stories that Chris has done critiques on – there’s this sequence where the captain is described as putting his gun away, but was never described as having it out. And I expect to be told if someone has drawn their weapons. So I had to edit my imagination of that scene because I didn’t imagine him having his gun out, cause surely the author told me that.
Chris: My favorite example of this is Eragon. And let me just expand this list a little bit for when you’re prioritizing, what description needs to go first. It’s things that are striking. Including something dangerous or something paranormal would be striking – it’s going to grab your attention. Something that’s big – that’s just large in size – you’re going to see the big picture before you see the details. And obviously things that are important to the story that are going to be used by character – like a gun, right – need to be pulled out.
But in Eragon, there’s a couple of things that just pop out of nowhere because they’re not described initially. There’s like this big granite rock or outcropping or pillar or something, that the shade just climbs up to get a look at his surroundings.
Oren: Oh, okay. Yes, that was there.
Chris: It’s gotta be tall enough that he would get a better view by climbing it. So that suggests it’s pretty bad, but it’s not described until he uses it. And then you don’t know that he has a horse until the very end of the prologue, where he just pulls out his horse – like he had a horse this entire time? He has so many magic powers that there’s ways for him to get to this location other than using a horse. And it’s never described that he had one around when he was using his fireballs or whatever to kill everything. The horse might get kind of spooked by that. And then suddenly, he pulls out his horse.
The other thing that’s worth noting is what would the character be looking at if you’re using a viewpoint character. We get some really weird things where one character just doesn’t seem to be looking at something, or seems to be looking at the wrong thing. So in Eldest, which is the sequel to Eragon, there’s this sequence where it describes Arya, who is the main character love interest, and it’s from his point of view. And it just makes a big deal of this bandage that she has on her arm. And it’s like, that’s just a very odd thing to focus on out of all of the other things about her.
Or there’s some description that’s missing in the Witcher. From the Witcher books that I critiqued, where like the main character, from Siri’s point of view, is Geralt. And he’s apparently right there, and he’s talking to her. And the trees are described, and the logs in the fire are described in detail and he’s just practically not described at all. Even though there’s like another person right there in the scene and it just feels like she should be looking at him and you should get description.
Oren: The person talking to you would definitely rank higher than the background. And there is some interesting stuff you can do by messing with that order on purpose. You know, you can get the kind of surreal feeling, not noticing that someone is bleeding until you’ve talked to them for a second. That’s something I would recommend using very sparingly, because it’s very easy to get disorienting. And at some point, people are going to start to wonder, how is your character, just this unobservant. That’s going to start to seem weird. It’s also worth noting that the more description you put on something, the more important it will seem. And that’s where that, that weird bandage comes in
In the first Eragon book in the, in the prologue, the unusual amount of description given to the helmets that these two elves are wearing creates this very odd implication that these helmets in particular are very important.
Chris: They don’t have any armor, just the helmet.
Oren: They don’t describe what else they’re wearing, which kind of gives the impression that they’re naked other than these helmets. And that’s very odd – stuff like that all over the place.
Wes: But it is important, right? I mean, I put a lot of effort in describing these helmets. I conceptualize them, and they need to know how they look, right? No, no.
Chris: I do think it is worth noting that okay when I usually describe a scene, I usually have both general descriptors of the whole scene, and specific descriptors of objects in the scene because the specific things are more evocative and more compelling than just talking about how the whole thing looks. But I think when you’re doing that, you do have to be very careful that the specific things you choose are good representations of the whole.
Like, let’s say you were describing a forest. You might describe huge trees, or wind bent trees or how dense it is, or how sparse it is. And then you would want to, to make it more evocative, choose several specific trees, but you would want to have those trees… Do several – for instance, if we spend the whole time focusing on a single tree, it’s going to start to signal that the tree is important.
And in my Dawn of Wonder critique, there’s a squirrel in the beginning. And it’s describing a whole forest and just focuses for a long time on the squirrel. And I was really wondering if the squirrel was plot important because there was so much.
So, you know, choose several trees, evenly distribute this description between them, and then give them variety that kind of reflects the variety you want to be in that forest. So maybe one is a thin birch. And the other is a Willow that is contorted and dropping its leaves, or whatever you want the scene to have. So that’s how you want to mix in the details with the general description, and give it variety and keep it even, otherwise you’re signaling the wrong thing to the reader.
Wes: That’s just a good point that when you get specific, we’re going to expect it to be important. So specific and important details are good things to keep in mind. Do description good.
That’s such a good example of like the forest or if, someone’s walking in the forest and it’s getting described, that could be evocative, but lhow is the description of the forest from this character’s perspective showing us something important about the character? Then you’re starting to like describe things for purpose, and that can really help you with multitasking and doing a little bit more with the scene with your description.
Oren: You know, weirdly, I haven’t actually seen very many stories with this problem, but over-describing the environment is a problem that fantasy is said to have, primarily because of Tolkien as far as I can tell – because that is a problem Tolkien had, where he would spend a lot of time describing some trees or a door or things that weren’t really that important didn’t need that much description. But I haven’t actually seen that as a problem in very many other stories, I think just because, it’s a lot of work. And so an author has to be really devoted to make that mistake, right? That was clearly something Tolkien did on purpose, which doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just that he was intentionally doing it. Whereas most problems that I run into in storytelling are by accident or are done because they are easier. So that kind of thing is like, you have to go out of your way to really put it enough description of the environment that it starts to become a problem.
Chris: I think when I’ve seen it, it’s been in epic sprawling fantasy series where the author really wants to talk about their world lot. So for instance, they enter a new city and there was just a lot of description, the new city, but it’s kind of mixed in with the exposition, right? The goal is more like exposition dumping.
Oren: All right. So here’s a question for both of you: How much of your important characters, your protagonists and your important side characters should be described?
Chris: How much description should they have?
Oren: Yeah. Like, do you need to paint a picture of what they look like, or is it better to give one or two details and let the reader fill in the rest?
Wes: Well, that’s what I was going to say with your point Oren, of there seeming to be just less description. I’d like to think maybe writers are trusting readers to fill in the blanks more because readers fill in the blanks more, full stop.
Like you don’t need to over describe it and doing that can be worse. Like, we know what an Arctic forest looks like now we have the internet. But like I don’t like over described main characters – I like significant descriptions of main characters – like tell me what their skin color is, and if they have a resting inquisitive face. I would like to know that. Maybe do something like a fun, odd little quirk, or something like that. They always look surprised. I think that would be a fun detail to know.
Chris: Well, first I need to add that it depends on the length of the story. Generally there’s much higher expectations for main characters being described in novels than in short stories. A lot of times in short stories you just don’t have a lot of time, and it’s not worth it. If it’s real short. I would say that in novels, one of the reasons to describe your viewpoint character is that that way you know what the other characters are responding to. So that major aspects of your main character affect them socially usually, in some manner.
And so knowing how that character presents themselves, I think can be valuable, but as long as you have the basics down, so that people aren’t surprised when they find out the character is 60 years old rather than 20 years old, for instance, and you have some idea of how this character presents themselves, I think you don’t necessarily need to be specific, but you can be if you want to.
Oren: Yeah. I was just noticing that one of the rare stories where I felt like characters were under described is in the Red Rising novel, where I felt like other than the general color palette, which is given to everyone based on their cast color, I really had almost no idea what any of the characters look like. That made it very hard to pick them out of fan art lineups – I was like, okay, which one is that? I don’t know, like I know that this guy is big and I know that that lady has blonde hair, I think, but who are we looking at here? And I know that this guy is small, but that was like one detail. It was like each character got one detail.
Chris: I would say if it’s not the viewpoint character than it should be described for the same reason, anything else important were to be described. Your viewpoint character’s going to be looking at them. So what are they seeing? You know, if we’re going to, in conversation with them. And again, we don’t need to necessarily narrate every freckle across their cheeks.
Oren: All of them, a hundred percent of the freckles.
Chris: Right. But, and also just, definitely, especially for women, something beyond their hair color, please. There’s just, there’s a whole thing of men commodifying women based on their hair color. So that’s definitely not the best detail until leave description of women at.
Oren: Yeah. I’d also mentioned that since we’re on that subject, the whole being vague in description, one of the effects that it can have is making it really hard to tell if you have any people of color in your story. And that’s where you get into the whole assumed white by default thing. And I noticed that in Red Rising of course, because in Red Rising there’s almost no description, but I also noticed it in Age of Myth where the characters have a more reasonable amount of description, but nothing that would indicate.what real world race or culture or ethnicity or nationality they might resemble or belong to. That was noticeable. It was like, all right, it’s not like you’re leaving out all the details, you are leaving out very specific ones. And that’s kind of weird.
One more thing that I want to mention is when you’re, especially in fight scenes, remember that describing the effects of your character’s actions and the actions of their combatants on them is very important. Because I’ve seen some fight scenes where the protagonist does something and I’m like, ok you launched an attack. But what happened? Did it hit someone? Did they get stabbed? Is there bleeding? And you can get weird situations like in a book I read recently, uh, what was it called? A Song of Wraiths and Ruins has a fight scene where the protagonist is staff fighting with someone and the protagonist blocks a hit with her arm that is hard enough to break the other person staff, but there was no description of the effect that had on her arm. And that was really disorienting. I was like, I feel like your arm at the very least should be in pain right now, if not in pieces.
Wes: Oren, that’s a good thing just talking about actions in general, because I think something that you can fall prey to, and we see this enough, is that if you’re describing characters’ actions, generally speaking, you shouldn’t split up the body from the mind. By that I mean don’t pretend that we’re all hanging out as little pilot versions inside our heads, pulling levers and stuff. So don’t say something silly, like Wes turned his eyes to the window and saw the bird. Like what? It’s fine to say that Wes looked out the window and saw the bird, you turn your head. It’s just look at people. Or they had their hand touch her shoulder, and then swiveled their eyes to meet her gaze. Unless you’re going for some kind of dissociative experience where somebody is experiencing removal from their body, it’s stilted and odd, and it shows up more often than I’d like. I don’t know why. It just seems cluttered.
Chris: I mean, you definitely don’t need to usually mention people’s specific body parts and what limb they’re using. Like whether they’re reaching the right hand or the left hand. Instead of reaching out and turning the doorknob, just say they opened the door or they turn the doorknob.
Wes: Yes, exactly.
Chris: You don’t really need to mention like how they moved their body to do that. That’s one of those things that readers can easily fill in for themselves.
Oren: Or let me put it this way. If you do that, then you are creating the implication that the specific way they’re moving their body is really important. And if it’s not, that will seem very odd.
Wes: There it is.
Oren: There are situations where you might need to describe what hand is opening the door. If for example, the protagonist is being pushed against a wall, or is injured, or is in other some way limited in what they can do. You’ll need to know that, but if they’re not under any of those restraints and you described very specifically, which hand is doing the opening, that’s like, why? It’s going to make the readers feel like they’re missing something.
Chris: This is also really common in fight scenes, where somebody is trying to draw an exact picture. Just be like, I swung the sword in my left hand, towards their right shoulder. You want to say what the characters are doing; you don’t want to get that detailed.
Wes: All right. Well, I think that will do it for this episode. Those of you at home, if anything, we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber who is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: Mythcreants is free, but the fairy dust and anti-matter we feed on isn’t. Help us out by going to patreon.com/mythcreants.[Outro music]