Writing Dynamic Descriptions

Description by its nature stops the forward movement of story. No matter how beautifully executed the passage, no matter how well a writer engages the senses, description alone goes nowhere. To be dynamic, it has to be part of the physical movement of the plot or part of the development of the character. This is done by not just describing something, but by showing the effect on the character and how the character reacts.

In the 1980s, bookracks in grocery stores were full of gothic romances. Perhaps you remember seeing those covers: a brooding mansion in the background, a woman in a diaphanous gown running away from the house, looking back at it in fear. Despite their triteness, those were dynamic covers: the pictorial description of the house, the effect on the character (fear), and how the character reacted (running away.) Written description can be as vibrant as those covers; it just means taking the description a step further and filtering it through the senses of a character.

Description can be used in other ways to make it dynamic. In previous blogs, I railed against unmotivated actions in bestsellers. Not only do unmotivated actions spoil the story; they show how little respect the authors have for their readers. It’s easy to motivate actions with sense description. Instead of having a character take important files with her for no reason, she could have heard a snip of music that reminded her of a time when she lost something of importance due to carelessness. Or the smell of lilac drifting in the window from outside could have reminded her of her grandmother’s maxim to always take important files with her when she leaves the apartment. (Well, maybe not. But you get the idea.)

Sense description is also useful for making a character remember, for strengthening her resolve, or for segueing from one thought to another. For example, if you need a flashback, one way to move gracefully to the past is by a scent. Perhaps those dang lilacs again. The scent reminds the character of her grandmother and the summer she . . . Instant flashback. Or the scent could remind her that she hasn’t talked to her grandmother for a while, and so resolves to call her. Or the scent reminds her of her grandmother, which reminds her of fresh baked doughnuts, and that reminds her of the shady character she saw in the doughnut shop.

Silly examples, I know. But the point is not silly. Make descriptions come alive by using them to move the story forward.

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