David Farland’s Writing Tips—Deepening Your Descriptions

Far too often, when I read a tale by a new writer, the biggest problem I find is that the description is “weak,” as if the author hadn’t thought much about it. When I see this, I instinctively want to “boost” or “deepen” the prose.

Let me give you an example. “A stone wall bordered the small house.”  Now, what’s wrong with that?

The truth is, nothing is particularly “wrong” with this piece of crud description, but nothing is “right” about it, either. The author has given a very basic description, and that’s the problem. On a scale of one to ten, it’s a one. The writer, in giving such vague details, has wasted the reader’s time.

Part of the problem is weak adjectives. “Stone wall” doesn’t tell us how big the stones are or the color. We don’t know if they’re held together with concrete or carved to fit together like a Mayan temple. And “small”. What the heck is a small house? Is this forty square feet, or 400, or 4000? The idea of “small” can vary from one reader to another.

So you need to begin filling in some details. First of all, what color is this house? Are we in a country where houses are painted vibrant colors like magenta and banana, or is this a stoic little bland white house?

What does the roof look like? Is it made of slate, or cedar shingles, or perhaps thatch?  For that matter, what are the walls made of? I know of a fellow who used glass bricks that he made from recycled bottles. Or is it made of river stone? Or bamboo mats? Or logs?

That does it for adjectives, but what about the nouns? When you say “house,” could you be more specific. Is it a cabin, a manor, a cottage, a hovel, a ranch, or something else?

What of the details? Are there windows with green trim, or tattered awnings? Is there a large porch with a rocking chair? Do three red chimneys  sprout from it?

Is there anything of interest on the outside? Flower boxes full of peonies, a brown milk goat grazing in the yard, an overgrown tomato garden, a witch burning at the stake?

What is the past of the house? Was it once a church, or a barn? Did it rain last night, so the shingles shine like polished marble?

And what of other senses? Does the point-of-view character hear rock music blaring from it? Or maybe the place smells of something like tacos frying, or new paint, or a human crap.

What emotion does the house evoke in the viewer? Dread? Relief? Gratitude?

What does it make your protagonist think about it? Does she wonder if anyone is alive inside, or wish that someone would cut the grass?

Are there any metaphors that you can use to strengthen the description?

Depending upon how important this house is to the story, you might want to bring it to life, make it one of a kind, so if a reader happens to see it, they’ll recognize it from the description. That’s your goal.

Of course, if you only have a sentence or two to describe the house, then you might keep the description light.

As a writer, your goal isn’t to just “tell a story.” You’re trying to bring a story to life. You want to transport the reader into the tale physically, emotionally, and intellectually. You want them to feel they have lived the story.

Remember, use your imagination. As Kris Rusch puts it, “All writing failures arise from a failure of the imagination.” If your description is wanting, you need only to imagine the scene in greater detail.



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