Description Part One – What is description?

Hey there!  I thought I’d talk to you about description today.  For this series of discussions, I am pulling from the books Description by Monica Wood and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.  Both books I have read.  Granted, all the books I’ll reference on this blog I’ll have read.  It’s hard to reference things not in my brain’s data banks.  🙂

So, let’s start off with a question.  What is description?  Well, it’s the essence of storytelling.  Description is relaying information.  You can’t tell a story without relaying information.  Try and do it.  I challenge you.  Even if you use hand gestures, interpretive dance, or splatter painting, you relay information.  However, there is good description and bad description.  What is bad description?  Bad description is ambiguous and general.  For example, you could say, “In walked a cat.”  Okay.  Yes.  That describes something.  Now let’s try this:  “In walked a black cat.”  Better.  However, still not good enough since there are a bazillion black cats in the world.  How about, “A black cat with yellow eyes and a white toe walked into the room.”  Better again.  Now we know what the cat looks like, but that description still leaves much to be desired.  It’s a bit boring, don’t you think?  Good details aren’t just information.  Good details also help move the story and invoke the voice of the narrator, giving us even more information than just factoids.  A good, solid description would go something more along the lines of “In slunk a cat with fur blacker than shadow save for a single white toe.  His predatory amber eyes flicked around the room.”  Not only do we now know what the cat looks like, but the details tell a story.  Why is he slinking?  This cat has something to hide from, or something he’s hunting.  Either way, something’s going on.

Okay, but we want to be unique, right?  We don’t want to describe things in a cool, fresh way, right?  How do we avoid cliché or sounding like we mined a thesaurus?  Again, an example.  That last description I used the word “predatory” to describe the cat’s eyes.  Well, duh.  Cat’s are predators, right?  Of course his eyes are predatory.  Such a cliché.  I should be ashamed of myself.  😛  Well, let’s fix that.  How about this?  “His molten amber eyes flicked around the room.”  Ahhhhhh, MUCH better.  The specific word “molten” invokes images of heat, lava, and danger, giving us even more character to the cat.  I could have chosen many other words, like “venomous,” “lethal,” or “burning,” but I wanted a specific image.  To get a specific image I needed a specific, exact word.

So in essence, description in story is details.  And GOOD description comes from solid, concrete, exact details.

Stay tuned for Description Part Two – Voice, coming soon!

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