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A Word on Description

by zephandolf


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, means:

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 refer 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.

In conclusion

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.

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