A Word on Description
I was cruising the Writer’s Board not too long ago, when I came across a topic
on how to describe things. As I read through it, many ideas on the mechanics of
description came to mind. However, it was too much good information to waste on
the message boards. So, I brought it over here.
I’m sure that there are a number of writers out there who are trying to figure
out how to approach writing a story. Truth be told, there are many good approaches,
and any one of them could lead to a good story, article, rant, series, novel,
etc. Sometimes, however, the said writer, or writers, lacks the experience in
writing concrete descriptions. This is what I’m going to try to help you with.
What is description?
Description is the act of describing. And to describe, in Webster’s dictionary,
To represent or give an account of in words.
So a description is a given account, either spoken or written so as to be
understood. But an account of what?
A description draws a picture for the mind, using choice words to construct
a recognizable form that can be identified later, either just in the mind or
in the real world. For instance, if someone is describing a friend to you, the
first thing that may come to mind is that this friend is human (unless otherwise
stated). This image on its own can be almost anyone, certainly. To narrow the
field down, the describer tells you that this friend is a boy, or a girl. That
just about halves the possibilities. After this can follow descriptive terms
such as young or old, short or tall, adding in hair color, eye color, skin color,
and what kind of clothing this friend usually wears. The more information that
is provided, the more a concrete image is generated, so that if you try to find
this friend, it would be much easier to find him or her than if you were just
told that this friend was a blond-haired kid, which in a sea of young blonds
would be nearly impossible to find.
But description doesn’t end at describing persons. Description can be used
to describe everything you can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Even actions
and ideas can be described. But why does this work?
Mechanics of the mind
If you take a piece of paper and draw a circle on it, then draw two dots in
the upper portion, and a downward curving line in the lower portion, then sit
back and look at it, what do you see? You see a face smiling back at you, right?
But it’s not a real face. In fact, it looks so little like a face that you wonder
why it looks so much like one. And yet, this is how your brain recognizes it.
The mind has a way of “completing the picture” so to speak.
This is one reason describing something can work so well. Unfortunately, it’s
not quite as simple as drawing a picture for someone. The image you describe
comes from your mind, is translated into a language and conveyed to a second
person, who has to translate this into his mind. If the person you’re describing
something to doesn’t recognize some of the people, places, things, or ideas
that you use to represent in your description, your picture is lost in translation.
You may have to resort to describing what this person doesn’t recognize as well
as what you’re trying to tell the person.
Simplistic vs. Detailed
Now that you know a little about what description is and why it works, you
need to understand how to use it. There are two extreme degrees in how much
description you can apply to your subject (the person, place, thing, idea that
you chose to represent) and these are Simplistic and Detailed. Neither extreme
is necessarily wrong, so long as you use them correctly. You don’t want to over-describe
a familiar thing, or the person you’re describing it to will lose interest.
On the other hand, if you don’t describe an unfamiliar thing enough, that same
person won’t know what you’re talking about.
Simplistic description is the quickest way to describe something, leaving
little room for detail. It’s used for common things that need little explanation.
In Neopia, these would be things like a Lupe, or a Chia, a house, a tree, a
mountain, a common feeling, asparagus, or anything else that would be quickly
recognized by anyone. Here’s an example:
A Lupe stood next to the house.
It is a simple, straightforward image. Not much else needs to be said unless
you either want to add depth to the scene, or this is an important image to
For such instances, you use detailed description. Detailed description is
used when you want someone to know more about your subject, or if you’re trying
to describe something that someone wouldn’t know about. Depending on how unusual
your subject is, it can be easy, like describing Mystery Island to someone in
Tyrannia, or difficult, like trying to describe Virtupets Station to King Skarl.
Here’s an example based on the last one:
A gruff looking silver Lupe with a scar across one eye stood silently next
to a small, tattered looking hut, brandishing a nasty looking sword.
You notice how much more you got out of this description than the previous
one? Not only do you know what color this Lupe is, but you also get the idea
that he’s not the type to mess with. There’s also a slight improvement on the
description of the house he stood next to.
The pace of description
As with writing a story, description in itself needs a pace. How much or how
little you tell of the subject at one time and whether or not you save more
for later in the story will set the pace of the subject’s development in the
reader’s mind. You could describe something all at once, like describing an
impressive chamber, or a monolith, something that would draw the reader in to
learn more. Or, you could spread the description out, like gradually describing
a character’s personality, or their history.
Be careful in how you set the pace, however. If you flood your reader with
a lengthy, sprawling description of someone, they may just lose interest completely.
But if you spread your description out too much, your reader may not put all
the pieces together correctly, if the reader even has all the pieces.
The only thing I have left to say on the matter is this: as with all skills,
remember to practice. You’ll never get anywhere with what I have written here
if you don’t explore it yourself. I thank you for taking the time to read this
short article, and I hope that I have described this to you in such a way that
it creates a firm picture in your mind on how it all works.