Increase the power of your description by keeping related details together.
I’m writing a series of blog posts on description techniques. Here are my last two:
- The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #1—Create a Main Impression
- The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #2—Choose Details that Enhance Your Main Impression
Today we will focus on keeping related details together and how that can aid our story’s emotional punch.
I have an extensive teapot collection, and I love to use them in my decorating. Imagine coming to my house and seeing a teapot in the living room on a table. When you visit my kitchen, you see two teapots on display, and you find another two in my den. You might think, Hmmmm, I see a theme here, but that might be all, or you might find yourself distracted by other decorative items and fail to notice my teapot fetish.
What if instead I took all twenty of my teapots and displayed them together on a few shelves. When you walked into my home, you would think: Wow, look at that teapot collection! (Or, Wow, this chick is a little wacky about her teapots.) Whatever you might think, my teapots would have impacted you more grouped together than they would separately.
In decorating, collections always look better when grouped together. It’s the same with writing.
An example: In A Prophecy Forgotten, a few of my characters went to the county fair. The scene wasn’t about the fair, however, it was about my character with amnesia regaining her memory. I needed to get the readers to the fair, feel like they were at the fair, and then worry about the more important parts of the scene. This was my opening paragraph:
Gabriella’s eyes grew wide as she beheld the bright blues, reds, greens, and purples on the tents and carts at the fair. She took a deep breath, and several different smells hit her nose. Some she recognized, like popcorn, cotton candy, and sausage. Others, including a sweet aroma of fresh bread that Jim called funnel cake, she had never smelled before. She, Jim, and Tommy rode on rides like the Scrambler, which spun her around in three different directions at the same time and made her dizzy when she tried to walk afterwards, and the Bumper Cars, where she and Tommy banged into Jim at least ten times.
Boom! County fair. You’re there. I’m there. We’re all there. And now Gabriella can do what she needs to do without me worrying too much about the description. I also tried to keep the colors together, the smells together, and the rides together, which makes a bigger impression than scrambling them all together. (Below, I discuss the “Rule of Three’s.” While I have included more than three actual details here, notice that I have three sets of details I’m describing: Colors, smells, and rides.)
Here are a few tips to remember when you are setting your scenes and grouping your related details together:
When introducing a character, scene, or landscape, take a few sentences to give the reader a few key details. Remember to go beyond sight & sound.
In A Prophecy Forgotten, Lorraine is an important character. She is the mother of one of my main characters, and her horrible treatment of him is key to his development throughout the Elysian Chronicles series. Unfortunately, Lorraine only enters two or three scenes. I don’t have much time to mess around with her. I need my readers to hate her immediately. I introduce Lorraine with this:
Tommy crawled toward the ruined tank, but a pair of enemy, black high heels halted his re-covery mission. He followed the heels up and saw his mother, Lorraine, a slender woman with perfectly highlighted blond hair wearing a business suit that showcased more cleavage than most offices found appropriate. Her manicured fingers were clenching a wooden spoon, and she was glaring at Tommy with what Gabriella called the “Psychotic-Glare-of-Death.”
Lorraine has black high heels, she dies her hair blond, and does her nails. No harm there. I make sure to add in the slightly risqué business suit and the death glare to show her personality. I also chose to use enemy to describe her heels [Tommy is playing with his army action figures]. The spoon is foreshadowing. We are now all on the same page when it comes to Lorraine.
Don’t forget to describe the effect the details have on your character. For instance, if your character walks into a dark room on a sunny day, it will take his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark—and vice versa. Mentioning how your setting affects your characters is key to effective description.
In Out of the Shadows, a few of my characters were able to escape from a dungeon in which they had been imprisoned. Note that the details of squinting, sunlight, and slits in his eyelids are grouped together. I’m letting the reader know how the new setting affects my characters physically.
Davian, Theo, and Klous climbed out of the cave, squinting at their first sight of sunlight. Through the slit in his eyelids, Davian saw the outlines of thirty mornachts unloading the sulfur on a small ledge overlooking the Cragdern River Canyon.
Always remember the Rule of 3’s (or 4’s). Surprisingly, the reader only needs 3 to 4 well placed details to get a clear picture of your setting. With each (major) character/landscape/scene, try to pick out 3 key details about a scene that will leave your reader with the best mental picture. Work the rest of the details into your narrative. (I love to stretch a rule as much as possible, so I will include groups of details as part of my three. See the description of the county fair above as an example.)
This is from a short story I wrote called “The Survivor” that will be published in Dreams of Steam III, a steampunk anthology by Kerlak Publishing that is due out in October, 2012. The year is 1886, and my character is riding in an airship. I don’t have time to describe everything on the airship, but I want the readers to feel as though they are right there with Angelica. My three details are in bold letters:
Angelica lingered in the dining room where plates of partially eaten food still spotted the tables. She sat on a plush, velvet bench right next to one of the French-paned windows that surrounded the bow of the hull, allowing patrons a full view of the sky.
The kind of china used and the color of the velvet doesn’t matter. The reader is there with Angelica, looking out at the night sky. (For more details on the Rule of 3’s, be sure to read Stephen King’s book, On Writing.)
Keeping your related details together in your description will add punch to your scenes. Just remember to keep three or four main details when you are setting your scene, and blend the rest into your narrative (which we will discuss in another blog post).
Stay tuned for the next post where we will be discussing using comparisons!
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.