One Well-Chosen Detail: Write Juicy Descriptions Without Overwhelming Your Reader | Jane Friedman

One Well-Chosen Detail: Write Juicy Descriptions Without Overwhelming Your Reader | Jane Friedman

Photo by Tommes Frites

Today’s post is by author and writing coach April Dávila (@aprildavila).

Have you ever read a description in a book and actually stopped to say to yourself, “Dang, that’s good.” and then maybe read it again?

If so, you’ve probably also read a book where you found yourself mumbling, “I really don’t need to know every detail about this guy’s library/tools/muffin recipe” as you flip a few pages to find where the story picks up again.

It takes practice to write immersive descriptions that draw readers in, without going overboard so that we bore them and lose their attention. It’s one of the more delicate elements of craft.

Let’s start with how to write lush prose.

Writing engaging descriptions

I was reading Moonglow, by Michael Chabon, recently and came across this description of an ominous figure:

His close-cropped skull was indented on one side as by the corner of a two-by-four. In the crevice formed by his brow and cheekbones, his eyes glinted like dimes lost between sofa cushions.

The specificity of the description just floored me. I can absolutely see this guy in my head and I wouldn’t want to bump into him in a parking lot staircase. It got me thinking about great descriptions, and their opposite: clichés.

The dreaded cliché

A cliché is any turn of phrase that you’ve ever heard before: fire-engine red, soft as a pillow, robin’s egg blue, fast as a speeding train. You get the idea.

Basically, a cliché is a symbol. It’s the literary equivalent of clipart. If you write that someone sat down beneath a tree, you basically just painted a cartoon tree in the mind of your reader—two vertical lines with a squiggly circle on top.

But if your character nestles their butt between the swollen roots of a craggy oak, feels the rough bark, sees the dappled light fall through the canopy of tiny, waxed leaves, now you’re onto something. Now the reader can really see (and feel) that specific tree.

Characters can be cliché too. If you’re writing an elderly lady and you tell us she has gray hair and wrinkles around her eyes, an image will form in the mind of the reader, sure, but an opportunity has been missed to create a specific character, one unlike any other.

As an example, consider this description from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping:

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

The difference is in the details. Specific details are what lift descriptions out of cliché. But digging deep for details is difficult because our brains are inherently lazy. We see something pale blue. We check our mental files for ways of describing it and come up with “sky blue.” Accurate, yes, but you’ve missed the chance to describe the object as only you can.

Choose your details wisely

Whenever I teach students about writing lush descriptions, I inevitably get someone who raises their hand and says they would rather their work be an easy-to-read page turner than a long-winded, overwritten bore. I wholeheartedly agree.

Master film editor Walter Murch, once said  “…trust one, well-chosen detail to do the work of ten.” Part of digging deep for unique and interesting details is removing any excess wording that would weigh your story down.

Now, to be clear, I don’t advise worrying about this while you’re writing your first draft. When you’re in the process of getting a story on the page, go ahead and drop in all the hyperbolic, cliché language that comes to mind. It doesn’t matter on the first draft. Those tired images can work just fine as place holders. But when you go back to edit, consider the possibilities that exist if you can whittle down to just one perfect adjective and cut the rest.

think outside the normal descriptions you already have in your head. Light doesn’t just shine. It can smooth, dance, and scrape. Consider the awkward pine tree or the lank marsupial. One of the more fun parts of writing is putting words together in unusual ways, then editing, editing, editing.

An exercise to practice

If you’d like to sharpen your skills at writing descriptions, pick a place, any place, and describe it every day for a month without ever repeating yourself. It’s difficult, and by day three you will have to dig a little deeper for your descriptions. By day 30 you will no doubt surprise yourself. This is a great way to exercise your writing muscles.

At the end of the month, go through what you’ve written and choose your favorite description. Odds are, it’s something no one else could have written. It is uniquely yours and your readers will love you for it.

April Davila

April Dávila is an award-winning author and writing coach. Publisher’s Weekly called her debut novel, 142 Ostriches, a “vivid, uplifting debut” and the book went on to win the WILLA Award for Women Writing the West. writer’s Digest listed her blog (at aprildavila.com) as one of the Best 101 Websites for Writers and she is the creator of the Sit Write Here writing coaching program. She is a practicing Buddhist, a half-hearted gardener, and occasional runner. Her second novel is forthcoming.

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