This last weekend I attended a writer’s conference and listened to all sorts of excellent classes talking about the craft. One of the classes that influenced me and my writing the most was a class on descriptive prose presented by the delightful Donna Hatch, Regency romance author extraordinaire.
All scenes need a setting, characters, and action; and each of those need some form of description. If the scene is fast paced, the descriptive language will be sparse and concise. If the scene is slower, the descriptive language will be more lush and complete. The description does not only serve to paint a picture of what is happening, it can also be used to set the tone and reflect the emotional state of the point of view character.
This is where I had my “Well Duh!” moment. In my mind, describing the setting was something that happened between the other things that needed to happen in the story. It always felt like something separate and different and I knew I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. The idea of using the character’s mood to flavor descriptions opens up a whole new world of possibility. And more importantly, it makes everything flow together better.
Let’s look at an example:
A vanilla description:
The flagstone stone path led to the guest house that sat on the edge of the estate. It was older than the main house, with wood siding and grey asphalt shingles. At this time of year it was surrounded by green gardens and grass. Great trees grew beyond, providing shade in the evenings.
A hopeful description:
Visiting the guest house always brought a sense of warmth and homecoming. The sun sparkled on the white trimmed windows and across a lawn that begged for bare feet. Birds whistled from the great lilac bush leading to the front door as we passed. In the evenings the tall cottonwoods promised shade and a pleasant breeze.
A fearful description:
Blinding harsh light ricocheted off the stark white paint of the window trim and made the guest house look like it had two great eyes in an otherwise dark wooden face. Birds screamed their warnings from the overgrown hedge as we passed and dark shadows darted beneath the tall looming cottonwoods.
All three scenes are roughly the same length but each express a very different feeling. We get a much clearer feel for character’s emotional state without writing a single word about them.
Another way of describing a scene is to have the characters interact with items within the scene. Let’s say a college student has returned home between semesters only to find that her room has been re-purposed by the family.
We could describe it like this:
Samantha’s jaw dropped when she entered her room. A sensible bookcase and desk had replaced her giant bean bag and her fluffy purple rug had changed to a square of charcoal and red pattered Berber. Her posters were gone and the walls were now painted a boring grey.
Or, we could describe it having her interact with the items:
Samantha tossed her book bag onto the leather sofa where her bed used to be and glared at the grey walls and precisely arranged framed art prints. She fought the urge to kick up the edge of the new Berber rug that had replaced her fluffy purple one.
I’m not saying that either of those examples are the “perfect” way to do description. If you learn anything while studying the craft of writing, is that there is no perfect way to do anything. However, having alternatives ways to approach a scene is always a good idea.