Monday, March 12, 2012

Challenge: Mastering Description

Recently, I posted about how to keep descriptions from sounding like laundry lists. Today I want to talk about how you can create a description that will make the reader feel like he’s stepped into your story. The key to doing this? Senses.

Sight is, by far, the dominant sense for most people and that’s what automatically gets put on the page. But there are four others: sound, taste, touch, and smell. These senses are always there and our brains process them even if we’re not aware of it. We hear a buzzing next to our ears and swat away the insect before we’ve had time to think about it. We smell something rotting in the trash and wrinkle our noses. We touch something hot and our hands jerk away involuntarily. We try a new food and our brains automatically compare the taste to other experiences—for example, to me, grilled vegetables taste like summer, but oysters taste like salty mucus. :)

Without all of these senses, your story will feel two dimensional. Including all of them in your story will bring in that third dimension. The only exception, of course, is if your main character is missing a sense for whatever reason. I.E. he is blind, deaf, etc, and then your story will contain at least some elements of how his other senses compensate for the missing one. In either case, though, the senses still need to be there.

There’s another bonus to this as well: it will add another dimension to your character. I’ve written countless exercises where my main character performs a mundane task, and I focus on bringing out what he notices and how it affects him. I hate the smell of stargazer lilies, but I know people who love it. It baffles me, but these differences in taste are what make us individuals. Including details like this give my characters a chance to show themselves, round them out, and help my readers better understand them.

It’s a difficult thing to do because, as writers, we have to consciously pay attention to how our brains process our senses, and then we have to imagine how our characters’ brains will process their senses. It requires taking a step back from ourselves and analyzing our experiences objectively. No easy feat. But, if you can figure out a way to do this, you’ll be well on your way to creating a 3-D character in a 3-D story.

Write one full page which only consists of a description of someone walking through a door.  Pay attention to the details around that person and use all five senses.

There are many mundane tasks your character can do in writing exercises like this, and I recommend trying as many as possible. I’ve just included one in this exercise, but feel free to change it to whatever you want. Or do multiple! If you feel up to it, include yours in the comments. We’d love to read them. :) I will be sharing one of mine next week…


cleemckenzie said...

It will be interesting to read the descriptions of a very ordinary act. This should stir the creative juices!

Mirka Breen said...

Because I write a lot of PB texts, I have to remember to switch the ‘description button’ on when I write chapter books or MG. Then I have to turn if off for the PB. This is where the art comes in.

Kelly Hashway said...

I have an oversensitive nose so I like to use smell in my stories. Taste is the one I need to get in my work more. Sight, sound, and touch are easy--and of course I already mention my smell obsession.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the tips. I do not like writing descriptions. I can use all the help I can get.

Michelle @ Oh! For the Love of Books said...

Challenge accepted!

Tabitha Olson said...

Lee - yeah, my thoughts exactly!

Mirka - that's got to be hard to switch between such different age groups. I don't have the patience for it, and my hat goes off to all who can write picture books! :)

Kelly - taste is the one I love to work in taste (we're big foodies in my family) but I tend to forget about smell. How funny that we're opposites! :)

Natalie - I never used to like them, either. I always felt like I was getting bogged down in the mundane. After years of practice, though, I kind of like them now. :)

Michelle - awesome! Hope you'll share!

T.D. McFrost said...

This was great. I hate describing things and I often dread it, but recently I've realized that less is more; I don't have to describe every damn thing.

You affirmed that here, so thanks!