Top Tips from Authors: Descriptive Writing

Inspired by the Guardian article, in which they asked several authors to share their Top Tips for writing, I have extracted my favourites (there were lots to choose from. Lots). Contributors to the Top Tips article include Hilary Mantel, Annie Prolux, PD James, Sarah Waters, and Michael Morpurgo. Many of their tips focussed on similar themes, themes that I know will be particularly helpful to me, and hopefully they will be to you too. In this blog I will be focussing on them one by one. To see a list of all the themes, please visit my original post. Today’s theme is Descriptions. The key tips from the authors can be seen in the images.
Anne EnrightSix of the writers who contributed to the article gave tips specifically linked to writing descriptions, either of people or places or things. They all made the same basic point – less is more. This is something I totally agree with, but also struggle to do, particularly when it comes to describing landscapes. This might be due to the fact that the novel I am writing at the moment is a fantasy story, and so the landscapes and place have come from my own imagination. They are quite unusual, and I have a fear that the images I can see in my head won’t be fully conveyed to the reader. I am quite fond of the settings I have created for this book – they are, in places, as much a part of the story as some of the characters. The landscapes and the people are intertwined, and I’m eager that the reader feels the full effect of that.
Rose TremainFor example – the story is set in different communities, who live on islands. Each island has its own distinctive climate and geography, and subsequently, its own way of life. These things shape the people who live there, giving the different islanders very distinct cultures. It is their differences that make them strong as well as vulnerable, because they find it difficult to work together.

In front of them was the beach, the lovely bright yellow sand shimmering in the heat. Down by the shore stood Termis, totally still, his back to them, also watching the sea.

Elmore Leonard 2There were four ships in total, all in a row, all only a couple of miles from the land. The bright white of the sails, adorned with deep red symbols, billowed in the sea wind. The three watched as the men on the dec

ks worked together, launching smaller boats onto the water and throwing down huge stone anchors, one by one. The waves crashing on the sand became more violent with every passing moment, as the huge structures made their presence felt, and Termis was forced to take a step back from the water. The fleet was unlike anything Zhoul had ever seen in his life, and he could tell the same was true for Termis and Ziza.

“To behold such a sight,” he whispered in awe. “Who would have thought we would see such a thing in our lifetime?”
Sarah WatersIt is difficult to find a balance – I want the reader to become totally immersed in the landscapes I have created, which could be wild or vast or confined or unusual or detailed or dangerous. I want them to feel like they are really there with the characters. But I don’t want the descriptions to be too long, or boring, unnecessarily detailed, or too “flowery.” They need to sound real. I know what I like when I read a book – I like the places being described to sound like they actually exist, not like they have all of a sudden appeared in front of the character describing them. George RR Martin is good at doing this; the places described in the Song of Ice and Fire series are woven into the action and just become another part of the story, and yet I always get a real feel for the setting as much as I do for the characters. Perhaps it is because he writes in the first person. Whatever it is, the places just are. There’s no question or issue of what or why or how, and the descriptions don’t bring the flow of the story to a standstill. This is the style of writing I want to have, and I must admit, I find it difficult to do sometimes.

It’s just as important to not to overdo descriptions of people. In the book I have just finished reading, every time a character spoke there was a description of their facial expression. This got on my nerves so much that I either wanted to scream or just stop reading it altogether. When the word “grimaced” is used twice in two pages (continuously, at frequent intervals), I think you know there’s a problem. Here are some examples:

Elmore LeonardAs she closed the door, his mouth thinned into a sympathetic smile.

His eyes widened.

He smiled briefly.

He frowned and shook his head.

He looked back at her, his gaze level and his expression serious.

Her lips pressed into a grim smile.

The queen’s eyebrows rose.

She looked apologetic but also determined.
Hilary MantelI find that to hold back on over-describing characters is easier than holding back on scenes or landscapes. Reading these hideously repetitive facial expressions has made me even more determined to avoid it. I like to describe unusual characteristics, things that really mean something to the character and to his/her personality. Facial expressions should be obvious but unspoken. Bland things like hair colour aren’t interesting. For example, the main male character in my fantasy story has several distinctive tattoos, and I have described them because they are different. They are there to show his status, and are part of his personality. As Hilary Mantel says, the description is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the “eye of God.” The tattoos are described via the observations of another character, because they tell her that this is a man to be feared, who treats his enemies ruthlessly, who is not someone to be taken lightly.
Esther FreudClearly the issue of overdoing descriptions is something several writers are conscious of, and want to warn others not to fall into the same trap. After reading these tips it has made me want to go back over my work and really make sure my descriptions work for their place, and that they aren’t preventing the story from flowing. I think that my problem ultimately is I too often worry that the reader won’t “get” what I’m trying to convey with my description. What I need to aim for is a state where the reader doesn’t even realise something is being described to them; to stop worrying and make everything flow seamlessly. Trust your reader, as Esther Freud suggests. And trust yourself to really know what it is you’re writing, and then let it go.

The subject of knowing your reader, and of letting things go, will be the basis of my next Top Tips post – Analysing your own work.


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