Few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked via Twitter: “Mrs. @mbweston, what’s your writing process?” To answer his question, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about how I go about my personal writing process. So far, we’ve covered:
- The Writing Process: Part 1 – Getting Your Inspiration
- The Writing Process: Part 2 – The Conflict
- The Writing Process: Part 3 – Plot: Your Story’s Skeleton
- The Writing Process: Part 4 – The “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Example of a “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (A)
You’ve written your pre-draft. You’ve gone t fixed the logic loopholes, made a few scenes more fluid, etc. You’ve got your rough cut. Now your story needs some polish. That’s where description comes in.
Description makes your story come alive in the reader’s mind. It’s what separates the good stories from the great ones. It’s what leaves your readers begging for another book in your series. I don’t have time to cover description the way I would really like, so I’m going to cover the most important issues. (And I’m going to try to do it in 1000 words or less…)
First, focus on the goal of good description: You want your story to come alive in your reader’s imagination. Your story and the world you created should “haunt” your reader. It should follow your reader after she closes the book and leaves for work. Well-crafted description can make that happen.
To really nail description, we must understand how we human beings experience the world: the five senses.
In real life, if we can’t experience something through at least one of those senses, then we don’t experience it. Likewise, your readers won’t truly experience your story unless they too are experiencing it through their five senses.
This means two things:
- We must try to include sensory details—all five if possible—in our writing.
- We must eliminate instances of telling and instead show the reader—through the five senses.
Include sensory details—all five if possible—in your writing. After I write my scenes, I take five highlighters—one for each sense, and I highlight the instances where I used some kind of sensory detail. When I look back over my work, the frequency of each color tells me what senses I need to add in. Yes, it sounds formulaic, and it probably is. However, it helps me realize what I am putting in and what I am leaving out.
I also try to “get into my main character’s head.” I ask myself “What does he feel? What does he taste? What does he smell? What does he hear? What does he see?” At first, this will seem foreign, but if you do it enough, it becomes such a habit that you will find yourself including sensory details on your first run through because you can’t help it.
Here are a few sensory details this I either added or refined to the pre-draft scene I posted earlier. I’ve italicized the sensory details:
- I shoved a piece of bread speckled with mold into my mouth. I convulsed as I chewed and forced myself to swallow. [Sight, touch, taste. Notice, I don’t say, “The bread tasted moldy,” but that is implied and shown when Peter convulses—also a “touch” sensory detail.]
- The patrons’ voices and the soft clinking of silverware comforted me. [Sound]
- I had not bathed in weeks, and my tattered clothes—once a dress-shirt and pants—reeked of perspiration and filth. [sight, smell, and touch if you count the implied griminess in the clothing]
- Though it was only late afternoon, the December air hovered near freezing. [touch]
- Glass shattered at the end of the alley. [Sound. Note that it is a scary sound, which affects the audience’s mood, but that is a different blog post.]
- Only my breath turning to fog betrayed my existence behind the dumpster. [sight, and adds to the touch sense of cold weather]
- My body tingled with adrenaline. [touch]
- I ran my hand down [the tomcat’s] fur, ignoring the fleas and dirt. [touch, sight]
Most of these are the big three: sight, sound, and touch. You will use taste and smell less—especially taste. Please don’t make your writing sound forced by putting taste into your story when it really doesn’t fit.
Eliminate instances of telling sensory details and show them instead (i.e. show don’t tell). Why tell the reader, “It was cold outside,” when you can show it in a unique way? Someone’s breath turning into fog implies cold, and it brings your story to life. It’s an added detail your reader probably did not picture until you mentioned it.
In my second novel, Out of the Shadows, my hero, Davian, is imprisoned during the prologue. I wanted readers to fear the dungeon, but saying, “This dark and scary dungeon was someplace Davian didn’t want to go because terrible things happened inside,” is telling, not showing. I wanted my reader to experience the dungeon the same way Davian experienced it.
Here are a few sensory details I used to imply the horror of the Dungeon of Enbed.
The mornachts dragged him inside the mineshaft, beating him until he collapsed in a pool of mud [sight, touch]. The cracks of other whips echoed [sound] deep inside the shaft, followed by screams [sound], more whips [sound], and then silence [sound]. A moment later, Davian heard only water running along the wooden beam above, dripping in a puddle next to him [sound, signt]. A cool drop hit his forehead [touch].
“Drink it now, Seraph,” hissed one of the mornachts. “That’s the only water you’ll get in here.”
Davian obeyed, letting a few grimy drops hit his tongue [taste, and the grime implies touch].
The mountain creaked [sound] once more. The mornachts cackled [sound] and pulled him to his feet, forcing him to watch the door swing shut. The last sliver of moonlight disappeared [sight], and the sound of the door colliding with the mountain thundered [sound and touch with the implied vibrations] through the shafts.
Do I add this many details in each scene? No, definitely not. Your use of these details depends on the purpose of the scene. Here I wanted the reader to feel fear. In other scenes, I might only want to deliver information about whodunit or simply show action. My tip at this stage is to put it in now, because you can always take it out later during your final edit.
So get those highlighters out, start getting into your character’s heads, and give your readers a sensory experience they won’t want to forget!
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.