It took me a long while to get into description… and even now I’m not all that strong with it. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, that’s a lot of carpal tunnel I gotta develop just so you can get an idea of what I’m trying to show you. Besides, I always felt that description got in the way of the good parts of the story, you know, action, dialogue, character development… compared to those, what’s description? Description ain’t story meat!
But it can be.
Before descriptive writing can actually carry weight in your prose you’ve got to do one essential task. You’ve got to discard the old notions of what descriptive writing is. Descriptive writing is not:
A) just a mandatory task so the reader will get the scene or see the character. And not
B) something you approach straightforward.
If you’re looking to describe your heroine as red haired, green-eyed, slender-framed and whatever else you see when you envision her, stop it. It’s police APB description. There’s a reason the world is full of uncaught criminals. It’s boring. So if you’re treating description (like I used to!) like something you just want to tackle and get out of the way so you can get to the good parts, how do you think your reader’s going to see it?
I know, I know, so far this is all complaint and no suggestions. Here’s what you do. Interweave your descriptions so that they also help establish tone, drive character, and build suspense.
Right now that may sound hard to believe for you guys stuck on police APBs. Description can’t do all that, can it?
It can. And my primary visual aid will be an unlikely source: Max Payne. No, not the movie! The video game. It wasn’t just the “bullet-time” that made Max Payne a cult favorite among gamers. It oozed style and originality. A lot of that had to do with the descriptive writing, which set the tone, advanced the plot, and developed character. There’s a wiki page devoted to the best lines in it. Here’s what I’m talking about:
“Snow fell like ash from post-apocalyptic skies, but that was outside. Things would soon get hot in the Don’s restaurant.”
“The Brooklyn riverfront was a maze of rusty containers, sharp-boned cranes looking up from the snowstorm. On a night like this you couldn’t help but think of the dark army of dead men, sleeping with the fishes, cement shoes in line. No minotaur lurked in this labyrinth, but somewhere out there, on the clanking deck of his cargo freighter, the skipper of the Charon was waiting, like the ferryman of the river Styx.”
“Gognitti ran out of steam in a dead end valley with steam boiling out of the sewer grates, like all the fires of hell were burning high beneath us… It was shakedown time.”
Doesn’t that just make you wanna click on the link above and check out more? You don’t see a “it was snowing.” Or “there was an old freighter at the riverfront.” Or “the alley was blah blah blah.” No, these descriptions set tone, advance plot, develop character. That makes it powerful.
Aim to have your descriptions do likewise, and you’ll see the power in them too.
Since I’m on a noir kick cause of our boy Max, I’m going to put you guys onto a story that rocks in the same fashion. Here’s “Secretario” by Catherynne M. Valente provided courtesy of Weird Tales.