On Writing: Deconstructing Descriptive Passages

A. F. Stewart, author of Inside Realms, has accepted my invitation to be a guest host. Stewart is from Nova Scotia, and writes fantasy stories and poetry. Stewart tells us:

Wandering through cyberspace’s social networking, I have come across many an aspiring writer eagerly posting their work for comments and critiques.  As a result I have learned two things:  that the internet is alive with writers with notable, appealing ideas and many of these aspiring writers have problems creating a good descriptive scene.   These would-be writers either construct a simple methodical listing of the scene’s surroundings or they fill a scene with unnecessary detail punctuated with fluffy adjectives/adverbs.  Both of these ways of writing a narrative scene can render a piece of work tedious and mediocre.

The straight descriptive technique reads like an inventory list, is a quick way to lose a reader to boredom, and buries talent in uninspired prose.  Never write is an illustrative scene where you simply tick off the surroundings in an orderly fashion.

Here is an example of a list-like description:

Butch was standing on the back porch, staring at the garden.  To his right were the red rose bushes, beside the pink azalea bushes.  The two cedar trees were at the back, along the stone garden wall, and the cobblestone path ran through the middle of the garden.  To his left were the lilac bushes and the lilies.

Now that described the garden well enough, but did you care?  Did you feel like you were there with Butch, or would like to be?

Now this passage:

 Butch was standing on the back porch, in the fading light, staring at the early summer garden.  He could smell the heady scent of rose bushes wafting on the slight breeze.  He turned his head to the right, noticing how well their deep red colour mixed with the pink of the nearby azalea bushes.  Movement by the back stone wall caught his attention; he chuckled as a squirrel raced up one of the two cedar trees that grew against the wall. 

He could hear the drone of the hummingbirds and the sweet chirping of the sparrows, and spied them flitting among the lilies and white lilac bushes that bloomed in the left side of the garden.  There were chickadees feeding on the winding cobblestone path; Jessica had most likely thrown them some seeds earlier.

It is far more expressive, isn’t it?

A good descriptive scene invokes the visual, but also other sensory input such as sounds, smells, tactile feel, even a character’s memories.  The best writing tries to recreate how a real person would experience the event. 

Now cramming every tiny detail into scenes doesn’t work either, because you veer into the comical and absurd.  It screams amateur to readers, as does using unusual adjectives/adverbs to illustrate and emphasize.

I shall demonstrate:

Jessica was sitting harshly, rigidly, upright at her very murky, black, baby grand piano that her most beloved grandmother had happily given her for her sixteenth birthday four years ago; the very antique piano that had once belonged to her grandmother.  She had been staring exceptionally hard for more than fifteen minutes at the vaguely spider-webbed cracked, ebony-black, ivory keys that just lay there like a stiff, solid, bit of off-white fishbone that had the last of the flesh scraped off it.  She could not focus her scattered thoughts on the sheets of music that were laid out most carefully in front of her on the shiny, shadow black music rack that was attached to the piano.  She was certainly supposed to be practicing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude , a piece of music she thoroughly treasured and often played, but her thoughts and feelings would not depart the memory of Butch leaving her this morning to sail far away across the deep ocean to Cornwall, England.  His face still bounced in her memory; his thick, shiny, exuberant, wood-brown hair, his sparkling, sassy, intelligent emerald green eyes, his sculptured, firm, Roman nose, his warm, full, soft, exquisite mouth.

Now that was a passage just brimming over with description, and confusion. 

Here’s something showing less is more:

Jessica was sitting stiffly at her baby grand piano, the antique her grandmother had given her for her sixteenth birthday.   She stared yet again at the slightly cracked keys, knowing that she could not focus her thoughts on her music.  She was supposed to be practicing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, but her thoughts kept wandering to the memory of Butch’s leave-taking this morning.  His face still haunted her memory; his thick, brown hair, his sparkling, green eyes, and his warm, exquisite mouth.  Now he was sailing from her, to Cornwall, England. 

A writer must be careful about use of details, too many spoil the mix.   Also beware the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, and make certain you match the adjective/adverb with the mood of your narrative passage.

Remember to keep it simple, evocative and never tell your reader everything at once.  Feed your reader details like crumbs, making a trail through your story. 

When creating a scene or description, you are trying for atmosphere, to make a reader feel they are within your words.  A writer has to set the scene, and strike a balance between doling out the details and going overboard with the wordage.

For more information, see Stewart’s Squidoo lens: How to Write a Fantasy Novel.

9 Responses to “On Writing: Deconstructing Descriptive Passages”

  1. Bertram Says:

    Thank you for hosting my blog today, A. F. Stewart. You have given us something to think about. If it were me, I would probably have edited the second sample a bit more, but then my style tends toward minimalism. Good luck with your books!

  2. Gretchen Lee Bourquin Says:

    Great tips. Adding description to a story or novel without incorporating into the action naturally makes everything feel a little like Robocop or The Terminator. You don’t need to know the room is messy until the character picks up a dirty sock in disgust or trips over a plate on the floor. Killing as many birds as possible with one stone makes the work much more efficient and entertaining.

  3. Chris Brockman Says:

    Excellent lesson Mr. Stewart. Great examples.

  4. Beth Says:

    Laughed at the over-the-top piano description. You’re so right that descriptions such as that turn off the reader. Use enough detail to set the scene and then get on with the story.

    Thanks for the reminders.

  5. paulallenleoncin Says:

    Hello A.F, thanks for the tips . . .

  6. Margay Says:

    Very nice examples. I always stumble over descriptive areas in my writing. This is an area I need to work on. Thanks for the great article.

  7. Paul Allen Leoncini Says:

    I stopped by again . . edit more:

    Jessica was sitting stiffly at the grand piano, the antique grandmother delivered for her sixteenth birthday. She stared at the slightly cracked keys, knowing that she could not focus her thoughts on music. Thoughts wandered to the memory of Butch’s leave-taking that morning and not Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. His face still haunted memeories; his thick, brown hair, his sparkling, green eyes, and his warm, exquisite mouth. Alas, he said for England’s Cornwall . .

    that is all. P.A.L.

    To many ‘hers’ I deleted them, and edited the paragraph the way I would edit it.

  8. jalex Says:

    P.A.L.’s version is vastly improved, but instead of “slightly cracked keys,” it would be better to put in a specific detail such as “She stared at the crack on the D key.” Or however the keys are named.

  9. Blump_01 Says:

    hello…thank you for this nice example..now I may know how do they write a descriptive passage..Excellent..

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