Okay mortals, Moos has gotten countless questions about this over the years, so I’m gonna clear things up for you. And no, this isn’t just a recap of the Character Description post I did awhile back. This is completely different. Just read it, okay!
Here’s the truth. Describing stuff is easy. The chair is blue. See? Easy.
Describing stuff well? Now that’s hard. Really hard.
Because telling someone what something looks like is a simple task. Just make a list of the things you see. Bam. Done.
But that isn’t very interesting, is it? After a while, even the prettiest list of observations can begin to feel boring.
Showing someone what something feels like, however, is far more complex. And that is what makes great descriptions. Emotion.
Let’s use the example of the blue chair.
1. Be specific
“Blue chair” is neither interesting nor specific. (Now, if the chair is not important and doesn’t deserve the reader’s focus, then calling it a blue chair is probably fine. You don’t want to pay too much attention to objects that the characters won’t interact with or don’t have any significance to the story.)
The problem with using nonspecific nouns is I still don’t know what this chair really looks like. Sure, I know it’s not a red table or a yellow curtain, but that only tells me what it isn’t, not what it is. Is it a rocker, or a lounger? Is it lavender, or navy?
So let’s get specific and make it a navy La-Z-Boy. (Brand names can be especially useful, but keep in mind what brands your target audience will be familiar with, and which ones they won’t recognize.)
2. Use your senses
The second mistake most new writers make (heck, plenty of seasoned writers, too) is they describe only how things look and forget to consider how they smell, sound, feel, and when applicable, how they taste. Adding more of the senses will give your descriptions an extra zing and make your settings really come alive.
So let’s say our navy La-Z-Boy is velvet soft, smells faintly of pipe tobacco, and creaks really loud when rocked a little too hard. See, not only is this chair getting interesting, it’s beginning to feel real. Which brings us to the final step in writing great descriptions.
What, you thought we were done? Well, sure. I suppose you could stop there if you really wanted. It is pretty good description. But it’s not great yet. So if you’re happy with pretty good, then by all means, continue with your writing.
If not, keep reading to find out how pretty good description becomes great.
3. Give it meaning
This is the most difficult part, and the primary reason Moos finds description to be so much work. Whether you’re writing in first person or omniscient third, your descriptions should show the reader how the person describing the object feels about it.
For example, a cop would describe a victim’s wedding ring far differently than the victim’s partner would.
But even that can be too simple. Because not only would the cop describe the ring with the cold efficiency the job requires, but there should be the added color of how the cop is feeling in that moment. Perhaps he was dumped recently, in which case he might feel a jab of resentment at the sight of the ring before putting his emotions back in check and logging the evidence with a bit more coldness than necessary. Now it’s not just a ring, but a vehicle through which you can show the character’s emotions and personality.
“But that doesn’t work in omniscient third person point of view! None of my characters are telling the story.”
Yes, actually. It does.
Take the beginning of The Hobbit.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
Not only does this description of various kinds of holes use multiple senses and a few specifics, the way it’s written shows the narrator’s special love for hobbit-holes and perhaps a bit of disdain for any other kind of hole the reader might be imagining. As a narrator, this person doesn’t ever take part in the story, but they still express some small measure of emotion within their descriptions throughout the story.
Or how about this section from the first chapter of Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman.
“‘More along the lines of the birds they take down mines.’ Mr. Vandemar nodded, comprehension dawning slowly: yes, a canary. Mr. Ross had no other resemblance to a canary. He was huge – almost as big as Mr. Vandemar – and extremely grubby, and quite hairless, and he said very little, although he had made a point of telling each of them that he liked to kill things, and he was good at it; and this amused Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, much as Genghis Khan might have been amused by the swagger of a young Mongol who had recently pillaged his first village or burnt his first yurt. He was a canary, and he never knew it. So Mr. Ross went first, in his filthy T-shirt and his crusted blue jeans, and Croup and Vandemar walked behind him, in their elegant black suits.”
This quote is a little more subtle, but you still get the sense that the narrator pities the dimwitted Mr. Ross and is perhaps a bit judgmental of Croup and Vandemar and their high handed methods of self preservation. Again, this narrator is in no way involved in the story, but because of the feeling behind this description, these characters practically jump off the page.
So let’s apply this last step to our navy La-Z-Boy. And just for the sake of contrast we’ll write it twice. Once in first person and again in omniscient third.
The old La-Z-Boy creaked as I sank into its navy velvet, my throat clogging as the familiar scent of pipe tobacco surrounded me.
The butt print in the sagging La-Z-Boy was clearly visible from the worn velvet and the pale spot where it used to match its navy arms. Not even a thorough fumigation would have erased the thick stench of pipe tobacco, and it squealed when she sat in it, so it wouldn’t have been worth the effort anyway. And yet she smiled at the memories the old chair rekindled.
That’s a heck of a lot better than just a “blue chair,” don’t you think?
These two examples describe the exact same chair, but in vastly different ways. Because no two people will feel the same way about any object. It’s those feelings that your descriptions should focus on. Your reader shouldn’t just be able to see what you’re describing, but feel something about what they’re seeing as well.
And that, dear mortals, is how you write great description. A fun exercise that Moos uses to practice is to look around and pick a random object. Then describe that object three times from the perspective of three different people.
Now, if you don’t mind, I have to pull Moos’s head out of editing chapter one.