Writing Tips: The Magic of Descriptions

Posted on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016 at 14:37

This post is sort of an extension of my world-building series, but doesn’t really fit within it, as it probably won’t be much use to Referees of RPGs, but only writers.

Descriptions are the way we authors enchant your brains with our magic, it is how we make you drink in vistas of cloud-clinging fairy-towers, walk through cities cut from volcanic glass, or flinch from the oil and swirling gears of a Black-Mechanimal spider. I’ve been told it’s something I’m quite good at so, I thought I’d try and work out why.  There are a lot of things to think about with descriptions, especially to make them interesting and vivid, I’ll try and explain how I like to do it (feel free to comment below if you have some points I’ve missed — or just disagree). Descriptions, in good fiction, are actually a form of magic (in my opinion), an image in the author’s own mind is encoded in powerful sigils, which when decoded properly will create the same image, as if by telepathy, in the reader’s mind. And it doesn’t just apply to images, but the whole sensorium of human existence (and beyond, as far as the imagination can probe).

Imagine it

I know it seems obvious, but if you want to describe something it really helps if you know what it looks like. When you are describing something that really exists, you can just describe it, but if it’s something that doesn’t exist (like a dragon wearing a church as a hat) then you will have to use that imagination. Really fire it up, turn it all the way to twelve (eleven may not be enough for the hat as well), perhaps close your eyes, or seclude yourself so you can focus. As a fantasy writer your imagination is paramount.

If you can’t imagine a dragon wearing a church for a hat, then you probably shouldn’t be a fantasy writer, because the reader doesn’t just want to know that a dragon has a church on its head, they want to know details, like what colour is the dragon, is it a Chinese or Welsh dragon (or is it actually a Wyvern or a Hydra), what denomination is the church, what architectural style was it built in (presumably haute-couture) and is the church at a jaunty angle.

If you can imagine a dragon wearing a church as hat then you can answer those questions. What is more, you can probably even imagine the sounds the bells make as the dragon roars, you might even have an idea what it smells like.

And if you know all these details you can tell them to your reader through the peculiar form of telepathic communication that we call writing. In magical terms you must focus on your intent (in this case the image you wish to transfer), if you are trying to describe the action of your story then you should be able to watch the movie of it in your head. See the upswing of the knight’s axe, the mane of his horse dancing on the wind as you hear the pounding of the mud-clogged hooves. You might even catch a glimpse of the enemy reflecting in the polished-steel shield, if you can hold still long enough. Of course, just imagining a perfect action sequence, fantasy landscape, dashing alchemist hero, or funky piece of kit doesn’t do anything to tell the reader about it, or why it’s important to the plot.

You actually have to pick some words that convey the events, imagery and so on from your mind to the readers.

Choose The Magic Words

It’s obvious that the words that we use tell us about the things we are describing.

If I say that the dragon is a Welsh Red, and the hat is actually a gothic belfry then suddenly you have colour and spikes to add to your mental picture (as long as you know what the words mean). But with English there is always more than one way to describe a skinned cat.

If I tell you that the air roils from the dragon’s heat, and is heavy with the scents of camphor and brimstone the picture might become a sensory event, an illusion, but only to those that know what camphor and sulphur smell like. 

If I tell you instead that the dragon’s breath was a cloying sweetness, undercut with the smells of rotten eggs, those words may work better, they are more universally understood, and the clever reader may infer what we intended.

And here we are presented with a chance to be clever, if we choose to take it. The words we choose in the description can obviously tell us about the object being described, less obviously though they can tell us about the narrator and the world they inhabit.

Engage In Empathic Communication

Word choice is powerful stuff, if a narrator tells us that a room went a bit colder, we think nothing of it, but say instead, that a chill fell on the room, and while clichéd, it conveys some importance (and implies a social chill rather than physical). If we really want to make it work though we need to consider the effect on the narrator.

If the narrator says, despite the chill winds our spirits were high, then we feel better about the room than if they said, it was a bleak wind, that stole the heat and joy from us all, then you know there’s some bad times happening. The same physical event is filtered by the observer’s senses (understandably) and by their emotions as well, and with the right words we can convey both to the reader. But it doesn’t have to end there, use of voice can bring out more details, the way the character tells us can reveal more about them.

Consider “I’ve heard of dragons so big that their voices alone can cause landslides,” and “I’ve seen a dragon so big that their shadow covered a whole city.”

Both describe how big the dragon is, but in very different terms.

The first speaker has only heard of dragons that big, and speaks in terms of the noise the dragon made, this implies they are more interested in auditory experiences, perhaps they are a musician or a gossip (in fantasy they are probably a bard, who are both).

The second narrator is telling us that they have seen a dragon that big, and describe that size in visual terms. Human beings are usually quite visual creatures, we say things like “Do you see what I mean?” so many people will be more comfortable understanding that visually based description. You can do this with any of the classical five-senses, each one has it’s own phrases and words which help create full experiences in the readers minds. Which brings us to…

Sense Sensibilities

Everyone, I hope, is familiar with the five senses, even if they may not have experienced them all for themselves. Writers need to describe all these sensory images to make a truly complete illusion, first we start with the basics.

  1. Vision or Sight: Usually the most important sense to human beings, but will be less so to narrators with impaired vision. Vision can convey a lot of simultaneous information in real-life, not just light and shade, but colour, textures and so on, in writing it can require a thousand words which is far too much especially in one go, spread out throughout a story though and it will hardly be noticed.
  2. Audio or Hearing: Second most important to most people, even those who are highly visual will still occasionally listen to something important, even if it is only dialogue. Rhythms, tones, timbres, and textures of sound provide powerful cues about the environment, from winds in trees, traffic on roads, the sounds of human or animal communication, a hint of noise from out of sight can add depth to a location or event.
  3. Tactioception or Touch: Much more important (and commonly used) than many people may grasp, this is language of feels, touches, caresses and even pain. Romance, and especially erotica, must use touchy-freely language, but of course hardware is often described with tactile language too, as it adds physical reality to a description.
  4. Olfactory or Smell: Rather like perfumes themselves, smells are easy to use and even easier to overuse. Most people rarely notice smells, they might pick up on a perfume, or the aroma of a meal, a person who has a strong sense of smell will always notice a new person’s or place’s scent, but if an author describes too many smells the reader may turn their nose up at it, noticing that there’s something fishy going on. I emphasise the sense of smell of my Theriocephalic characters in “Ironmaster and Other Tales” and the Bulmäs in “The Paradox War” because these characters live in a more aromatic world than humans.
  5. Gustatory or Taste: It can be hard to judge when to include taste in a description, my gut reaction is that a few choice taste words, peppered in a larger description is a far sweeter read than one without. But care must be taken that you only add a hint of flavour, it is one thing for a character to taste blood after being punched in the face, quite another to describe every mouthful of a meal, unless you are describing a very important meal.

But those 5 senses are not the only senses that humans have. The complete list of human senses however is undecided, with some Neurologists listing 9 and others as many as 21. There are additional senses which some consider to be part of our sense of touch:

  1. Thermoception or Temperature: Our bodies feel heat and cold as a separate sense from the pressure of a touch. Writers often use temperature as a metaphor for passion and emotions, which is a hold over from the ancient medical concept of bodily humours.
  2. Nociception or Pain: Perception of pain is again held somewhat seperate from touch. You may feel pressure when injured, but not feel the pain until later. The language of pain is very emotive as we feel emotional pain and physical pain in similar terms.
  3. Equilibrioception or Balance: Our sense of balance can be easily overlooked even in life, in writing we rarely notice it unless someone is dizzied or off-balance. However your sense of balance is what feels changes in acceleration (or gravity, or direction), (although some people think that rates a seperate Internal sense as a physicist I can’t seperate the two). Any time you talk of motion, falling, etc then you are using balance language.
  4. Proprioception or Body Awareness: Humans (usually) intuitively know where the parts of their body are. We don’t actually have many words for this sense, instead we rely on mainly tactile words for this strange intuition. It’s a very rare writer that would use Proprioception in their writing, unless writing someone blind/in the dark, suffering from phantom limb syndrome or describing the effects of a polymorph spell (where you might feel you hands and feet as though they were inside the fins of a fish or wings of a bird) .

Then we come to extra senses that are not external senses, they tell us nothing about the outside world, but provide sense data from inside ourselves. These internal senses might include (and are in no way agreed by Neurologists):

  1. Chemoception or Hunger: Chemoception language talks about hunger, starvation or satiation, and being full. Chemoception can often be wrapped into Gustatory sense language, as hunger and taste are difficult to seperate. Desires are often expressed as symbolic (or actual) hungers by writers.
  2. Hydroception or Thirst: Similar to Chemoception (and according to some it is the same sense) a thirst is a hunger for fluids, but I can be used to describe other desires, such as a thirst for knowledge.
  3. Suffocation: Another variant on Chemoception (and sometimes considered a subset of our sense of smell) this sense tells us when we are choking, suffocating or having difficulty breathing. In writing we usually use it to convey urgency, or a sense of physical exercetion, it adds tension and danger to hold one’s breath, and that is the way it seems to the reader often too.

And the list goes on, with senses for our own blood pressure, stretching of tissues, even the pH of your cerebral fluid is apparently a sense we can feel, but ones we have few words to cover. And all of that is before we get to the “Sixth Sense” which parapsychology actually divides into a number of separate ‘senses’ like:

  • A sense of being stared at (where the gaze is felt)
  • Intuition (hunches and ‘gut’ instinct)
  • Premonition (which is almost indistinguishable from intuition, but is about the future)
  • Precognition (where the future is seen)
  • Telepathy (which might be voices or images)
  • Clairvoyance (or remote viewing)
  • Mediumship (hearing and sometimes seeing spirits)
  • Psychometry (where sensations or visions are detected from objects or places)

All of which are described in terms of the five main senses usually. And then there are Cognitive senses, that are actually processes that go on in our minds, like a sense of time, sense of humour, sense of honour, aesthetic senses, and good old common sense (which tells me to stop there, as there are many more). So how do we use these senses in our writing? Well, for any given description you should focus on one or two senses (if you are clever and concise you may manage more, without it feeling too much), the most important to the thing being sensed (the visual of a picture, the audio of a piece of music)and the most important to the character doing the sensing. Remember that the emotional effect of these choices, and the words we use are also important.

Descriptive Words

When we were first taught English we were told that descriptive words are called adjectives (and adverbs), and so writers will often think in terms of adjectives and adverbs when creating descriptions, but adjectives are not the only words we should use in descriptions. This is especially true of adverbs, which are used to modify verbs, but a good writer will rarely use them, instead using a more descriptive verb. Consider the difference between “He went slowly, stealthily forward.” versus “He crept forward.” both are describing the same events, but the second is punchier and cleaner to read (although the first could be argued creates extra tension). That said, there are good reasons to use adverbs occasionally, as they often are empathetic words, and example if we write, “He nervously crept forwards.” that adds emotional content to the action’s description.

The same is true for adjectives too, often you will be able to replace adjectives with a different choice of noun, the addition of a verb or a change to a figurative use of language. Note the differences in these descriptions:

  • It was difficult to stay cheerful as we wearily made our camp, because the boggy, rivelet-strewn, foggy hilltop looked especially depressive under the dim-light of a raining, clouded, evening sky.
  • We made cheerless camp in the mist-drenched moor’s pluvial dusk.

Again the second example is punchier and I think has stronger emotional content, because it is lighter in adjectives and adverbs (although the word pluvial is a bit of worry for ease of reading it adds something baroque to the sentence that I like).

I think it’s always better to be shorter with descriptions than longer, or your readers may skip ahead. Ideally a description should be short, but interesting, but it’s better to be short and boring than long and boring any day.

Advanced Techniques

So those are the basics, but beyond them we have advanced techniques that we can use with descriptions to create stronger imagery, or emotional content, or comedic effect.

  • Dichotomy: You can use dichotomy to describe something by describing the opposite. “He wasn’t short, far from it.”
  • Hyperbole: Exaggeration can drive a point home like nothing else. “He was a titan, a hundred feet tall, at least in the eyes of his men.”
  • Understatement: Generally used in dialogue for comedic effect, such as having a character describe a murder as “the unfortunate incident with the lead pipe and that man’s head”.
  • Oxymorons: Used to make the reader stop and think, or draw attention, such as “He was happily depressed.” Or “She was naturally weird.” Can be used for dramatic effect, as in “Painfully beautiful” or “Gorgeously ugly”
  • Similes: Draw a (usually fair) comparison to show emphasis “small as a flea”, “big as an elephant”, “quiet as a mouse”
  • Metaphors: Portray something as another thing that it may share characteristics with, “They are nothing but insects,” or “The work was a breeze”.
  • Twisted Similes: Draw and unfair or absurd comparison for comedic effect, “He was as quiet as a mouse, who played guitar in a thrash metal band.”
  • Nonsense and Neolgisms: If you can’t find the perfect word, try creating a new one. You can portmanteau two words together, like scavenge and salvage combine into Scalvage, create the word from Latin or Greek root words, or just invent it.

Well, I think that’s it for now. So if you have any comments, or questions drop me a note below