Description is vital to world building. You need some setting, at least a quick sketch to show readers where your characters are and what’s happening. How characters describe their surroundings can also be a clue as to something unusual. Does the protagonist focus on smell over color (Rada Ni Drako?) Do they focus on the sound of places, hearing the passageway narrow?
The more descriptors you have in your toolbox, the better you can do at conveying things to your readers. Especially when you need to write short.
Eldred “Bob” Bird over at Writers in the Storm as a neat little piece about the power of description and how to do it “short.”He begins:
“I liken the writing process to using different boxes of crayons. Remember when you were a kid and got the big sixty-four color pack with the sharpener in the bottom? You could draw whole worlds in amazing detail with the color palette provided by that box. That’s novel writing, with its infinite possibilities and wide open spaces.”
He later gives four quick tips.
- Focus on those verbs. These are action words that can do the powerlifting.
- Keep it simple. Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do.”
- Readers are drawn toward words with strong consonants.
- Alliteration—using words with the same beginning sound—is another powerful technique.
You need punch in a short story. Every word has to carry its own weight and more. That makes writing short difficult. You need words with a lot of meaning, but not too much. Sometimes words have connotations that don’t quite fit your world. Or the absolutely perfect word in the dictionary might be so unusual, archaic, arcane, or sesquipedalian that your readers are going to boggle (unless your character always talks like that. If so, you have my sympathies.)
My beta readers bemoan the extra, ahem, stuff that finds its way into my drafts. I’m not quite James Joyce when it comes to my characters daily life, but I’m getting used to seeing “Is this scene really needed” over and over and over.
So go forth, expand your vocabulary, and try to write bright, clear, strong sentences.
I’ve used this as a worldtool to, um, color behavior (great comparison): My main nonhumans have a little wider visual range compared to humans, and will track by scent when vision is lacking. My other nonhumans see mostly in infrared (and maybe a bit up in the hard-radiation spectrum), and can be blinded by cold and confused by spurious heat sources (eg. bonfires). Their sensory observations are therefore not only different, but sometimes at cross-purposes.
And 5. Whatever finishes a thought has more power; the reader notices it more than whatever came before. So merely rearranging your descriptions can improve their significance.
Excellent point on information emphasis. It can also be used for “red herrings” or other tricks. The reader thinks, “Hmm, the last person they mentioned was that quiet neighbor who never talks to anyone. I wonder . . . ” Except it was the nosy women with the palsy, the one who lives on the third floor.
When you describe your world, load your language. There is a great deal of difference between a woman’s white gown when it is as white as — salt, bone, snow, stars, milk, pearl, etc. Nevermind that the colors are subtly different. You can’t count on the reader’s visual imagination getting the shade you want.
Some subtlety is needed, of course. A golden-haired woman with sapphire eyes and ruby lips and an amethyst gown is — over done.
And the verbs, too. Active verbs do not, for instance, have to convey frenetic activity. The garden drowses in the sunlight, with bees ambling through the air from blue larkspur to pink hollyhocks, both flowers nodding at the touch.
Dark. Black like my coffee, black like my soul.
just kidding. the thing i am working on now is actually pretty nice for once….
Maybe it’s also know your audience. I love John C. Wright’s $5 vocabulary. His books would probably be worth reading without it, but they wouldn’t be nearly as high on the buy list.
Agreed! And they fit his style. Trying to squeeze in words that don’t quite fit, or that don’t mean what you think they do . . . can lead to unintended humor.
I would argue that, in his case, he follows Twain’s advice very well. Simply his style calls for more $5 words than most people. It puts the feel of the piece on a somewhat different level.