Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Adding Description to Writing’

Balancing description in story

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on October 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

Description in a novel or short story, if not handled correctly, can slow the pace or movement of the novel from start to finish.

Action keeps the story moving, while description gives story place and setting. It identifies character. It adds layers of meaning.

I’ve read books heavy in back story and detail, with some of the descriptions leading to tangential thoughts and more description, so that I lose the sense of the story. I’m working too hard at reading with little plot to pull me along.

At the other extreme, if there is too much action, I don’t get a sense of the world of the story, feeling like I’m reading a white canvas with too little to absorb.

Description is necessary to flesh out the story, moving it from an outline of this happened and then this happened into something three-dimensional and real. Description adds life through the use of the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, feeling and hearing.

To provide a balance in description versus action, choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose. That purpose can be establishing setting, developing character or moving the plot forward.

Verbs are important in description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple.

There are a few things to avoid in description, such as:

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
  • Writing in the passive voice, using “he was,” “they were” and the like. The passive voice slows down the action, while distancing the reader from what’s being said.
  • Using general words, instead of concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Tree and bird are general nouns, as opposed to a birch oak or maple and a cardinal or robin.

Description can, just like action, add excitement to a story if the language is crisp, purposeful and intriguing.

Writing about settings (and how to make the setting of your story come alive)

In Settings in Novels, Writing, Writing Processes on June 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

The setting of a novel is a balance between being too stark and being overdone like the classics that start off with pages of setting before getting to the plot.

It’s best to give description of time and place in moderation without drawing too much attention to the words. You don’t want to describe every piece of clothing on your character, talk about a building from the sidewalk to the roof or detail a town with a precise map of streets with rows of businesses, stores and houses.

Instead, select a few representative details of the character’s surroundings to add color and dimension to her external world. Give enough of a description to establish historical period, location and mood.

Establishing the setting also is a way to draw out what is happening in the character’s internal world. Ask what her impressions are of the colors, textures, sounds, flavors and odors of the things within her environment. What do these sense impressions make her feel and think?

Ask how she relates to the setting? Is she distant, or too hurried to pay attention, or is she absorbed, noticing many of the details? The relationship she has with the setting, both physically and internally, grounds her in the plot of the story. Here are a few questions to ask about that relationship:

  • How does her external world relate to her internal world? What are her thoughts, feelings, beliefs, fears, memories and other psychological factors? And what is it in her external world that she notices outside her body?
  • Is she limited by or at odds with her environment? Or does she love where she lives, including her city or town and her home? Does she love where she works or goes to school? Where she shops, eats out, has fun?
  • How does her environment influence her identity and behavior? Does she act in ways or see herself differently because of where she lives? Is she a city girl stuck in a rural town because that’s where her husband got a job? Or does she need to live in a lush landscape but is stuck in a lease or with a mortgage?

Lastly, remember to show, don’t tell as you describe the setting and the character’s reactions to it to let your reader fully experience the time and place of your created world.