August 13, 2012

Salt of Description

pinterest: the white sail's shaking
As I was preparing to sit down last week and write a post on the subject of using all five senses in descriptions, I looked at my blog feed and discovered that Go Teen Writers had just done such an article.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is what I call unfair.  However, I decided I would go ahead and write my own thoughts on the matter, and in the end you can read both posts and compare.

Descriptive passages have never come to me with quite the same ease as dialogue.  Perhaps this is because dialogue tends to follow a more logical procession from point A to point B, or at least from point A to point Q back to point B, while description is more intuitive and emotional.  But difficulties notwithstanding, I do enjoy writing these scenes.  I enjoy them because it is a pleasure to take a step back or forward and examine the world in either broader scope or closer detail - and because, by looking at a scene through the eyes of a character, I see things in a different light.  (That is part of the brilliance of fictional people: not existing, they still manage to be so real.)  While of course still utilizing my own senses, I am at the same time accessing the senses of the character.  Separating those senses into the five common ones, and leaving out the sixth sense of intuition, each one provides rich means of vivifying description.

sight - touch - hearing - smell - taste

We depend very heavily upon our eyes, so it's no wonder that descriptive passages tend to be heavy on this aspect.  I don't know about you, but when I'm reading a description, no matter how well I can smell and feel and hear and even taste the object, I would very much like to know what it looks like.  The man may smell of horse and sweaty leather boot-soles - grand!  The pipe may make music like the wind across the surface of a lake - brilliant!  The decorated cake may taste like the cover of a hardback book - disgusting!  And yet, without a few choice visionary descriptions, it is difficult to bring to the reader's mind exactly the same image that was in the writer's thoughts.  I can imagine a great deal about how the man in question feels about bathing, and even create my own mental image of him; but my imagination is probably quite faulty.

Descriptions based on sight tend to get a bad rap, I find.  This is reasonable, as many take this as the easy course and write off a hasty description about how the man is 5'9" and tanned (or is that dirt?) and has piercing green eyes, which evokes nothing.  However, it is possible to go to far to the other extreme and eliminate all sight-based descriptions.  Strike a good balance!

The next four senses are, I think, the most fun and provide more food for the imagination and for one's originality.  This is especially so if you mix and match them, and do not simply use them in obvious settings.  Of course if you're describing a stew, you'll want to describe its taste - but what about its appearance, or the sound it makes falling into the bowl, or its texture?  If a flower is in question, appearance and smell are obvious.  But how do the petals feel against your skin?  How does the wind sound thrumming over its leaves?

Another good thing to do, and one which is used powerfully by such writers as Rosemary Sutcliff, is to link senses together in descriptions.  Colors can be used beautifully in these descriptions.  Something might taste scarlet - similar, perhaps, to saying it tastes like blood, but far more evocative in the writing setting.  Perhaps the flower smells the way honey tastes on a day in midsummer.  A laugh can sound like silk running through one's fingers.  Oftentimes these sorts of descriptions leap to one's mind and can't be actively sought out, but if you're watching for them, you'll see them more frequently.

Caveat!  (I do tend to have caveats, don't I?)  Descriptions of any one kind ought to be used sparingly, sprinkled rather than dumped into a story.  Too much of a good thing is still too much, as they say.  These are thoughts to keep somewhere in the back of one's mind during difficult descriptive passages, not to have always and obsessively in the forefront of one's thoughts.  I find they're like salt: useful in small doses, not so useful in large.  ...Unless you're Sutcliff, because she pulled it off amazingly.


  1. :) This was such a great post, Abigail! You seem to have a knack for tacking down common sense in a teachable format. I ramble all up and down the post and never seem to get much of anywhere. Thanks for being so concise and yet helpful! <3

  2. I'm going to bookmark this post, Abigail! I have such a hard time with description... dialogue is my best friend, but description is like that passing acquaintance with whom I'm not on very comfortable terms. Whenever I do write a good snippet of description, I end up sticking it higgledy-piggledy into an already-completed scene and then it sounds out of place. Ugh.

    About writing sight descriptions-- do you have any suggestions about how to describe people's appearances? I abhor the "5'9 and tanned with piercing green eyes" cop-out, so I tend to go to the other extreme and barely describe people at all (which isn't helpful to the reader--obviously). How do you go about it?

  3. Rachel - Well, I'm glad you think these posts are concise! In writing them, I often feel like I ramble all over the place and smash everything but the nail with the hammer. Ho hum.

    Miss Dashwood - Your analogy made me laugh! I honestly think that Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the best writers to study in terms of her descriptive power - not that we all ought to imitate her, but her style encourages one, I think, to expand one's horizons. Her descriptions are so different, they inspire me to look beyond the humdrum for better ways of bringing a scene to life.

    Like you, I tend not to describe people very much. In most books when the author attempts to describe a character, especially a main character, I find the result either irritating or laughable; thus I prefer to keep physical descriptions to a minimum and rely on actions to characterize the individual.

    However, when I do describe someone, I like to make sure I'm doing it from the eyes of another person. For instance, in Wordcrafter it was easy for me to describe Ethan through Justin's eyes: Justin is more than half convinced this stranger is an axe murderer, so he's keeping an extremely careful eye on him. On the other hand, I don't describe Justin much at all, since he's the narrator. Does that make sense? I may have to expand this whole idea into a blog post of its own!

  4. This was a wonderful post, Abigail! It proved to be a great help to me, and I'm going to print it off to keep for further reference. I agree with Miss Dashwood - I thrive in dialogue, and from soaring above the clouds in that, I fall to the ground with a thump when it comes to the other "d": description. I also despise that type - "5'9 and tanned with piercing green eyes"! So my goal is to work on description! Abigail, your response to Miss Dashwood was very good; and it helped me as well. Thank you!

    From one writer to another,


  5. I'm glad it helped, Patience! I saw a quote the other day that I found inspiring, and which fits this context: "Know your limitations. And then defy them." It's no good realizing that something isn't our strong point if we don't make a concerted effort to bolster ourselves in that area. You and I will have to soldier on together in this more difficult area!

  6. As you would probably know, dialogue is probably one of my biggest weaknesses in writing, one that needs a lot more honing! Description comes a lot more naturally to me... I feel at home in it, though I still have LOTS to learn and to develop in that sphere of writing as well.

    But this post was so very helpful, Abigail; thank you for sharing! That point you made about keeping the balance between too much or too little description was great... and the thing about describing the physical features of the protagonist is one that I struggle with...

    Ah, Sutcliff is wonderful with description, isn't she! Having only recently discovered the beauty of her writing I still have not read a lot of her books, but what I have read makes me whole heartedly agree with you on that point :)


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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